The 43rd annual Telluride Jazz Festival is rolling into town this weekend. I’ve seen all three headliners. Fortunately, they are three bands I am happy to see over and over. They are that good. And if you haven’t seen any of these acts, you are in for a treat. And bring your dancing shoes.
Friday night, Robert Randolph will take the Fred Shellman Memorial Stage and sit behind his electric pedal steel guitar. Randolph is the bearer of the musical tradition known as the Sacred Steel. Randolph learned the tradition at of the House of God Church in Orange, New Jersey.
“It was all church music,” Randolph said of his upbringing. “It was a movement within our church and that’s all we used to do.” The Sacred Steel tradition stretches back to the 1920s.
In his late teens, Randolph began to discover other forms of music. Jazz, funk and blues particularly drew him in. Randolph connected the dots between his secular music and popular music. “All music is related,” Randolph said. “Gospel is the same as blues. The only thing that changes is in hardcore gospel people are singing about God and Jesus and in the blues people are singing about ‘my baby left me’ and whiskey.”
By the early 2000s, Randolph had begun applying his dazzling steel guitar technique to secular music, and from that grew the Family Band. The group’s sound was so different than anything else around that they were soon packing New York City clubs. Their first album, 2002’s “Live at the Wetlands,” was recorded at the now-defunct jam band haven, and was followed by four studio albums and another live set, each widening the band’s audience — they’ve long been regulars on the festival circuit. Randolph and the Family Band have played the Telluride Blues & Blues Festival — Friday night marks their debut at the recently rebooted Telluride Jazz Festival.
The reigning king of New Orleans music Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews is headlining Saturday night. Shorty, as he is known, is a star all over the world, as evidenced by his recent performance in Barcelona that concluded with a Second Line Parade throughout the city.
If you have any doubt about Shorty’s clout in the music world, take a look at what he has been up to in the last several years: He played his fifth White House gig; backed Macklemore and Madonna at the Grammys; played on albums by She & Him, Zac Brown, Dierks Bentley and Mark Ronson; opened tours for Daryl Hall & John Oates and Red Hot Chili Peppers; appeared in Foo Fighters’ “Sonic Highways” documentary series; voiced the iconic sound of the adult characters in “The Peanuts Movie;” inherited the esteemed annual fest-closing set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in the tradition of Crescent City greats like the Neville Brothers and Professor Longhair; and released “Trombone Shorty,” a children’s book about his life that was named a Caldecott Honor Book in 2016.
Adding to that legacy, his Blue Note Records debut “Parking Lot Symphony” teamed Andrews with Grammy-nominated producer Chris Seefried (Andra Day, Fitz and the Tantrums) and an unexpected array of co-writers and players, including members of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Meters, Better Than Ezra, and Dumpstaphunk.
The highlight of “Parking Lot Symphony” features a blistering cover of The Meters’ “It Ain’t No Use.”
Lettuce’s show Sunday night will be my second of the summer. In June, I went to Red Rocks and saw them perform a set of the Jerry Garcia Band’s music. It was one of the funkiest interpretations of the Garcia canon I’ve ever seen. Their second set was comprised of all Lettuce tunes, and while I was not that familiar with their work, it was funky and slinky and fun to dance to. I’m hoping they drop a few JGB songs this weekends, after all, it’s Jerry’s birthday Friday night.
Comprised of a stellar group of musicians — drummer Adam Deitch, guitarist Adam Smirnoff, bassist Erick “Jesus” Coomes, keyboardist and vocalist Nigel Hall, saxophonist Ryan Zoidis, and trumpet player Eric Bloom — Lettuce fuses multiple genres of music effortlessly.
Lettuce was formed in 1992, when several band members attended a summer program at Boston’s Berklee College of Music as teenagers; Lettuce was founded on a shared love of legendary funk artists like Earth, Wind & Fire and Tower of Power. After returning to Berklee as undergrads in 1994, Lettuce started playing in local clubs and steadily built up a following that soon extended to cities across the country and then throughout the world. Releasing their studio debut “Outta Here” in 2002, its follow-up “Rage!” in 2009, “Fly” in 2012 and “Crush” in 2015.
The band recently released its new album "Elevate" in June.
In recent years, Lettuce has watched their fan base expand as they’ve hit bigger and bigger stages. Their shows have a transformational quality, as their grooves are often trance-like. It’s not just audiences that are elevated. As bass player Erick “Jesus” Coomes puts it, “some of these shows we’ve played over the past couple years have been so amazing, it’s like you go home a different person.”