‘Festivaaaal!,’ melting down and juke joint

by Chris Aaland

Festival season is upon us! The 16th annual Durango Bluegrass Meltdown kicks off Friday night at the Durango Arts Center and the Henry Strater Theatre and continues through Sunday at both venues. The Wildhorse Saloon hosts an additional seven sets on Saturday. Expect all of your favorite Meltdown traditions, too: the Superjam at the Hank Saturday night, the Celtdown at the Irish Embassy Saturday night, plus workshops, jam sessions in hotel lobbies and top local and regional acts.

What sets this year apart are the national headliners, which might be Meltdown’s best ever. Ranging from hard-driving traditional bluegrass to old-time banjo and fiddle to gospel-tinged family acts, all five national bands are stellar.

If you’re a traditionalist, then look no further than Audie Blaylock & Redline. Blaylock is a first-rate guitarist and singer who honed his craft touring and recording in bands fronted by Jimmy Martin, Red Allen, Rhonda Vincent, Lynn Morris, Michael Cleveland and legendary songwriter Harley Allen. “Whispering Waters,” from the outfit’s self-titled debut, spent quite a bit of time on the bluegrass charts. Their latest recording, “Crying Heart Blues,” is superb.

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers are Meltdown veterans, having performed at the 1998 and 2002 festivals. Jones’ resume is impressive: recordings and appearances with acts as diverse as Earl Scruggs, the Chieftains, Vassar Clements and Tom T. Hall. As a songwriter, he’s won International Bluegrass Music Association awards, co-authoring “Fork in the Road” by the Infamous Stringdusters. He’s also earned accolades as a DJ on Sirius Satellite Radio’s bluegrass channel and will broadcast interviews and selected sets live from this year’s Meltdown on satellite radio.

Town Mountain, an Ashville, N.C., band that plays original bluegrass and roots country, is no stranger to Durango. They’ve played a couple of shows here in the past and built a strong Front Range following after winning the 2005 RockyGrass band competition. Singer/guitarist Robert Greer possesses one of the best voices around, capable of moaning a soulful George Jones breakup number or a wistful Townes Van Zandt highway song, yet savvy to contemporary rock acts like Son Volt and Bruce Springsteen. An added bonus: following Meltdown, Town Mountain will play a 10 p.m. show at the Dolores River Brewery on Monday. I’ve seen Greer and the boys four times, so trust me: these are can’t-miss affairs.

Old-time music has a long history at Meltdown and this year is no exception. Riley Baugus is the real deal: a luthier, banjo picker and Appalachian music historian. If you’ve seen the movie “Cold Mountain,” then you’ve seen and heard Riley’s work. He built the Civil War era banjos for the film and appeared on the movie soundtrack. He’s worked with some of the biggest names in music — Robert Plant, Allison Krauss, Tim O’Brien and, most recently, Willie Nelson. At Meltdown, he’s joined by the Stuart Brothers, multi-instrumentalists who’ve accompanied former Reeltime Travelers songwriter Martha Scanlan into the Four Corners area in past years. Another

Meltdown tradition: the old-time dance featuring Baugus & the Stuarts at the Durango Elks Lodge at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Then there’s Gold Heart, a family band that features the stunning harmony and songwriting talents of the three Gold sisters, Analise (mandolin), Jocelyn (guitar) and Shelby (fiddle). They grew up singing a capella in church and were taught harmonies by their mother. Gospel has shaped nearly every American music genre, and bluegrass is no exception. Don’t be fooled by their ballads and “slow drive,” as they call their sound: Gold Heart can pick with the best of ‘em.

Too cheap to buy a three-day pass (c’mon, it’s cheaper than a single-day ticket to bigger, less intimate festivals)? There’s plenty of Meltdown-associated music elsewhere this weekend, including: Whistlestop and Waiting on Trial at Carvers at 7 and 9 p.m. Friday, respectively; the Badly Bent at the Derailed Saloon at 9:30 p.m. Friday; the Scrugglers and Kentucky Deluxe at the Summit at 6 p.m. Saturday; the Duke City Swampcoolers at Carver’s at 9 p.m. Saturday; the Squash Blossom Boys at Steamworks at 9 p.m. Saturday; and Jack Ten High at the Derailed Saloon following Saturday’s Superjam.

The Abbey becomes a Chicago South Side juke joint Friday with the legendary Rick Estrin & the Nightcats. For more than 30 years, Little Charlie & the Nightcats were staples on the international blues scene. Once Charlie Baty retired from touring, Estrin – the longtime vocalist and harmonica player for the Nightcats – kept the band going. He’s schooled in classic blues harp, drawing comparisons to Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter. The show starts at 8:30 with a set by the Deedles, meaning Estrin probably won’t take the stage until Meltdown winds down for the night.

The pop songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David come to life at the Community Concert Hall at 7:30 p.m. Sunday in the form of producer-turned-vocalist Steve Tyrell. You probably heard the Grammy winner sing “The Way You Look Tonight” as the wedding singer in the 1991 Steve Martin comedy “Father of the Bride” and two more numbers in the 1995 sequel.

The Summit hosts the 4/20 Legalize It Durango celebration with Jack Ten High, Aftergrass, Lucy, Diabolic Sound Platoon and Peter Robot & Smiley Coyote at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Jason Zwart was just 32 when he passed away unexpectedly last December. The Summit hosts a benefit for the Zwart family at 7 pm. Friday with music by Psychedelic Mojo, the Get Backs, the Formless and History Of. A minimum donation at the door also allows you to participate in the silent auction of items donated by local businesses. Proceeds will help ease the family’s medical and burial expenses.

The Starlight and FLC’s Student Programming Council host “Sprung,” an evening of hip-hop and electronica, at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Two stages in two rooms feature nearly a dozen local acts.

Check the Telegraph’s calendar of events for more local music.

With so much going on this week, this week’s Top Shelf list is a short one. To quote Leftover Salmon’s Vince Herman, “Festivaaaal!”

You’ll have a whiskey with tears? E-mail me at chrisa@gobrainstorm.net.



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