Townes Van Zandt’s song “If I Needed You” is one of the most quietly sad laments I know of, an asking for help, even while not quite asking. In a session posted on World Cafe on Friday, the Mumford kids take a shot at this song and wring out all the latent desperation that underlies the words. On the last verse, when Marcus cranks it up to a wail, it no longer becomes a polite request, but more of an exhortation yelled into the unresponsive silence of an empty room.
Rather than start this post about the Telluride Bluegrass Festival with a picture of an amazing headliner like Mumford & Sons, or the surprise stellar guests like Patty Griffin, I’m going to share that view up above instead: a cell phone snap taken while I sat inside my tent and looked out the zippered door. I think it captures something about this festival that you need to know, as foundation. As enticement to come next year.
I pitched my tent on slanty ground, deciding to sleep on river rocks just so that I could hear that powerfully rushing roar of water as I was falling asleep at night, and first thing when I woke up in the morning. When I rambled through the darkness at 2am each night to my waiting cocoon of nylon and synthetic down, I’d sit for a good half hour on the banks, just watching the water that came from far away and was heading who-knows-where, as the moon glinted off the fast-moving surface. I felt a deep peace, and a happiness.
After ogling the lineup of performers and arriving into the stunning natural beauty of the town (last year was my virgin year), the first thing you notice about Telluride Bluegrass Festival is that it is inherently different. People at this one are nicer. Strangers stop to both secure your unattended tent when it’s about to succumb to the ferocious winds and blow into the river (happened to me), and also when you are struggling to lug all your stuff out to where the carpool is going to meet (ditto). The staffers might not only watch your gear, but move it under a tarp when the skies open up and the rains begin. The bus driver loops back around once he’s off duty in the wee hours of the morning, because he hears on his radio that a gal needed a ride. Things like this strike me as exceedingly rare in this world of music festivals, and deeply appreciated.
I tell you all these things not to brag about what a goddamn nice weekend I just had, but to set the stage for the sorts of musical chemistry that spark effortlessly and burn glowing-orange within this fertile laboratory of music. All weekend long you’ll see musicians peppering each others’ sets, stepping off the stage to perform in the round, and just smiling a whole lot. Although my friends who bring in the acts have a keen ear for what works (old standards and new exciting acts), I think I would come no matter who was playing.
…So who did play?
These guys: Matthew & The Atlas
Matthew & The Atlas was the best new artist I saw at the festival. I’d written about their song “I Will Remain” many months ago, and listened to it probably a hundred times since then. I have these days where I just park on their MySpace, and blearily stumble out of it three hours (and the same four songs on repeat) later.
Rising out of the same Communion folk scene in London as their peers Mumford and Sons (who attended both Matthew & The Atlas shows I saw), Matt Hegarty’s smoky dark voice is wonderfully evocative, like it knows of sorrows that I haven’t met yet – and I’ve met me a few. It quavers with some echo of ancient wisdom, if that makes sense — like a wizened wizard lives inside this young man. Weird/magic. Plus there are banjo and handclaps and accordion, and prominent female harmonies and countermelodies. I promptly bought all three of the EPs they had for sale after the show. It’s been too long since I’ve let myself do that. Take me back to when the night was young, and another song was sung. I Will Remain – Matthew & The Atlas
Worth waking up for
Two morning sets blew the early-riser Telluride crowd away, and both happen to be two of my personal favorites. The Head and The Heart were the first act I saw at Telluride this year, a fresh and crisp noontime set on Thursday, while Joe Pug played even earlier the next day, while the dew was still on the lawn. There may be nothing nicer in this world than hearing Joe Pug’s harmonica ringing out at 10am on a clean and bracing mountain morning, or watching THATH stomp and laugh and echo those three-part harmonies back off the rocky mountains all around us. Both acts did a fantastic job of converting the audience all around me with their smart songwriting and contagious passion for music. Previously unknown to most of the seasoned bluegrass crowd, I heard both names on everyone’s lips for the duration of the festival.
Hymn #101 – Joe Pug (how do you not have this song yet?! get it)
Looks like he would win a knife fight
This was my first experience seeing Steve Earle live. I deeply respect his music and songwriting, but had never before witnessed his live set. He performed with his wife Allison Moorer (“did I marry out of my league, or what?!” he asked), and I was surprised at the soft incisiveness of his performance. He looks hardened, but life seems to have worn off the painful edges and left this rich and gorgeous beauty in his music. I foresee myself entering a large Steve Earle period.
Amazing ladies unite
And YEAH, I got to see some of the most amazing women in my musical lexicon all in one weekend. I was mesmerized by Emmylou Harris (as I stood next to Marcus Mumford for it, both of us just beaming at her folksinging glory), then Patty Griffin just dropped on in unannounced for the Sunday morning gospel hour. Griffin has written some of my absolute favorite songs, including “Mary” (which KILLS me, EVERY single time) and “Top of the World.” She performed “Heavenly Day” — and it was.
Hearing the silvery-voiced Sarah McLachlan both made me feel very, very fifteen again, but also reminded me how many songs she has written that I’ve loved and not listened to in forever: “Path of Thorns (Terms),” “Good Enough,” “Hold On” — I surprised myself with the quantity of singing along I was doing. Her performance was strong and vibrant, and induced at least one of my 20-something year old male friends to go home and download her greatest hits album at 3:00am. But I won’t name names.
I would study vocab cards every night for you, Colin
Let’s just set this straight. Even though I know that frontman Colin Meloy of The Decemberists is happily married to a talented lady and has a kiddo, I could stand all day blossoming under the quenching rain of his perfect vocabulary. I’m a sucker for smarts and wit. It leads to marvelous music, and their show was a delight. Surveying the Telluride crowd, he praised us: “each man more rugged than the next, each woman more sundressed and sunkissed than the next.”
All the songs from The King Is Dead (one of the best albums of 2011 thus far for me) seemed custom-penned to be performed in a setting like Telluride. It is the rootsiest of the Decemberists albums for a while, maybe ever, and the harmonica and fiddle felt right at home. Bela Fleck joined Colin for a (fake) dueling banjos challenge (to “win Telluride”), while Benmont Tench and Jerry Douglas also came out for the final song, a cover of “When U Love Somebody” by The Fruit Bats.
I don’t know why I thought that Mumford and Sons was not going to impress me again. So I’m figuring: I first saw them at SXSW 2009, at a small but hyper-potent daytime set at Maggie Mae’s outdoor stage. Having already been smitten by their songs, I fell instantly for their live show: “I felt more like me, only better, when their set spun off at full tilt. Jawdroppingly pure.” I named that set one of my favorite concerts of SXSW and the entire year. Last year at Telluride, they completely blew me away again – their very first show on Colorado soil, and everyone in the Sheridan Theater was singing at the top of their lungs, stomping so hard the floorboards shook. It felt like a secret exploding. I still get chills to think of it.
I was blind to my jadedness that assumed since they are huge on the radio now, since everyone seems to know their songs, that somehow their live show would have changed, becoming more diluted and sterilized. I could NOT have been more wrong, or more arrogant perhaps, to think so. They were completely incredible, playing in the pouring rain on Sunday night. It was the last show I saw (sorry, Robert, we had to get home ahead of the snow), and one of the most memorable. As the Punch Brothers played their set before the Mumfords (and covered Josh Ritter!), a frigid, steadily-increasing rain fell without ceasing, running in rivulets between my shoulder blades and dripping off the ends of my sweater sleeves. All the smart people pulled out their ponchos (me: not smart) and the audience turned into a sea of plastic primary colors. We shivered and were absolutely miserable.
But when Mumford & Sons took the stage, the crowd galvanized into one teeth-chattering supernova, singing with our heads back (“and Iiiiiiiii will hold on hope, and Iiiiiiii won’t let you choke / …and Iiiiiiiiii’ll find strength in pain and Iiiiii……”), dancing our frozen asses off. Not only was their set terrific (including Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Abigail Washburn coming out to play along), but they still retain all the passion that made me love them in the first place.
For someone who has played as many shows as these guys have, it was truly something exceptional. I saw our rain-soaked joy reflecting back off their faces, and it was a wonderful way to end Telluride 2011.
Mumford & Sons played two new songs last night to a fervently enthusiastic crowd at their sold-out Denver show. One song, tentatively titled “Broken Crown,” was just written yesterday at soundcheck here in Colorado. You know, I was probably doing something like eating an apple at my desk at the same time they were out composing potent new songs like these — just, you know, at soundcheck.
The other new one, “Below My Feet,” is a slow-building piano-based shot of redemption, and was written in Melbourne this summer during their Australian tour. Both are compelling.
Lollapalooza took over the massive lakeside green of Grant Park last weekend for its sixth year as a stationary festival in Chicago. I was unable to get myself to The Prairie State, and sent two talented writer-photographers to cover it for Fuel/Friends: Dainon and Kathleen. I ached with jealousy at their text and cell-phone pic updates all weekend long since it sounded like an incredible lineup.
Let them tell you about what rocked at this year’s Lollapalooza.
Dainon: The sunshine and subsequent sunburn was as inescapable as the flip flop abrasions, the beer tents at every turn and enough music-filled stages to satisfy the most ADHD-addled music listener, but Lollapalooza delivered on its promises. It was about as sold out as festivals come (to the tune of 80,000 happy faces, by some estimates) and every band these eyes saw actually started on time, and everyone who offered, “Hello, Lollapalooza!” into a microphone was cheered and celebrated like crazy. It may as well have been its own hometown city, true enough. That’s the kind of pride that came along with its mention.
Kathleen: Friday dawned steamy and warm, but not overbearingly hot – which was incredible, given the fact that I naturally associate summer music with blinding melanoma-inducing heat. Instead I trekked over to my very first show, which was the Washington D.C based group, These United States. I have seen this band many times before, and yet my dancing feet don’t seem to remember to get tired of them. Their thumping, surging, pedal steel laced rock and roll created an optimism for the rest of the day in the committed crowd (commitment at a festival means getting out of bed before the headliner).
These United States
I wish I’d caught their whole set, but one of the issues I have with new places is my complete lack of direction. I circumnavigated Grant Park (approximately the size of the Earth) completely before finding my entrance. I actually felt myself perk up when I got to the These United States show, and I’m pretty sure I owe my consciousness and perkiness to those gents and their predilection for expansive, raucous rock.
D:Jeff Tweedy showed up during Mavis Staples’ set on Friday (something I’d sorta banked on possibly happening, considering he’s producing her next album), playing acoustic guitar for a couple songs while she sang lines only she could get away with in that setting, ones like “Only the Lord knows and He ain’t you” and “I’m gettin’ too close to heaven to turn back now.” I think Tweedy grinned wider and more than I’ve seen him do in the three full Wilco concerts.
K:The Walkmen seemed like such a throwback to me. Wearing nice slacks and ties, I almost thought they’d launch into some 1950s era doo-wop. Instead, I was met with a howl so full of conviction, I turned to the people next to me to see if anyone else was surprised. Instead, most people seemed to be expecting it, craving it. The Walkmen made a show out of rambling and reverb, out of bare-bones music that the band members seem to get lost in. I felt a mystery in their show, a depth like if they kept playing for five more hours it would end up in a place totally foreign to where it started.
K: Closing the night Friday with their first show on American soil in four years, The Strokes seemed to be a last vestige of true, epic rock and roll. Julian Casablancas entered, five minutes late, wearing sunglasses and a studded leather jacket. He put his foot possessively on a front speaker and launched into the fiery guitar licks with a coolness that make the Strokes what they are. Their show was incendiary. I actually felt a fire in my belly that held in a tight little ball, expanding to a blaze whenever the poised melodies would break out into all hell, filling the night with revolutionary, explosive sound. The cheering blended right in to each song, people chanting along to Casablancas’ droning voice (myself included). It was anthemic, a show that somehow reflected and validated all the passionate air guitar that I’ve been perfecting since childhood, just for moments like this.
D: When The Strokes took the stage, Lady Gaga was doing her thing way over on the other end of beautiful Grant Park. While a quick two or three glances in her direction revealed that people were determined to take in her set, even if they were a mile away and stepping on tiptoes to see the big screens, The Strokes forced us to look back fondly at the early 2000s, when their promise was far greater than their outcome. It didn’t rock us as hard as it felt absolutely comfortable to hear song after familiar song. Hearing the line “I want to be forgotten, and I don’t want to be reminded” sounded boozy and smirky and blurry, as it should have. It seems they’ve gotten over the whole buzz-band notion and allowed themselves to settle into their black leather and sunglasses and skin some more. This is a good— and maybe even great—thing.
DAY TWO: SATURDAY
K:Skybox is a boatload of local Chicago fun. It’s like they captured the essence of what makes me dance in front of people and put it in Tim Ellis’ voice. From the very get-go of their early Saturday set, I was smiling and jumping and making a general fool of myself to their complex, rich pop songs. It definitely helped that all four of them were dancing too, bouncing around stage and beaming in the same key as their relentlessly catchy tunes.
D: Once upon a time, I only knew one song by Austin’s Harlem. That song was “Friendly Ghost” and, every time it poked its head out of my shuffling jukebox of a laptop, it pounded itself on the chest like Tarzan and stomped on a bass drum pedal, and forced dancing feet. Their 35-minute set was one of the only ones I lasted all the way through for, partly because I thought I’d see a fistfight break out before it ended (sadly, it didn’t). It was all filled up with raw, short blasts of that unfiltered, unpolished, sweaty energy stuff. I’d venture they put more power into that single show than most bands do in a career. And you can take that nugget of truth to the bank and scrawl it on an album sticker. It’s deserved high praise, too. They may not be able to keep that going and they may burn out quick as they came, but at least they burned bright on that Saturday morning.
K:Harlem does not come from Harlem, I found out. It actually surprised me, what with the gritty, dirty rock they pump out, and their lack of conventional on stage niceties. These guys didn’t bother tuning in the beginning, argued with each other at the end of every final guitar lick, and yet…they were electric. It was a strange, sort of surreal experience to hear this teetering, crazed garage rock, the kind where the drumming sounds manic and the bass thumps unapologetically underneath spontaneous-sounding riffs that take over even a wide open festival ground. They absolutely commanded my attention, and drew me in as I thrummed from song to song with them, painfully aware of how straight-edge I am in the face of real rock and roll attitude. If they had been selling leather jackets anywhere near there, I would have bought one immediately.
K: I had been waiting see Warpaint since my braggart friends returned with tales of psychedelic girl rock from SXSW this spring. I was not disappointed. Looking like kids playing dress up in Mardi Gras masks and tie dye shirts, these four women launched themselves into their set with a level of commitment that made me feel as though I was sucked into a vortex of melting, earthy music. Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman have these liberated vocals that just wrangle audiences. What shocked me was their floating, ethereal sound was still full of sharp edges, spikes, and dips. It was anything but just a pretty face. They also skipped right over their single from their debut album Exquisite Corpse, “Billie Holiday.” You know it’s a great show when they blow by the song everyone knows and no one seems to miss it.
K: I hadn’t seen The National before Lollapalooza. I hadn’t seen them, but the number of times I’ve listened to, cried to, felt to The National far outstrips almost all other bands for me. So I practically launched myself across Grant Park to be one of the first people in front of the Playstation stage. Matt Berninger already had a green bottle of white wine chilling in a big plastic bowl on the stage, and the setlist taped where my zoom lens could find it. And just like it told me, when the guys strolled out, they launched into “Runaway.” Berninger has a baritone that socks me in the windpipe with its haunted depths every time. Live it was even better. I was rooted to my spot, blown away by the shifting, glowing soundscapes they were able to use to fill the enormous Grant Park.
Berninger carried himself with the grace of someone from faraway and long ago, like he should have a maroon leather wingback chair and a roaring fire at all times. They completely flattened me with their devastating performance, both tight and yet not the same as listening to the record. It was real and tangible, and offered a jagged edge that made the dangerous, sometimes downright mean, themes of their songs come to living, breathing life. I have to say, as I pulled myself away from the emptied stage, I felt sad and satisfied at the same time – as though I could not have handled more soul stretching, but that I hungered for more, like a musical masochism. Extreme? Possibly. Don’t psychoanalyze me, I didn’t write the music.
K: It was raining on Sunday morning, but that didn’t stop my determination to see The Antlers perform in muddy Grant Park. So I slapped a plastic bag over my camera and secretly wished the park was connected by a network of Slip ‘N Slides. Though that wish wasn’t granted, I did get to witness the painfully beautiful Antlers set. Antlers deliver the same shiver and ache on stage that they do on their records. Their sparse presence on the massive stage lent itself well to their songs, which talk about death and loneliness and layers in life. Granted, not the usual festival fare, but it was so fitting to be standing in the silver drizzle listening to songs about real things sung with such passion. It was grounding, and a fantastic breath before diving into what would end up being a hot, humid day.
The Ike Reilly Assassination
K:The Ike Reilly Assassination is a band I first heard about through this same blog, and I was so excited to go see the Chicago group tear my socks off and incite me to jump up and down. And sonically, they did just that. Unafraid to be loud, and delighting in having the whole audience sing along to “Valentine’s Day in Juarez,” I felt like the stage was filled with my crazy uncles at Thanksgiving dinner. Not the annoying crazy ones that pinch you, but the fun ones that you know might be a little drug addled from younger days with unforgettable stories that they just might tell you if you keep the brandy coming. The Ike Reilly Assassination put so much energy into their rollicking show, I would be surprised if they could walk afterward. It was the kind of performance where drum sticks crack and guitar strings snap, crackle, pop, and everyone’s smiling about all the fun coming out of it.
Mumford and Sons
K: I’ve wanted to see Mumford and Sons ever since their release of Sigh No More last year. I’ve yearned to see them. While I was waiting, along with the rest of the people in attendance at Lollapalooza it seemed, I was already getting a little giddy thinking of their joyful harmonies and liberated banjo rolls. A moment after Marcus Mumford (and people who are not, technically, his sons) took the stage, they swept me away immediately with the title track off the aforementioned album.
Their music builds, it swells, and it takes me along until it all crashes into runaway melodies that seem composed of innocent wildness. Even better was watching their faces, because they mirrored ours. They had a shining newness on stage that showed no hint of the pretension that could come along with such success. Their sound filled me up from the inside instead of sweeping around me; it held me and moved me, and yes, I did get tears in my eyes. There is such a fearlessness in Mumford and Sons. When they perform it is intimate and real and consuming. It left me breathless.
K:Frightened Rabbit is an eviscerating experience. Hailing from the gray moors of Scotland, Scott Hutchison’s lonely wail can transform into a heartwrenching, cracking scream in a single turn of phrase. Standing amidst a huge crowd of people who knew the words to all their songs, just as I did, was comforting but strange. For such cry-into-your-whiskey music, it seemed I had a lot of comrades who related. I loved when Hutchison would abandon words all together and throw in extra howls and punctuated with guttural “oh”s, like the cracks went too deep to express with simple human language. And yet, people danced. That’s the amazing thing about Frightened Rabbit for me, they revel in the muck of life. They yell and scream about the things that go the deepest, and do so in a way that makes you throw out your limbs and give yourself to the simple act of moving. Not forward, not backward, just moving so you know you’re not a bag of sand.
K: Closing the festival, Arcade Fire was a massive conglomeration of complete mayhem on stage – people switching instruments, lights flashing, sensory overload. And yet it all coalesces into a technicolor sort of sonic boom. I was amid the tens of thousands of people yelling along to the lines as we were all pulled into the strange video projected on the high stage. They were passion personified, their energy never flagging, their voices always threatening to bust at the seams and spill out into chaos. It felt like being part of a rock opera, especially when they moved to songs from their newest release The Suburbs. It was a whirling two hours of exhausting their musical library, satisfying people who came for old and new.
Everyone in Arcade Fire is a star, which completely surprised me. No one seemed to outshine the other, which made it a white hot spectacle that required a lot of time to let it sink in. I couldn’t help but get a buzz off everyone listening; from right up front to the street people gathered and singing, the music not losing any of its power with distance. There could not have been a better closer. Arcade Fire has never been one of my favorite recorded bands, but after experiencing them in the heavy Chicago night air, I don’t think I can forget the way I felt a part of that celebration onstage and off, a culmination of musical experience and community – with a light show.
Dainon: Maybe what I’ll most remember of Lollapalooza this year will be showing up an hour before The National started, while MGMT sang softly at my back. But that’s only the beginning.
When Matt Berninger came out and sang what amount to sad, twisted love songs, holding no emotion back, when he rushed forward to the spot I was and I reached out and touched him on the hand and microphone and looked into what amounted to being very sad, dark eyes, that was the unexpected middle.
As for the end? It came with dragonflies overhead and Arcade Fire singing “No Cars Go” as my legs very nearly buckled and I sat on an offered chair instead of a mound of cool grass. That long moment, the one that lasted for a number of hours, I like that I will never be able to unforget it. What’s more, it’s a movie that comes with a soundtrack, an impossibly, gorgeous summertime one.
Thanks, Chicago. Thanks, Perry. I’m not sure I’ve got it in me to do another one of these, but, as a first and last time, it was a success all over the place.
PS – Best overheard quote during the very crowded xx set: “Whoa! This is like the real version of Facebook! Hey, are you my friend?!”
Barely twenty years old, Laura Marling is from England and channels a young and earnest Joni Mitchell, if Joni had Mumford & Sons as her backing band (no, really, Laura does). I just started listening to Laura’s gorgeous folks songs at the beginning of the summer, very belatedly because she has everything I love.
There are certain things we can sing wholeheartedly at 20 that the older version of ourselves might obfuscate or not believe in anymore. Marling is still fresh and smart and perfect.
Goodbye England – Laura Marling
(“and I tried to be a girl who likes to be used / I’m too good for that”)
I also smiled recently when Ryan Adams twittered about Laura, saying: “My god that new Laura Marling album is so insanely good. Made me feel rather insignificant at songwriting…now that is songwriting!”
Laura’s latest album I Speak Because I Can was produced by Ethan Johns, who, it’s interesting to note, also worked on several of Ryan Adams’ finest. Her album has just been nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize for ‘Album of the Year,’ and is thoroughly superb.
Earlier this year in Nashville, Laura recorded a cover of Neil Young’s “Needle And The Damage Done” with Jack White at his uber-cool Third Man Records studio, along with a cover of a song that is much beloved in my musical lexicon – Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run The Game.” I cannot WAIT to hear that; it will be released on Monday (August 9th) as part of Third Man Records’ Blue Series. The 7″ is limited to 1500 copies and is available for pre-order here.
The Telluride Bluegrass Festival is a behemoth of goodness and gorgeousness. Nestled in the crevasse of huge mountains, surrounded by forests and rivers (I kept thinking of the Josh Ritter lyric, “The lake was a diamond in the valley’s hand” all weekend), it definitely wins for musical escapism. I spent last weekend at the 37th annual festival that brings a loosely-defined group of bluegrass musicians together in the mountains of Colorado, far from where the direct roads and highways go. Six or seven hours from the most populated areas of the state, it seemed like a wonderland when we arrived.
I felt like a bit of an interloper, coming to the festival for the less-traditional indie artists with crossover appeal. I was absolutely there for the opportunity to see Josh Ritter and Mumford & Sons, each playing Nightgrass shows in teensy 250-person venues. It was an added bonus for me to see artists like Ben Sollee, Dave Rawlings & Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, and the Court Yard Hounds (2/3 of the Dixie Chicks, who I forgot how damn much I used to like). I’ll admit I was unfamiliar with many of the other musicians, being fairly unsteeped in the bluegrass tradition, but interested to hear whatever I could absorb.
On Thursday, I woke at 5am-something in my comfortable bed, threw my tent and sleeping bag into the trunk, and set off into the mountains. The drive that is quickly becoming one of my favorites in Colorado (tracing the Arkansas River) passed quickly, and I got to the festival minutes before Josh Ritter & The Royal City Band were scheduled to start. I walked down into the breathtaking mainstage area as his opening strums of “Southern Pacifica” were just beginning. Electrified, I hustled to plant myself right in the front of waves of his songs carrying out towards the mountains on all sides. Looking out between songs, Josh mused, “This is as good as it gets.”
He interspersed songs from his new album (like “Lantern” and “Folk Bloodbath”) along with some of my favorites like “Girl In The War” –I cried at these lines– “Monster Ballads” and “Kathleen.” It was also wonderful to hear a few real old ones like “Harrisburg” and “Me and Jiggs” (we are all half-crazy, and all at least half alright, indeed). I haven’t seen him live since summer ’08, and I can report that his ebullient enthusiasm is still 100% intact. The crowd cheered with as much strength as you can squeeze out of folks at 3pm on a gorgeously sunny Thursday, many hearing him for the first time. Josh looked out at the colorful crowd and laughed: “I had a lot of things to say but . . . I’m speechless.”
After his set, I went to set up camp and I had gotten a parking ticket and didn’t even care. That’s what Josh Ritter does to me; careless disregard for parking laws and other mundane things of this society.
I missed the Dave Rawlings Machine set while I attended to the necessary work of tent-constructing, but I heard the glorious strains of “Look At Miss Ohio” weaving their way to the campsite as I pounded stakes. As the afternoon turned to evening, I walked over to the Fly Me To The Moon Saloon to interview Josh Ritter. You’ll hear more about this soon, but it was as marvelous as I had hoped. What a gem of a human being, as well as a songwriter and performer.
After our interview and hugs concluded, I caught just a few songs of the heavenly-voiced Alison Krauss’ set back at the main stage (she really does sound that pure and untarnished in real life, and it is amazing). My favorite part of the set was probably “Down To The River To Pray” with Union Station — the bookend to hearing another song from the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in California last summer. There’s something about bluegrass music that just sounds so right amongst the trees on a late summer afternoon.
Then it was back for my second Josh Ritter show of the same day. I thought that the night concert was even better than the daytime one for me, because a) I like the nightlife and b) it was shoulder to shoulder in a small venue, the energy concentrated in every song. This one was more fiery, more urgent, more sweaty as we danced together in the tiny basement club. Moments that I remember especially clearly:
-getting to hear both “Wolves” and “Snow Is Gone” in the same set, songs that have meant a lot to me in the past year and just rupture beautifully live.
-a completely heartbreaking-in-every-way cover of Springsteen’s “The River” — the room felt so heavy and overwhelmed when he sang those lines, “now I act like I don’t remember, and Mary acts like she don’t care…”
-turning out every light in the house and singing an acoustic version of “In The Dark,” one that we all sang along to in near-reverence, and I cried like a girl with a skinned knee. Or maybe skinned heart.
Ed Helms from The Office is a huge bluegrass fan, and an Oberlin alum like Josh, so he came up on stage to play banjo during “Next To The Last Romantic” (the kid next to me said to his friend, “WHOA. He looks just like Andy Bernard from The Office!”). Rocking:
Finally, for the closing encore song, the whole band came out and stood arm-in-arm, next to Josh on acoustic guitar, and we all joined in to sing “Wait For Love (You Know You Will).” It’s the last song on 2007′s The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, and those closing minutes just overflowed with warm feelings — a mutual encouragement to us all. I was amazed for some reason at how everyone there seemed to know all the words, even on the verses. He certainly has created a legion of dedicated fans.
The band left the stage and the crowd started to gather their things, but Josh closed with this, all by himself, hands clasped behind his back. It felt like a benediction.
Friday started quite pleasantly, hearing the strains of Kentucky cellist Ben Sollee from the main stage as I toweled off from my camp shower ($3 in quarters for five minutes of hot water, a very decent trade). With my hair still wet, I meandered over to see him open the day with his plaintive, elegant, curious, articulate music.
Ben had opened for Josh Ritter the night before, but I was so overwhelmed and out of it from the interview that I was glad for the chance to see him again clear-headed. This extremely talented guy does wondrous things with a cello, an instrument I love. The resonance of a cello is swollen with sadness to my ears, like a lugubrious river, but Ben’s voice of clever levity cuts through it like a sharp speckled rock, parting the current.
I have been listening a lot in these past months to his new album Dear Companion (Sub Pop, 2010) with Daniel Martin Moore (produced by Jim James and starring a few of those rakish These United States-ers), as well as his 2008 debut album Learning To Bend. Ben’s songwriting is quick and intelligent, and he continues to grow marvelously as an artist. I highly recommend his music.
After a few afternoon hours spent putting as much of our bodies as we could stand into the crystalline glacial river, while the bluegrass floated from the stage in the background, we dried off and headed in for the Court Yard Hounds. Sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison were back at the Telluride festival on the 20th anniversary of them first winning the band competition as teenagers, back before they became Dixie Chicks and ruled country radio.
I was dazzled by them, their poise and beauty and sparkles, and how they rocked such a wide variety of instruments – fiddle, banjo, mandolin, dobro. They referred to their new album as being not only a divorce album, but also one about finding love, and covered Joni Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight,” a song Emily said got them through some dark times. The only Dixie Chicks song they played was the bluegrass instrumental, “Little Jack Slade.”
Three little girls stood right in front of me by the stage, all 5 or 6 years old, twirling and dancing in various tutus and wands and tie dyed clothes. I thought about what women they are for those girls to look up to, literally and figuratively. They were strong and confident, and I was drawn to the emotional rawness and feistiness on their new songs. After they finished, and I caught me some Lyle Lovett and his (no kidding) Large Band, it was Friday night, and it was time for the Mumford & Sons show.
There is something primal and exceedingly honest in the harmonies and vocal melodies of London quartet Mumford & Sons, especially when you’re standing five feet away from their kickdrum that often provides the only percussion, and hits like a mallet to the sternum. I’ve loved them unabashedly since the first time I heard them, and I named their Sigh No More album one of my favorites of 2009. Telluride on Friday night witnessed their very first proper show in Colorado — and I imagine I will never again see a band playing their first show in a state where absolutely everyone sings along to every word, jumping giddily so hard that the floor bounces. The reception in that room blew me away, and led me to predict that this band will soon grow as huge in the States as they are in the UK, with as wide of an audience as their music deserves.
I’ve had a really difficult time trying to figure out how to tell you all about this show. I was talking to my best friend Bethany on the phone yesterday, trying to articulate what it was that so confounded me, satisfied me, and left me speechless and breathless all at once. “There’s a memory in our blood of people singing together the way those guys do,” she mused. “It triggers something bigger and older than us.” I’ve struggled to write about their show because it was so intense and meaningful, and as I wrote earlier in the week, one of the best shows I have absolutely ever seen.
Through a towering wall of power, their songs wrestle with love and grace, redemption and loss, struggling to be a better man — sometimes succeeding, and sometimes failing and burning. It’s the most relatable music I know of these days, on an acutely personal level, and seeing them blow the roof off live just about overwhelmed me in the best possible way.
The basics: 300 people at a very sold-out show in the Sheridan Opera House, built in 1912 and still boasting the old warm globe lights around the stage, hand-painted detail on the balcony front. They started their set long after midnight with their four voices rising together for “Sigh No More,” quickly launching into “Awake My Soul” and an explosive rendition “The Cave,” then a huge new song called “Lover of the Light,” featuring lead singer Marcus Mumford behind an actual drum kit, instead of standing up and playing the bass drum while he strums. There was an ineffable joy and powerful hope rising up from the crowd – watch this video of “Roll Away Your Stone” from a few weeks ago in Los Angeles with the band The Middle East. I think we all felt like that.
After “Timshel” and “Little Lion Man” (crowd went nuts for their big single), they did “After The Storm,” “Dustbowl Dance,” an older song “Sister,” and another new song called “Nothing Is Written.” A tremendous version of “White Blank Page” was their encore. After those lines about “tell me now, where was my fault / in loving you with my whole heart?” at about three minutes into the song, the instruments cut out and that stirring vocal interlude begins — man, you can’t write it, but it’s the “ahhhhh, ahhhhhhhh, ah ah ah….” part (see? words fail me). The whole room started singing, louder and louder, and the walls were soaking in it and vibrating as we sang. Then the band picked up the urgent higher harmonies, and it was the closest to church I’ve been in a while.
Like this, very very much:
(all of this girl’s videos from their Dallas show are very good, and replicate almost exactly my vantage point in the crowd, and the way this show felt to me)
I left their show feeling so thoroughly sated and completely without coherent words, which is rare for me who always has words, and lots of them, for most occasions. I stayed behind to shake each of the band member’s hands, just so I could say “thank you.” Just a simple, heartfelt thank you for what they just put me through, and for the seams they ripped open and then helped mend. All my receptors were vibrant and content.
Walking home from that show at 2am on Friday night still glowing, I passed Ed Helms again, playing banjo on a street corner jam session, then a few blocks closer to the campsite I came across (pretty sure) Peter Rowan calling impromptu square dancing steps while playing the fiddle to a roiling flailing bunch of colorful folks while the cops looked on, bemused with arms crossed.
I tilted my head back at the ten million stars, a sky so dark I could see the bands of the Milky Way, and crossed a footbridge over the singing river to my campsite. Someone had left glow bracelets and glowsticks scattered in the inky blackness to help me find my way home. Welcome to Telluride.
Their Blogotheque session (posted today) is characteristically gorgeous, allowing the purity of their music to shine through. I’ll have much more to say about Telluride soon, but for now, watch them sing “Awake My Soul” half in French, along with their rare “Banjolin Song.”
The way this group of young guys tilt their heads back and sing their ancient-feeling (but powerfully rocking) music with such urgency and grace is precisely what I love about them. Incredible.
Speaking of snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes, I worked my last December day of the year on Friday, and now am settling into two luscious weeks of time off over the holidays (one of the hidden benefits of working in academia!). Before the college closed, I went to the radio studio on one of the snowiest and coldest days of the year and recorded my third year-end appearance on NPR’s World Cafe with David Dye. We chatted about some of my favorite albums from this year, and you can listen on Friday January 1st, at 2pm/ET on the radio or 3pm/ET on the XPN website — or stream the archived show through the NPR site shortly after it airs. Whee!
Now in the waning countdown before Christmas, as we open our advent calendars and go on walks to look at the lights, I revel in concentrated time to do things I enjoy — like talk to you all about some of my favorites things in 2009, this last year of the decade.
FUEL/FRIENDS FAVORITE THINGS IN 2009: TEN ALBUMS
THE XX, XX
Hands down, this is my favorite album of the year. They’re barely twenty, but The xx have created a stunningly complete, addictively good album. I cannot get enough of this London band, formed around the female/male pair of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim — best friends from school since they were age three. Their self-titled debut album fuses sparse, effortlessly cool beats and a new-wave sensibility, with thoroughly delicious male/female vocals that play off of each other like the best doo-wop or soul duets. Their playful back-and-forth chemistry (oddly) reminds me of an analgesic, blissed-out Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, in the perfection of the duet. Romy’s voice is very malleable, an immensely flirtatious alto, and in every place, Oliver’s is the perfect counterweight back.
Recorded largely in a garage at the XL studios, over the course of many nights and in the wee small hours of the morning, the album is meticulous and quiet, but it also laden with space and echoes that get under my skin. It is an unabashedly sexy album, full of insinuating bass-lines that propel the songs forward, and clever bits of minimalistic drum machine or coy xylophone melodies. Everyone that I play this for, even if it’s on in the background, instantly wants to know who it is. I think it would be near impossible to not be drawn into this album. It’s like a sticky spiderweb.
I first heard this indie-bluegrass folk band from London while prepping for SXSW early in 2009. The friend who sent me the link knows of (and is largely responsible for) my love for The Avett Brothers, and here in the music of Mumford & Sons I found the wrenching honesty of Frightened Rabbit blended with the banjo-plucking soul and brotherly harmonies of the Avetts. I was completely sold from the very first listen, and I have listened to this album more than almost anything else this year. Sigh No More is out in the UK now, coming to the US on Glassnote Records in early 2010.
This young band makes honest, compelling music that veers towards triumphant even as they chronicle the litany of life’s difficulties. It’s epic and substantial music, loaded to overflowing with truth that crawls under my skin with its vulnerability. And perhaps it’s the multiple voices rising together of all the band members, but there is a distinct feeling of kinship here, almost like a gospel choir or a Greek chorus, a community vibe that lends some sort of strength through such raw lyrical content. As one who often mulls over issues larger than I can get my head around, I appreciated this year how folks like David Bazan, Mountain Goats, J Tillman, and Mumford and Sons all truthfully explored matters of God and grace and falling and seeking in their music. Mumford and Sons are intensely wise in their lyrics, seeming to bely a personal understanding of God’s grace to a broken world, but also an intense, brutal struggle. As I wrote to a friend, “I love how they sing both about grace and the Maker’s plan, but also bald-facedly sing, ‘I really fucked it up this time.’”
Fanfarlo exploded this year from Sweden and the UK, with a shimmering, hard-driving, gorgeously colored album. There’s so much brilliant light in their songs that they’re almost like the anti-xx to my ears this year. I first fell in love with their song (and video) for “Harold T. Wilkins” right before SXSW this year, and then was sucked into their debut album deeply and irrevocably. It is rich, primal, earnest, and effervescent. Although I was first enticed by the thumping drums and the cathartic yell-along lines, they use a hugely expressive palette of instruments — heavy on the shiny trumpets, the dazzling saws, mandolins and accordion.
Lead singer Simon Balthazar has a distinctive voice that’s absolutely evocative of a young David Byrne; all swoops and vibrato, but powerful and clear. The songs often feature time-signature shifts and a loosely-corralled sense of musical primal anarchy that reminds me of Arcade Fire at times, but with a greater effervescence (like a sheer wash of fluorescent color dripping down). It is a stupendous album, first song to last.
Several albums I loved this year fused fascinating, seemingly disparate sounds together to make new amalgamations of awesomeness. Handsome Furs come from Canada via Seattle’s famed Sub Pop label, and have a very simple formula behind this fantastic album: raggedly anthemic electric guitar and howlingly visceral vocals (from Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner) with sexy-as-hell electronic drum machine beats (from the whipsmart bombshell Alexei Perry).
Face Control is unrelenting, often veering from effortless cool to earnest anthems in the same song – laced through with a seething mutual lust between these married two that melts the paint off the walls. The album radiates an icy Eastern-European aesthetic that the duo talked fascinatingly about when we chatted in July. I was hooked from the first time I popped the promo CD into my car stereo player on a roadtrip earlier this year, the yellow lines on the highway flying past to their immense beats. And to watch these two create their music live together at the Larimer Lounge (see: Favorite Shows This Year) was scorching, and somehow even more fantastic than this supernova of an album. It all sounds good to these ears.
I like the way the world looks through a Roman Candle album. You stop to listen to the birds and frogs and cicadas, and see the beauty in every streetlight and every moth, and notice the millions of stars. Oh Tall Tree In The Ear is a fine bluesy Americana album full of richly literate lyrics that keep giving to me, even as I’ve listened to this album dozens of times. It’s hard to think back now in this cold winter weather, but not too long ago this was my soundtrack for the entire sticky warm months of July and August, driving around with my windows down and this sweetly unaffected album playing on my car stereo. It ranges from upbeat, windows-down tunes like this one (which I think channels some Mick Jagger) to slow, easygoing slow-dancing-on-the-back-porch tunes.
Although living in Nashville now, Roman Candle has roots that go back more than a decade in the Chapel Hills, North Carolina area, and those roots intertwine with folks I love like Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary, which is what made me initially take a listen. I was summarily knocked off my hammock this summer by this thoughtfully-crafted little album, and its real attention to detail. You can listen to the lyrics like they’re poems. The title of the album is taken from a Rilke sonnet, and many songs are woven much more densely with subtle wisdom than you might pick up on first listen through. There’s a mature wisdom in the lyrics about love, attempting to balance growing up and growing old with someone, and that desire to go off and see Rome and watch the river go by, or hearing a song on a radio that makes you want to hop a train. As easygoing as it feels on initial listens, it keeps yielding up new rich appreciations every time I listen to it.
Langhorne Slim takes his first name from the rolling farmland town in Pennsylvania, and he makes a delightfully anachronistic blend of music that seems half a step outside of our time. Yet he’s got a youthful passion that I very much relate to, the same stuff I hear in any of the young rock bands I love. Langhorne’s not even thirty yet, but a lot of his songs seem to capture this weight of another generation. There’s a ramshackle, loosely-hinged folk glory on Be Set Free, with threads of everything from soul-stirring gospel to old brokedown blues in his music. It’s all held together with his vulnerable, emotive tenor that’s reminiscent sometimes of Cat Stevens, but with the ragged folksy storytelling chops of the sixties folk troubadour generation. There’s also a larger cinematic quality on this release, where Slim tries broad additions to the recorded sound, whether it’s a horn section or a rootsy group of folks stomping along to his songs (and even a vocal duet cameo from Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards).
Langhorne is a very charming, earnest man, and this past September as we shared his bottle of wine in the old-fashioned Boulderado Hotel, one thing he said that stuck with me was how all the songs he writes are love songs. On this, his third album, those loves can take so many forms — from bidding farewell on heartbreaking songs like “I Love You But Goodbye,” to the convincing swagger of “Say Yes,” to one of my favorite lines of the whole year here on this song: “You can have my television, long as I got lips for kissin’ you, nobody but you…” over that huge shiny Wurlitzer explosion and the gospel handclaps. I’m a total goner.
I first fell in love with Lisa Hannigan‘s haunting voice when she contributed mournful duets throughout fellow Irishman Damien Rice’s debut album “O” in 2003 – I think she infused an immensely gorgeous, heartbreaking weight to songs like “The Blower’s Daughter.” So after the two parted ways a few years back, I’ve been waiting for this album of her solo material and it was completely worth the wait.
There’s an unvarnished air of clean-scrubbed honesty and clever inquiry on Sea Sew. I got to see Lisa play an acoustic set the day after Halloween, at a Denver bookstore in the middle of the afternoon, where she captivated everyone effortlessly. In addition to playing really every instrument I could think possible in the live setting (most of which I don’t know names for) she manages to blend whimsy and beauty without being silly, which is very difficult to do. There’s a charming imagination in her songs, a pristine and heartbreaking depth to her voice, and an incisive emotional honesty to this album that kills me.
KAREN O AND THE KIDS, Where The Wild Things Are Soundtrack
It’s a daunting task to take a beloved children’s book, especially one with only a few dozen pages, and make it into a full-length movie that both kiddos and adults can enjoy. It’s even harder to make a soundtrack that fuses all those primal, wonderful sentiments that course hot through Spike Jonze’s vision in the film, and capture the innocence of youth without sounding child-like. I dislike most kid’s music (no Raffi, no); it’s why my little guy likes things like Wilco and the Avett Brothers. Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and her band The Kids, have made an album we both loved wholeheartedly from the first enchanting singsong melody, which both of us have been humming around the house for months.
This is also a completely palatable album for those who never get near the small people, but who still connect with some of the urgency and imagination of youth. The earliest previews of this film featured a more wild, acoustic version of the Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up,” with the lyrics about “our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.” Perhaps their early involvement in my initial impression are why mentally I get a very similar and marvelous sense from this album, in a year where I also finally truly got into Arcade Fire (!!). This soundtrack takes us to another place, “through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost a year to where the wild things are.”
One of my students interned for a semester at the stellar Numero Group in Chicago this past Spring, they of the Eccentric Soul series and countless badass reissues from the lost vaults of cool. For a fresh-faced twenty year-old, Ben has formidable musical tastes, so when he told me to listen to Detroit whippersnapper Mayer Hawthorne, I took his advice immediately.
Mayer Hawthorne is only in his late twenties, and comes from a background of hip-hop/DJing, and despite a lifelong affinity for the sounds coming out of his dad’s old car stereo, he only started making this throwback doo-wop soul stuff just as a joke. Even the label heads couldn’t believe this was new material (not decades old) when Mayer first played his demos for them — even more amazing since he plays all the instruments, and recorded his swell songs on A Strange Arrangement at home in his bedroom. His music feels fresh and deliciously enjoyable – makes you wanna put on your good Sunday slacks and a healthy daub of Brylcreem and come buy me a mint julep.
It’s hard to cohesively talk about this double-disc compilation album, curated by The National’s Dessner brothers to raise funds and awareness for HIV/AIDS. The range of Dark Was The Night is so vast and all so beautiful, so achingly perfect in the variation. The overall mood in the 31 tracks (from a stunning variety of most of my favorite musicians) is mostly melancholy – although there are a few bright shiny spots from folks like Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings.
But from Antony covering Bob Dylan (and breaking my heart), to the duet with Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch that still sounds the closest to perfection that you can imagine –not to mention contributions from Bon Iver, Cat Power, The National, Grizzly Bear, Feist and Jose Gonzalez– this album is oozing with more flashes of talent than many albums this decade. So many things to love here, no wonder Dark Was The Night has already raised over $700,000 for HIV/AIDS. Beautiful.
I wrote this of their set in the open-air Spring humidity of Texas: Theirs was one of my most anticipated shows and Mumford & Sons didn’t disappoint. They opened with that new song “Sigh No More” that I posted last week and it absolutely slayed me. The chorus sings of “love that will not betray you, dismay or enslave you, it will set you free — be more like the man you were made to be.” I felt more like me, only better, when their set spun off at full tilt. Jawdroppingly pure.
Mumford & Sons sounds like a dignified British jeweler, or perhaps a men’s clothing store, but instead they are a potent and wonderful quartet out of London that is poised to shoot to the top (and well-deservedly so).
The first time I listened to their music they reminded me of a blend of two bands I wholeheartedly love — a vibe of Frightened Rabbit meets the Avett Brothers? I hear both the wrenching confessional storytelling in a thick brogue, and the almost-punk ferocity of the bluegrass glimmers. Absolutely fantastic.
A local friend who knows my musical leanings fairly well sent me this recommendation that several readers have also written in passionately to me about, primarily folks from the UK. Mumford & Sons make honest, compelling music that veers towards triumphant even as they chronicle the difficult litany of life’s woes. It sounds epic and substantial while simultaneously crawling under my skin with its vulnerability.
Perhaps it’s the multiple voices rising together of all the band members, but there is a distinct feeling of kinfolk here, almost like a gospel choir or a Greek chorus, a community vibe that lends some sort of strength through such raw lyrical content. Add some banjo and….I’m totally sold.
I have been listening to this live set pretty much nonstop this weekend.
Name: Heather Browne Location: Colorado, originally by way of California Giving context to the torrent since 2005.
"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
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