How do you celebrate something like this? My first-ever cover story appeared today in Boulder Weekly, on the unlikely pairing of David Byrne (Talking Heads, etc.) and the renowned Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
Byrne ’n’ Bluegrass
Telluride Bluegrass Festival teams up with former
Talking Heads frontman David Byrne
by Adam Perry
June 11, 2009
David Byrne was a classic art-geek (or “peculiar young man,” as he says) at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early ’70s, once giving a performance where he did nothing but shave onstage. But he went on to international fame as a Grammy- and Oscar-winning musician and multi-talented artist, collaborating with such diverse and respected talents as Twyla Tharp, Fatboy Slim and the Latina pop star Selena. And at the creative pinnacle of Byrne’s career as the front-man for the Talking Heads (1974-1991), the new-wave/smart-rock band went from being the charming nerds of the punk-led early CBGB’s scene in New York to serious afro-avant innovators, creating at least two inventive and boundless modern masterpieces (Fear of Music and Remain in Light) along the way with visionary producer and multimedia legend Brian Eno.
So, with all that acclaimed weirdness, what’s Byrne doing playing the 36th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival this year, sharing a bill with more “traditional” greats like Emmylou Harris, Peter Rowan and Sam Bush?
It’s not like Byrne has suddenly gone folky. Musically, his post-Talking Heads career has seen him experimenting with Latin music (his first solo album, Rei Momo, was a veritable South American beat clinic), heralded soundtrack work (including The Last Emperor), and hit-or-miss adult rock that is, as a sour longtime Talking Heads fan said to me recently, “a whole lot of songs about how cute the world is.” Also, Byrne reunited with the forever-relevant Eno last year for Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, their first album together in almost 30 years, and has been busy touring since then with a band focused on that mercurial record and Talking Heads classics written and recorded with Eno at the helm — extraordinarily eccentric, brilliant and influential songs that for the most part hadn’t been performed by Byrne since the early ’80s.
To make sense of the idea that twisted and penetrating dark funk tunes like “Crosseyed and Painless” and “Houses in Motion” are about to be played for 10,000 fans at a world-renowned bluegrass festival, I talked to Telluride’s go-to marketing man, Brian Eyster.
“Here’s how I look at it,” he said. “Thirty-five years ago when David Byrne and the Talking Heads were developing their sound at CBGB’s in New York — did you know that CBGB stood for Country Blue Grass and Blues? — Sam Bush and New Grass Revival were making their first trip to Telluride. Just like David Byrne was shaking up the rock establishment, New Grass Revival was doing the same thing with bluegrass. New Grass Revival covered rock and soul and reggae songs; they introduced a jazz aesthetic of extended improvisation to bluegrass; they featured odd-meters and the totally-in-the-pocket rhythmic grooves of Sam Bush’s mandolin.”
“I always tell people that this is not a ‘bluegrass festival,’ but the specialized genre of ‘Telluride Bluegrass.’ From the very first TBF 36 years ago, the festival has focused on rebellious, eclectic music, and we feel a kindred spirit in David Byrne. Consider that past TBF artists have included Chick Corea, Barenaked Ladies, Wilco and Cake. So this year’s lineup isn’t really a shift at all. If anything it’s as uniquely Telluride Bluegrass as ever.”
Eyster is right: CBGB’s was a downright-scary little dive bar run by the late country, bluegrass and blues lover Hilly Krystal, but when rebellious young New York acts like Television, the Ramones and the Talking Heads made CBGB’s an American institution in the mid ’70s, it became something wholly new and different: a punk club. David Byrne has come a long way, and surpassed many of his early peers in terms of substance and innovation, but it’s safe to say the spirit of punk rock (i.e. anti-establishment and anti-impossibility), a culture whose genesis was at CBGB’s, has informed his entire career. The actual acronym was “CBGB and OMFUG” — “Country, BlueGrass and Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers,” and you could definitely argue that many past Telluride Bluegrass Festival performers have been gormandizers… but punks?
Personally, I think the addition of a venerable innovator such as Byrne to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is wonderful, but in some ways, having Byrne’s “David Byrne Plays the Songs of Byrne and Eno” tour hit Telluride is akin to Peter Rowan playing a heavy-metal festival.
“To be honest, Peter Rowan would probably love the challenge of playing at a heavy-metal festival,” Eyster told me. “It’s interesting you mention Peter. I would put him in this same group of adventurous artists [including David Byrne], always seeking new sounds.
Peter has played TBF for 30 years, and he continues to bring new directions to the festival — from his sets with Crucial Reggae
(featuring the Burning Spear horns), Mexican accordion legend Flaco Jimenez, to an electric country band last year. That’s the Telluride Bluegrass spirit in him.”
It’s true that Peter Rowan is a progressive bluegrass musician, but he’s still a bluegrass musician. If David Byrne was on Telluride’s short-list of coveted headliners, who’s next? Sonic Youth?
“I’m definitely a Sonic Youth fan,” says Eyster. “But I’m not sure they would work at the festival. Too edgy for us. David Byrne’s music has always had a certain lift, a joy that has always been central to the Telluride Bluegrass sound. When we’re talking about TBF artists, we’ll often close our eyes and try to visualize/auralize it being played on the Telluride stage. We look for music that is grand and colorful and honest and very often joyous.
“And we think about artists that are deeply alive. Reading David’s blog, it’s so obvious just how attuned he is to the world around him. We look for artists that are going to be ‘in the moment’ and open to collaborations and going to new musical places in Telluride.”
On that note, Byrne’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame peer Elvis Costello (HOF class of 2003) plays the Telluride Bluegrass Festival on Friday night with his band the Sugarcanes. Costello is bringing with him the surprising (and pleasing) sounds of his new album Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (produced by T-Bone Burnett), which features the latest of Costello’s vast array of incarnations: Americana purveyor.
Coming off his successful stint as a variety show host, Costello went from jamming with the Police, Bill Frisell and Lou Reed on cable TV to collaborating with down-home favorite Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris and Jerry Douglas, creating one of his best albums since 1986’s King of America, which coincidentally was also produced by Burnett.
Costello and Byrne have a lot in common, both rising to fame in the late 1970s as groundbreaking nerd-rock stars and then breaking every conceivable boundary with three decades of iconoclastic, inspirational music. For these two rock legends, headlining a festival world famous for keeping arguably the backbone of American music alive might be just another badge of honor on a list of many, but for us it’s a somewhat unexpected blessing.
“I’d also point out that [Talking Heads] songs have long been covered by Telluride Bluegrass bands,” Eyster says. “And David devoted at least one episode of his online radio show to American country and folk music. So he has those roots in his music as well, somewhere.”
“We’re all huge David Byrne fans here at Planet Bluegrass. He’s been on our list of future headliners for years, so we can’t wait for June 18.”