Local picker survives Bluegrass freak-out

Nov. 8, 2008

Last June was yet another example of my music hobby colliding with my vacation schedule. Oh, it’s happened before-- a few years ago we went on a “bluegrass cruise” and that was really enjoyable. You spend 5 days traveling from Seattle to Glacier Bay, Alaska and back, and a portion of the ship was reserved for about 50 folks who signed up for the music. I’ve got to say, I didn’t think that all-you-can-eat buffets and bingo on the Starlight Deck would appeal to me, but if you start throwing in whale watching, great scenery, all-you-can-eat buffets and a chance to hang out with a bunch of bluegrass people, now you’re talking. We spent a week with some top-notch bluegrass bands, enjoyed some jam sessions, had group music lessons every morning -- and I got to take a lesson with one of my favorite mandolin players – John Rieschman. We visited 3 or 4 ports of call – where we could do some mountain biking and sight-seeing tours. If you’ve never been on one of these cruise ships, it’s really quite a machine.

So now we fast forward to last June. No cruise ship this time. It’s just the Subaru Forester. And it’s heading to Colorado. No staterooms this time. We’re camping out in the elements, in the wilderness of a town called Telluride. However, we are packing so many things into the Subaru for this trip, I’m thinking that it may be easier to bring a stateroom with us, and in addition, we could hook up the house to the back of the car, and bring that along, too.

The Telluride Bluegrass Festival has been happening for 35 years, and 2008 was the year we decided to go. You need to enter into a lottery system months in advance to “win” tickets, for a campsite, a parking space, a place to put your stateroom and what have you. Well, we won! We set out on our journey for a nice peaceful four-day music event in the mountains.

With a basic “Google” map in hand (and I mean really basic), we were on our way. What I did not “Google” though, was the fact that we were going to be driving to a destination that is several thousand feet “higher” than our original starting point. I mean oxygen depleting higher. I mean, walking down the street carrying something (the contents of our Subaru) was a really tough chore.

Our trip out took more time than we thought. On the second day of travel, we made it to a campground that was 50 miles or so from the festival site, so we camped for the night. It was the classic late at night-deserted road – don’t have a map-don’t exactly know where we are scenario. The road seemed to be winding down into this canyon, and I think some of the signage said things like “Beware of wild wolf packs” or something to that effect. We were grateful that we were able to stop for some sleep, and still arrive before the official festival opening day.

We finally make it to Telluride the next morning. The overall scenery was beautiful, and the weather was nice. The campground was at the end of town, and I was picturing in my mind some nice camp spaces, with some picnic tables, some nice walk/bike paths, you know, a nice normal campground. But you know, it was looking pretty crowded in town already. But, we have reservations, and besides, we’re a few days early for this thing, right?

As we drove to the campground entrance, the festival security guards surrounded our car. We soon find out that we have 30 minutes to 1) find a campsite 2) unload our car (excuse me, have you guys seen how much stuff we brought?) 3) haul our stuff to the campsite and then park the car, and then hike back to the campsite. Oh, and if you move your car, you lose your spot.

Oh boy. Well, to make somewhat of a long story short, this campground was packed. It looked like people had been camped there for quite some time, and we were three days early. The only “campsite” we could find was way down the trail at the end, it was not accessible by car, and this space was rocky and unlevel. There were no picnic tables. There was no nice walk/bike path. Also of note, there were a decidedly lacking number of shower facilities for what seemed like a whole lot of people. And we were “early.” To add to the burden, there was this nagging “lack of oxygen” feeling, which, I was told, should clear up in a few days.

So let’s put this festival in perspective. It’s so huge, attendees are called “Festivarians.” There’s a “Festivarian” Bill of Rights, which is a set of guidelines for sustainable camping practices, festival seating arrangements, and yes, a clause that Festivarians are entitled to clean drinking water. That’s great, I thought, let’s put an “air” clause in this document and we’ll be all set.

The campgrounds are adjacent to the main festival grounds, where the main stage, vendors and food booths are located. It’s similar in layout to the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival, only you can multiply everything by a factor of 100 (except the oxygen supply – for that, divide by 100), and you’ve got Telluride. The main stage was pretty modest in size. However, the musical line-up was everything but modest.

Music continued for 4 days, from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., with essentially no breaks. You can check the acts out on-line, I’m sure the information is there. Although the festival is billed as a bluegrass festival, the music styles ranged from bluegrass to country to modern rock. Sam Bush, a really famous mandolin player, is the master of ceremonies for the whole thing, and let me tell you, that guy can play the mandolin. But what he can really play, is the fiddle. Hands down, he’s gotta be my favorite fiddle player. Arlo Gutherie did a great set, and a great version of Alice’s Restaurant. He ended with This Land is Your Land with an unpublished verse he learned from his father, Woody. The Del McCoury Band, one of the best in the business, did a great set, and I made sure I was up front for that. I got to shake Del’s hand at the CD booth after the show, that was really nice. There were a couple of nice sets from bands I had never seen, like Spring Creek, Paolo Nutini, Ani DiFranco and Ryan Adams and the Cardinals. In fact, I distinctly remember Ryan Adams’ set, because in between songs, he was being assisted by people off to the side of the stage. People who looked like they were in the medical line of work. They were administering oxygen.

It was tough to get through those 12 hour stretches of music, for sure. During the day, there was no shade, and as soon as the sun went down, you had to have warm winter clothes, for sure. I’ve got to hand it to all the musicians for playing in that environment – the altitude must have been really harsh on instrument tuning. They must have to acclimatize their instruments, like at an Everest Base Camp. I couldn’t imagine having to tour, being on the East coast one day, and then having to play Telluride the next, it must be a huge stress for a band.

So, you’re probably asking by now, “OK, so what was the bluegrass freak-out?” Was it the lack of oxygen? Did you put some bad strings on your mandolin?

No, I just have to laugh at this, because I’ve seen a lot of bands and a lot different kinds of music. But of course, there’s always something that comes along that puts you over the top, into the “I’ll probably never see this again” folder.

It was Saturday night, and the Sam Bush band was on stage. Pretty much a full band with acoustic and electric instruments – they were playing everything from old New Grass Revival songs to rock and roll. I guess it’s about halfway through the set, and the band announces a special guest. You’ll never guess who. I sure didn’t expect it. You know who it was? It was John Oates. That’s right, of Hall and Oates fame. That guy. And then the band launches into what only can be described as a bluegrass-reggae version of “Maneater.”

That, my friends, is a bluegrass freak-out.

Send your festival experiences to jdrake@hoodrivernews.com

Reader mail:

Hey Jim!

Love your entertainment blog.

So here’s another totally random thought for early evening activities in Hood River…Dancing. Not the white man’s over-bite kind of dancing, but partner dancing, like with a real girl. The kind of dancing where you don’t have to know your partner but you ask someone to dance (without the “Hey, wanna get together” innuendo) and you take a woman to the floor for 4 minutes of wonderful, connected, non-verbal communication where you’re listening to her and she’s listening to you and the conversation is intimately silent and you’re both intensely feeling the music and it’s the best evening of the week so far or maybe the month…and then the song ends, you breathe, say a sincere thank you to her eyes and walk off the dance floor, back to your beer. And look for your next 4 minute dance partner.

There’s a dance called West Coast Swing that’s fabulously deep and connected but doesn’t take any natural talent to have fun with it. And there happens to be a kick ass dancer new to town named Mike Miller. He has classes around town and dances and it gives people something to do that’s new and fun and out-of-themselves. I think he has a class next Friday the 14th.

What’s cool about the dance is that the music is totally normal…like blues, top 40, smooth rock, hip hop. Not the big band stuff where you’re expected to launch your girl into orbit to give her a good time. No, this is for all ages and all levels of white-boy-ness. And way sexy for all levels of women.

Anyways, just a thought for the dancers or non-dancers around town…


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