Birds of Play

From left to right, Jack Tolan on mandolin, Alex Paul on guitar, and Eric Shedd on the bass played a show last year at the Transfer Warehouse in Telluride. (Photo by Bria Light/Telluride Daily Planet)

It’s the would-be week of the 47th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, but alas, it’s 2020. Despite a year derailed by a global pandemic, local band the Birds of Play, with support from the Wilkinson Public Library and KOTO, are here to keep the bluegrass blues at bay with a dose of live Americana music this week. Wednesday, the band will perform via livestream from 6:30-8 p.m. To listen, tune into KOTO for the live broadcast or navigate to the band’s social media pages to watch the live show. The band will also play sets Thursday in Heritage Plaza in Mountain Village from 2-4 p.m. and 5-7 p.m. 

“In the absence of the Bluegrass festival, I know that our community is missing the great music, dancing, and festivity that ushers in the summer season around here,” said Joanna Spindler, an adult programs specialist at the library. “By hosting Birds of Play, the Wilkinson Public Library aims to bring the groovy vibes to everyone's home to enjoy together in a community-conscious way. Telluride needs some common ground to celebrate right now, and enjoying music together is a great way to find that.”

The Birds of Play consists of multi-instrumentalists Alex Paul, Eric Shedd and Jack Tolan, who swap a mélange of mandolins, guitars, a string bass, and the occasional harmonica or kazoo to bring their folk-Americana-bluegrass inspired songwriting to life. The trio was born in 2018 after Paul won the Telluride Blues Challenge as a solo artist, which led to opportunities to record an album. Paul realized he was more interested in collaboration than performing as a solo act, and so enlisted longtime musician friends Shedd and Tolan to form the Birds of Play. The three recorded an album before they’d ever played a show, and then hit the road to play over 50 shows in the following months. Along with creating music together, the trio counts among their principle pursuits an active outdoor lifestyle liberally peppered with adventures in nature.

“A big part of our band and songwriting is our connection with nature and wild places, using our bodies and being playful, and pushing ourselves skiing, biking, rafting, playing in canyons, and just getting outside as much as possible and building that into our tour model so that we can stay healthy and sane on the road,” said Paul. “So much camaraderie comes from recreating together. We’re not just playing music together, we’re best friends, bandmates, co-creators and business owners together, and that forms a really awesome beautiful bond of trust and support.”

Of course, with tours abruptly canceled at the onset of the pandemic, the band has not been able to connect with audiences in the same numbers or ways as in previous years, but much of the band’s focus as storytellers through music remains centered on spotlighting the human experience and sharing stories from across the emotional spectrum.

“We have songs for heartbreak, for loss,” said Paul, noting that while the trio embraces the goofy side of life, they draw from a deeper well, too. “There’s definitely a serious side to what we do. We take our role as entertainers and storytellers seriously to honor the power that comes with being able to connect with a crowd emotionally in that capacity. We try to capture a pretty wide breadth of the human condition with our songwriting.”

Paul’s passion for bringing music to the Telluride region led last year to the creation of a new music nonprofit, Augment, which he created with the aim to provide increased opportunities for support, mentorship, and career advancement for musicians in the area. As the landscape for professional musicians has changed dramatically during the pandemic, making it more difficult than ever to make a living as a performance artist, Augment has responded to the needs of the musical community by shifting its focus towards community music advocacy and outreach, working to ensure there are still outlets for the area’s musicians, creating local opportunities, and working with businesses to develop sustainable funding models.

Despite the year’s turmoil — or perhaps because of it — music remains an important outlet for musicians and audiences alike to connect with others, unwind and simply enjoy a much-needed slice of the good life.

“Music is such a fundamental outlet and connection point,” Paul said. “It’s affecting people really huge because people are hungry for it and missing it right now.”

Plus, according to Spindler, the live-from-home format makes concerts like the Birds of Play livestream show more accessible than ever.

“The great thing about watching from home is that absolutely everyone is invited, no tickets necessary — our answer to the annual free Bluegrass kickoff concert,” Spindler said. “Gather your kids, crack a beverage, put on your favorite Bluegrass-level costumery, and groove the evening away!”