Every year the summer solstice — when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky — launches the music festival season in Telluride. A total of four concerts are scheduled for Town Park stage this summer, beginning with the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which rolls through town Thursday-Sunday, June 21-24.
Bluegrass is the largest and longest-running Telluride festival. This year marks the fest’s 45th season in the box canyon. Tickets sell out every year.
“We’ve gotten into the habit of not being real promotional about tickets going on sale,” said Craig Ferguson, who has directed the festival for 30 years, primarily from his home in Lyons. “Because our core audience is coming hell or high water.”
The crowd capacity is 11,500 — 10,000 of whom are “festivarians” — and the rest, talent and production crews.
Some people may wonder why Ferguson brings the same bluegrass artists every year.
“Because we can,” he replied. “The artists don’t want to go anywhere else. The festival should probably be called the Telluride Bluegrass Invitational.”
THE RIDE FESTIVAL
In its seventh year, The Ride Festival, created and directed by Todd Creel, comes to town for two nights, July 14-15 with a crowd capacity of 9,000.
While Creel loves rock ’n’ roll and the joy it brings, it’s the local vibe that he believes distinguishes The Ride from other fests.
“The most beautiful part, I’ve discovered, is that it’s totally a community-based event, a full-on, grassroots, homegrown rock ’n’ roll festival,” Creel said.
TELLURIDE JAZZ FESTIVAL
This is the second year that SBG Productions — Steve Gumble’s production company — has organized the Telluride Jazz Festival (or Jazz for short) for the Telluride Society for Jazz, the nonprofit that owns the festival and is run by a board of directors.
Gumble says that Jazz — Aug. 3-5 — used to be bigger than Bluegrass. With a crowd capacity of 3,000, Jazz is now considered a “minor” event.
When booking talent for Jazz, Gumble tries to broaden the appeal of the genre to a wider audience.
“Sometimes jazz can be intimidating. I’m trying to take the intimidation factor out,” he explained. “Jazz will always be the backbone, but we will step out of that boundary in order to attract an audience with the goal of turning people on to jazz.”
TELLURIDE BLUES & BREWS FESTIVAL
Gumble also directs the Telluride Blues and Brews Festival (B&B), which is Sept. 14-16 and which, like The Ride, has a crowd capacity of 9,000.
While he concedes that growth in the craft beer industry has hatched plenty of events that combine beer and music, when Gumble created B&B 25 years ago, he says comparable events were billed as either music or beer festivals.
“Today there are a lot of blues festivals out there, but they tend to be more traditional and not of the same caliber,” Gumble said. “We’re the cream of the crop when it comes to blues and brews.”
FACING THE MUSIC
Each festival offers challenges to its presenters.
While Creel delivers a line-up of primarily rock ’n’ roll talent with The Ride, he claims that the unique character of the event is its location — Telluride Town Park — which can itself present production challenges. Telluride isn’t on the way to anywhere, so routing bands here — not to mention attendees— can be difficult.
“The combination of travel, tickets, eating and lodging makes it difficult for a lot of people to pull it off” financially, Creel said. “Of course, you can camp — if you’re willing to camp. We have one of the greatest campgrounds on Earth.”
Gumble said that delayed and canceled flights can pose problems for B&B; for Bluegrass, parking is the biggest headache.
“Parking and its quilt of politics is the bane of my existence,” Ferguson lamented.
While Ferguson calls it a “drop in the bucket on the parking issue,” for the first time this year, Bluegrass will offer shuttle buses, accommodating 150 festivarians to and from Denver and Colorado Springs.
The first Ride festival was in 2012, and The Lumineers were the headliners. Although the festival’s debut was thrilling, Creel’s all-time Ride highlight took place two years ago, when Pearl Jam played the main stage.
“The vibe in Town Park that day was unlike anything I’ve experienced out there,” Creel recalled. “It was just this great, collective, loving evening.”
NightRide shows at the Sheridan Opera House are also regular standouts for Creel. He remembers when Trigger Hippy — Joan Osborne, Jackie Greene and Steve Gorman — played a J.J. Cale set. Last year, Beck played a warm-up show at the Palm Theatre the night before he played Town Park — another favorite Ride moment for Creel.
A key Bluegrass moment for Ferguson is when James Taylor played in 1990, the first year, he claims, the festival became “financially solid.” Other Bluegrass highlights for Ferguson include Bobby McPherson playing a duet with Alison Krauss and Mumford and Sons playing the main stage.
“The audience was freaking out,” he recalled with relish.
Gumble points to the B&B weekend following Sept. 11, 2001, as poignant. James Brown, who was adamant about playing that year’s event, was on board one of a handful of airplanes allowed in the air during that time.
“And one of the background singers came out on stage, wrapped in an American flag,” Gumble remembered. “That was powerful.”
Over the years, Gumble has met artists who have since passed away, including Brown, B.B. King, Lou Reed and Gregg Allman. He said he feels fortunate to have spent “a few minutes in their lives.”
THIS YEAR’S HIGHLIGHTS
What Ferguson refers to as a “production risk and challenge” at Bluegrass this year is a live radio show that will be hosted by Chris Thile, mandolin player for the Punch Brothers and host of the radio podcast “Live from Here,” formerly “Prairie Home Companion.”
Every year, Ferguson looks forward to hearing The House Band, which this year includes Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Bryan Sutton and Stuart Duncan — and plays Friday night.
“Each of these artists is arguably the greatest on his instrument in the world,” Ferguson said. “And the only time they play together is in Telluride. It makes me giggle to have these exquisite string wizards, who are other-worldly, palling around while playing a complexity of music that no other five musicians can play.”
While Creel is stoked to see headliner Sheryl Crow rock Town Park stage on Saturday evening of The Ride, he also looks forward to catching emerging talent like Tyler Childers, who opens the festival on Saturday morning, followed by Larkin Poe, a roots-rock sister act out of Nashville.
“Something we really enjoy is seeking out and bringing to Telluride amazing, young talent,” Creel explained. “These bands are up-and-coming and you don’t really know where they’ll go.”
Jazz also will host some “new kids on the block,” including BadBadNotGood, GoGo Penguin, Turkuaz, and Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles.
“These are all bands who are visible in the younger demographic,” Gumble explained. “That’s what’s going to be the future of this festival.”
Gumble is also fired-up to hear B&B headliner Robert Plant — the legendary lead singer and lyricist of Led Zeppelin — who takes the stage Saturday night of B&B’s silver anniversary year.
A NEW STAGE FOR THE STAGE
For the past two years, festival artists have performed on a state-of-the-art stage in Telluride Town Park, a remodel that, according to Michael Ward, Parks and Recreation chairman since 2012, cost $2,571,950. Three music festivals defrayed that total cost: Bluegrass contributed $54,450, B&B contributed $10,000 and The Ride contributed $7,500.
The town’s 2018 capital budget includes a further $1.5 million to implement the second phase of stage improvements, scheduled to begin this fall.
“Festivals will really feel the impact next year, when the basement is completed and there are proper dressing rooms and shower facilities,” Gumble noted. Plans are also afoot to accommodate catering facilities during this second phase of construction.
“It’s great to see the town step up and spend money in that way,” Ferguson said. “I think the artists really appreciate it. The stage galvanizes the audience.”
Creel says the revamped stage is safer and more functional, a real “game-changer.”
“I’m so grateful to the town and all the citizens who voted and are paying for that stage,” he said. “Because it brings the entire festival up a notch for professional, touring bands.”
KOTO LIVE BROADCASTS
Even if you can’t afford tickets to the festival, or if it is sold out, you can still hear it for free: KOTO Community Radio live-broadcasts all four music festivals, with staff and volunteers producing live interviews and original features programming throughout festival weekends.
“Summer is a busy time for Telluride, bringing all the festivals in,” Gumble explained. “People need to be fed, sheets need to be changed, infrastructure needs to be set. So if we can broadcast the festival to the community, that’s good community service, a way to give back to people who have to work and can’t experience the festival in person.”
Ferguson points out that while some music managers balk at allowing festival content to be broadcast, the artists know about KOTO, support it and often say, “Just do it.”
“It’s out of long-term respect for KOTO,” Ferguson said. “Not only in the public radio world but also in the Telluride community.”
“Artists return to their hotel rooms and hear Bela Fleck live on the radio,” Ferguson added. “Or they go to the bars and restaurants and hear the live broadcast and that’s pretty cool.”
Creel has been a KOTO radio deejay for over 30 years. He’s the host of “Flying with the Fishbag” radio show on Wednesday afternoons, and also served as board president for KOTO, a nonprofit, non-underwritten community station.
“We’re so lucky to have our free-form, community-based station,” he said. “It’s one of the greatest parts of this town, a remnant of classic, old school, hippie Telluride.”
State law stipulates that nonprofits operating within Colorado obtain a requisite Special Event Permit for festivals that take place in Telluride Town Park. In return, that same nonprofit purchases liquor sold at the event and reaps the proceeds from liquor sales.
“I’m a firm believer that the people who benefit through the nonprofits should be in Telluride,” Creel insisted. “I don’t think one dollar should leave town. I believe that about the staff as well.”
All proceeds and tips from beer booth sales at The Ride are donated to KOTO radio. Even when the festival has lost money, Creel says that The Ride has donated a minimum of $30,000 to KOTO since the festival started.
“We’ve really tried to build a locals’ event with The Ride and have it enrich the lives and be an economic benefit to everyone who lives here,” he said.
Bluegrass offers four “tip days” to a spectrum of local nonprofits, including One to One Mentoring, the Ah Haa School, Telluride Academy and KOTO. In addition to donating tips, Bluegrass also donates $25,000 annually to the Telluride Fire Department.
Ferguson is proud of the amount of money that the Bluegrass festival generates for local nonprofits, pointing out that between 2013-17, the festival has donated between $77,000-$105,000 each year.
“A lot of times, the exposure of (the non-profits’) missions is as important as the money they receive,” Ferguson said.
Gumble said proceeds from the sale of liquor at B&B are shared by several nonprofits, including the Telluride AIDS Benefit, One to One Mentoring and the Music Maker Foundation. He pointed out that B&B has developed separate programming that benefits nonprofits like the Telluride Blues Society. B&B also hosts an annual 5K fundraiser over its festival weekend that benefits Telluride Adaptive Sports Program.
Gumble says liquor proceeds from the jazz festival return to the Telluride Society for Jazz in order to support the nonprofit’s mission to preserve the jazz genre, specifically benefiting the Telluride Student All-Stars Jazz Ensemble, Telluride Jazz Adventure Academy scholarships, and other artist workshops, student education programs and community outreach events.
All three producers agree that putting on a festival in Telluride is a privilege.
“We’re really cognizant of the impact that the festivals have on the town,” Creel said. “We appreciate the patience and the willingness of town citizens because it’s impactful, but it’s also great for the town.”
IF YOU GO
Here’s the latest on tickets to Telluride’s four major music festivals as of press time.
Bluegrass festival passes are sold out, and so are passes for NightGrass shows.
Weekend and day festival passes are still available for The Ride, with ticket prices expected to increase in coming weeks. Locals’ tickets are available at Wizard Entertainment and Telluride Music through June 30. Ride wristbands permit entrance to NightRide shows free of charge, with the exception of shows at the Sheridan Opera House, which Creel anticipates will sell out.
Tickets are still available for the Telluride Jazz Festival and for Jazz After Dark shows.
A handful of Sunday tickets remain for the Blues & Brews Festival, as well as JukeJoint tickets.