Blues & Brews

Telluride Blues & Brews headliner Lucas Nelson & Promise of the Real perform on the Main Stage during the 27th annual Telluride Blues & Brews Festival Sunday. (Photo by Eva Thomas/Telluride Daily Planet)

This past weekend, parking in town was virtually impossible to find, as many festivalgoers were in town for the 27th annual Telluride Blue & Brews Festival, which marked its return after 2020’s pandemic-related cancellation.

At the time, festival director Steve Gumble said “we believe our community and festival will return stronger than ever in 2021.”

His prediction proved prophetic, as this year’s festival sold out quickly.

The lineup included headliners Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Taj Mahal and Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real.

Like most festivals in 2021, COVID-19 restrictions were in place and implemented throughout the weekend. Guests were required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test in order to attend the festival. Masks were required for all indoor venues, regardless of vaccination status, per the San Miguel County ordinance. Also, new for the festival in 2021, credit cards could be registered to link with an attendee’s wristband to provide a safer, no-contact experience.

Performances were again set across three stages — the Main Stage in Town Park, the Blues Stage in the ice rink and the more intimate Campground Sessions.

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, a solo artist and multi-instrumentalist, played sets at the Blues Stage and Campground Sessions. In mastering the banjo, guitar, piano, fiddle, harmonica, Cajun accordion and percussion, he refers to himself as a “small muscle athlete.”

“I had a lovely time at the campground stage,” Paxton said. “Those folks were out there for a different reason. They were getting connected … and those are my folks.”

Paxton was happy to be in Telluride and back playing festivals after the pandemic. He was also excited to see other musicians, like his good friend Taj Mahal.

“It’s lovely being in such a beautiful place to play music. These mountains are pretty enchanting. … Being outdoors and around a lot of people, it’s enough to make folk musicians feel like big stars,” he said.

Another musician taking it all in was Jeff Dazey, who has been the saxophone player with Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats for the past four years and first came to the Telluride in 2014 for the Ride Fest with JJ Grey & Mofro. After his first visit, Dazey remembered “feeling like it was heaven on Earth to be living out my dream of playing in a great band amongst an incredible lineup and with gorgeous, natural scenery to boot.”

For Dazey, what sets the Telluride Blue & Brews Festival apart from other venues and festivals he has played at is the beauty of the surrounding area and Colorado itself.

“Telluride, in general, is one of the most strikingly beautiful destinations in the states, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see plenty of others,” he said. “The way the town and festival stage is positioned in the valley surrounded by a gorgeous landscape of mountain peaks is an incredible sight. That, paired with the Colorado music and culture, makes this a bucket list goal for music fans and musicians alike.”

The culture and history of the blues were no more evident than at the ice rink and campground stages, where legendary musicians accompanied one another, including some who attended the festival through the Music Makers Relief Foundation. The nonprofit organization was founded in 1994 and is “dedicated to helping the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern music gain recognition and meet their day-to-day needs,” according to founders Tim and Denise Duffy, per a statement on the festival website.

While this wasn’t the first year the organization has partnered with the festival, for many of the organization’s artists, this year was their first time in Telluride. Atlanta-based musician Herman Hitson, 78, was one of those artists. Hitson has played with some of the biggest names in music history, including Bobby Womack, Wilson Pickett, Major Lance and Jackie Wilson. He also played Woodstock in 1969 with Jimi Hendrix.

“This is my first time in Telluride,” Hitson said. “I’ve never been this high up before.”

In addition to Hitson, foundation artists this year also included Albert White, who played with James Brown for over 30 years, and the Gospel Comforters, whose members include Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Tony Grady and Michael Grady Sr.

Festival attendee Balazs Jarai said he continued to find himself wherever the Music Makers musicians were playing because they represented “soul, history, culture, authenticity and truth in music.”

The weekend’s highly anticipated grand finale Sunday was the “super jam” with Lukas Nelson. Surprise guest Jewel joined Nelson on stage, along with Rateliff, the Allman Betts Band, Larkin Poe, Jamestown Revival and Amythyst Kiah.

According to a Facebook post, the Telluride Blues & Brews team was “absolutely speechless” after the festival ended and wanted to give “a big thanks to everyone for an incredible weekend.”