The summer solstice this weekend marks not only the beginning of the year’s hottest season, but also the official start of the hottest music season — festival season — in Telluride’s Town Park.
The Telluride Bluegrass Festival (TBF) opens its gates today (Thursday), followed by the Ride Festival July 12-14. The Telluride Jazz Festival (Jazz) comes to town Aug. 9-11. Festival season wraps with the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival (TBB) Sept. 13-15. With stellar talent lined up to perform on the Town Park stage and late at night in venues across town, festival promoters Craig Ferguson, Todd Creel and Steve Gumble shared their thoughts on the new stage facilities, new liquor licensing law and environmental mitigation — and, of course, this year’s incendiary lineup of performers.
The trio of promoters is thrilled that phase two of the festival site improvements project is complete. The improvements include a new catering facility and restroom, a food prep building with concrete pad, and lower level restrooms and dressing rooms.
Ferguson was especially enthusiastic: “It’s the most talked about thing among the entire crew,” he said. To them, “this is more important than the stage.”
Creel agreed that having dressing rooms with real bathrooms and a professional catering facility with a concrete slab for setting tables and serving food “is awesome. If I could thank the town and community a million times over, I would — all the taxpayers and Stephanie Jaquet and John Wontrobski at the park, everybody on the Parks and Recreation board. It’s a dream.”
“Having a complete festival stage gives us a lot of respect from the artists,” Gumble added. “And having flushing toilets, a covered kitchen, a sink to clean dishes instead of temporary situations, it’s exciting.”
GRAMMY WINNERS GALORE
Every year TBF tickets sell out within two days. The largest of the festivals, it easily meets its 11,500-person capacity in Town Park.
“Having done this festival for 30 years, we no longer have to maximize profit,” Ferguson said. He claims that TBF features artists with more combined Grammy awards than any other festival on the planet.
“The truth is that the artists who come every year — like Bela and Edgar and Jerry (who perform as the Telluride House Band at 7:30 p.m. Thursday) … these guys have so many Grammys, it doesn’t matter who else we hire,” he said.
Ferguson packed his Sunday lineup with women, starting with Bonnie Paine’s gospel set at 10:30 a.m. He feels fortunate to have Kasey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile also playing this year.
“I could not be more excited about the Kasey-Brandi togetherness close of the festival” Sunday evening, he said.
Ferguson calls Sierra Hull, who plays mandolin at noon on Saturday, “one of the best in the world” and Molly Tuttle (who performs Friday at 1:30 p.m.), “one of the best flat-pickers in the country right now.”
He also looks forward to the wellRED comedy segment, featuring Trae Crowder, Drew Morgan and Corey Forrester (at 6:30 p.m. Saturday).
“I decided to hire Trae Crowder to rip Trump a new one in front of 10,000 festivarians,” he said frankly. “It seems like a good way for the festival to bring a little social commentary.”
Ferguson said Noam “Pickles” Pikelny (who performs at 5:45 p.m. Saturday) will showcase a diversity of talent: “He’s not just a banjo player,” Ferguson pointed out. “He’s actually the funniest guy in the band.”
Steve Polt will likely be a refreshing unknown to the audience, along with Horseshoes & Hand Grenades. Ferguson refers to the Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band reunion, which performs Friday at 3 p.m., and is comprised of members of Greensky Bluegrass and the Stringdusters, as “historic.”
THE RIDE FESTIVAL:
ALL ABOUT COMMUNITY
Now in his eighth year producing the Ride, Creel takes pride in the fact that the event is almost entirely staffed by locals.
“We try to stay local with our vendors and with many of the different providers. I think it’s been successful that way. It’s why it feels so good in the park,” he said.
Whereas last year the Ride sold fewer than 5,000 tickets, with jam band Widespread Panic as the Friday and Saturday night headliner this year, Creel expects attendance to reach 8,000.
“It’s Panic and all that they bring,” he summed up. “Friday and Saturday are more of the jam scene and Sunday is rock ’n’ roll. And we organized our schedule that way.”
Creel followed a town-required process to add Friday evening to the Ride schedule this year, enabling Widespread Panic to play two nights. Jason Isbell will close the festival on Sunday.
It takes a lot of money, resources and energy to convert the park into a world-class music venue, “And to do it for (only) two days, it’s just not viable over the long-term,” said Creel.
Creel says he gets the most joy from the emerging artists who play the festival. Every year he puts out feelers on social media for suggestions for up-and-coming talent; he follows-up on every comment.
“We’re building this community,” he pointed out. “Why wouldn’t you listen to the voices (of those) who come every year? Then you end up seeing these artists 10 years later, and you say, ‘I saw them when nobody knew their name.’”
Several relatively unknown artists currently on an upward trajectory include rock duet Black Pistol Fire and a band curated by Tom Petty called The Shelters, as well as Pony Bradshaw, an emerging singer-songwriter from Canada.
Creel said the band Thunder Pussy also rocks.
“It’s four ladies and they’re just like, let’s go!” said Creel. “If you’re going to use that name, you’d better be able to back that up. And they do. They’ll throw down.”
Rose Hill Drive will travel from Boulder to play an all-Led Zeppelin set to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Led Zeppelin’s self-titled first release, followed by Big Head Todd, a band that was an original business partner of the Ride.
“They’re true Colorado rockers,” Creel said.
JAZZ FOR ALL
In his third year producing the Telluride Jazz Festival, Gumble has seen tremendous growth, which, he says, is just what the 43-year-old festival needed.
“We kind of bend the genre by adding some funk — and as we keep the base core jazz, we add lighter, appealing acts,” he explained.
Gumble anticipates coming close to selling out this year at 3,000 tickets.
The Telluride Society for Jazz, a 501c3 organization, oversees the festival. Gumble, who works for the board of directors to produce the event, explained that in the past, the organization hadn’t been able to realize its mission to the fullest degree because the festival hasn’t made the money. He wants to change that by delivering approachable headliners who appeal to people who might not otherwise be interested in jazz, like Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, who offers a fiery, contemporary take on New Orleans jazz.
Among Gumble’s “secret weapons” this year is a brand-new trio called Spaga, brainchild of one of the founding members of The Disco Biscuits, Aron Magner.
Gumble also points to Matthew Whitaker, an 18-year-old keyboard phenom who was born blind, as an up-and-coming star to watch.
And, once again, Jazz is offering the Patron Experience pass.
“You get to be on the stage. There’s a viewing platform, you get fed backstage, there’s a bar and you get to mingle with the artists,” explained Gumble.
In addition to the talent on Town Park stage, Jazz also offers a Main Street parade, yoga, free performances in Elks Park and workshops with Victor Wooten (on Friday at 6:30 p.m.).
THE BLUES & BREWS ‘EXPERIENCE’
This is the 26th year that Gumble has produced TBB, what he describes as an “experience that gives people an alternative to just sitting in a park listening to music.”
Capped at 9,000 people, the festival sold out June 1, which is unprecedented.
While Gumble taps New Orleans blues with Anders Osborne, there’s also a Woodstock theme this year via legendary headliner John Fogerty, who performed at Woodstock as the lead singer and guitarist for Creedence Clearwater Revival.
“I’m a Creedence fan from way back. And it’s the 50th year celebration of John’s career,” Gumble said. “So he’s doing all the old hits, a throwback to the good old days.”
Phil Lesh, co-founder and bassist for another legendary band, The Grateful Dead, will perform with the Terrapin Family Band, in effect doubling down on that Woodstock vibe.
Of the “hidden gems” in this year’s line-up, Gumble points to the Allman Betts Band.
“Gregg Allman’s son is Devon Allman and Duane Betts is Dickey Betts’ kid,” Gumble explained. “They decided to get together, so it’s the Allman Betts Band. They’re writing their own music, which is phenomenal.”
Gumble says he’s also looking forward to seeing Ryan Bingham perform.
“He’s a little bit more of an alt-country singer-songwriter. But you can definitely tell he has blues in his blood,” Gumble said. “It’s music that crosses genres as well as generations.”
The double-decker VIP viewing structure returns this year.
And like Jazz, TBB is also offering a Super VIP experience, replete with backstage viewing deck, mixologist, seafood bar, personal chef and golf cart shuttle.
Near and dear to Gumble’s heart is the work TBB supports through the Music Maker Foundation, a nonprofit that aims “to preserve the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it, ensuring their voices will not be silenced by poverty and time.”
“It exactly aligns with what our nonprofit is about,” Gumble said. “I’m always excited about those musicians who come.”
NEW LIQUOR LICENSE LAW
While state laws involving liquor licensing have remained the same, Telluride Town Council approved changes to the local law in February.
“The biggest change is that the proceeds from the sale of alcohol need to be channeled locally to a 501c3 entity, unless a request is made by the Special Events Permit (SEP) holder to the full Liquor Licensing Authority (LLA),” explained Lois Major, LLA hearing officer.
Major explained that this change will impact both Bluegrass and Brews & Blues because they have donated to nonprofits outside of San Miguel County. The SEP-holder cannot claim a donation for in-kind services and benefitting nonprofits must be federally recognized. Some promoters, Major said, were waiting several months to pass the proceeds to the charitable recipients. That timeline is now120 days.
“The SEP was created as a way for nonprofits and political candidates to raise funds for their causes through alcohol sales at events,” Major clarified.
In response to the changes, Ferguson says that Telluride Bluegrass, whose nonprofit is a conduit for “spreading the wealth” called Telluride Bluegrass Beer Booth Inc., will now donate entirely to local causes, “instead of the 95 percent previously when it supported global causes.”
He pointed out that not only does TBF donate approximately $100,000 in liquor proceeds annually, but the fest also showcases deserving nonprofits during every “tip day.”
“People come to Telluride, and they see the exposure (that) One-To-One mentoring or Telluride Academy” receives, said Ferguson. “And they may take that back to their own communities.”
Creel applauds the town’s new rules and oversight, noting that the intention has always been for local nonprofits to benefit from alcohol proceeds. The SEP-holder for the Ride festival is the San Miguel Educational Fund (local public radio station KOTO).
“I think it’s an absolute requirement that we all be transparent,” he said. “My intent from the beginning was to create a revenue stream for KOTO. We should be enriching our local nonprofits through these events as much as we can.”
The Jazz festival is a nonprofit and is therefore not affected by the new law. But when it comes to TBB, whose SEP-holder is the Telluride Blues Society, Gumble is not as comfortable with the new ordinance, especially if it interferes with funds previously directed to the Music Makers Foundation, an entity he views as festival family.
“The town has to be careful how they treat festivals that bring millions to their economy,” Gumble said. “I think this community does a great job of supporting their local nonprofits. To be told we have no choice is a bit greedy.”
The summer festivals have also made changes when it comes to environmental mitigation. Ferguson claims that TBF is the only “truly carbon-neutral festival in the country,” given its efforts to entirely offset the airplane and automobile travel required to get there.
He says that TBF has gathered more than a decade of survey and ticket purchasing data; calculated consequent carbon emissions; and offsets those emissions by purchasing rainforest easements, capping landfills and by making capital investments in wind companies.
This year, TBF will host an environmentally and sustainably focused team from a University of Colorado masters class who will examine festival waste in a new way.
“Prove to me that we aren’t dumping plastic into some huge landfill and that we’re recycling efficiently,” Ferguson said. “I don’t want to be burning all that carbon for trips to Montrose and Nucla. I want to do the math and speak the truth.”
In his efforts to minimize the festival’s footprint, Gumble focuses on composting and points out that it doesn’t take much to contaminate recycling.
“We monitor and clean and man every location where you can throw trash away, allowing us to recycle at (a rate of) almost 100 percent,” he said. “Our endgame is not taking anything to the landfill.”
Creel said that this year the Ride will try to minimize single-use plastic by charging a larger deposit fee for beer cups and encouraging their re-use.
“We’re Bodhisattvas,” Ferguson summed up. “Sacred caretakers of a tradition that started before us and will live past us. Every year, our mission is bigger than ourselves.”