The autumn sun was high in the sky and Quinn Sullivan was onstage at Telluride Blues and Brews belting out songs from his new album, Wide Awake, before a crowd of thousands. Behind him and out of view, backstage beside the artist lounge, Steve Gumble described his own bewilderment at how far the festival had come. Back in 1994, the liquor-store owner turned festival promoter started the Telluride Brewers Fest—the precursor to Blues and Brews—because he was tired of the wine festival and saw an opportunity in the early craft beer movement. He says he never could have imagined that 28 years later, his small-time beer fest would be one of Telluride’s flagship music festivals.
He’s not afraid to take some credit for that success. But he also freely admits he can’t claim all of it.
“It’s fair to say we do a good job,” Gumble says, sitting in front of the first official Telluride Blues and Brews banner. “But I’ve always said, a lot of our success is attributed to where we’re at.”
Music festivals don’t seem to stick anywhere else in Colorado besides Telluride. Many have tried over the years, like Snowball Music Festival (kicked out of Avon in 2012, uninvited to return to Winter Park in 2013 and finally, hosting its last hurrah in Denver in 2014) and Vertex Festival, which made an attempt in Buena Vista in 2016. And while Arise Festival has been hosted consistently in Loveland since 2012, it recently relocated as well—to Boone, Colorado, east of Pueblo, two-and-a-half hours south of Denver.
But every year since 1974 Telluride has consistently hosted a lineup of perennial festivals that have become rooted in the town’s identity. Festivals like Telluride Film Festival and Mountainfilm Festival, Telluride Mushroom Festival, Yoga Festival, Plein Air Festival, and of course Telluride Bluegrass, Jazz Festival, and Blues and Brews. While all of those took a COVID-19 hiatus in 2020, those last three returned this year without missing a beat.
No other town or venue in Colorado is able to sustain its own music festivals. But somehow, up in the box canyon of Bridal Veil Falls, not even a global pandemic could stop them for long. According to Gumble, that’s partly because of Telluride’s local government, partly due to its geographical beauty (and distance from Denver), and largely thanks to the people who help pull it all together every year.
Of course, there were changes at Blues and Brews this year—as there were at most large scale events. Two lines preceded the ticket booth: one checking attendees’ vaccine cards, and the other administering COVID-19 rapid tests to the unvaccinated. And unfortunately the “brews” element of Blues and Brews had to be heavily scaled back. To the dismay of many fans, the “grand tasting event” wasn’t on the bill this year, meaning beer was only being served in $9 pints.
“We just felt [the grand tasting] was just too much interaction to be safe,” Gumble says. “We intend on bringing it back. But we couldn’t do it this time.”
Despite the gap year and those necessary tweaks, Blues and Brews 2021 still had all the energy of previous years—which is particularly impressive, according to Gumble. Normally he and his team have a full 12 months to plan and produce Blues and Brews, but this year they barely had a quarter of that time to pull it all together.
“On May 13, when the CDC dropped the restrictions on social distancing, it was our green light,” he says. That gave them just four months before the weekend of September 17. “It was a lot of hard work . . . But I’ve got the best team here.”
Gumble assembled his troops and they started stacking a lineup with the biggest, boldest blues, funk, indie, rock, jam-band, gospel, and soul headliners they could book. Acts like Samantha Fish, the Taj Mahal Quartet, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Anders Osborne, Larkin Poe, the Monophonics, and Denver-based Nathanial Rateliff & the Night Sweats.
“We dusted off the old playbook and just put it together,” Gumble says, shaking his head somewhat incredulously. “And it sold out in just 36 hours.”
Clearly, people were hungry to get back into music festivals. And in Colorado, Telluride is the only place to go where the fix is dependable.
“This town just lives and breathes music. And luckily, the locals and our town government have supported it,” Gumble says. “Telluride is made for music and we’ve embraced the culture.”
Getting the local community onboard is one of the hardest parts of starting a festival anywhere, he explains. Festivals are loud, they bring in huge crowds, they cost lots of money, they have a big impact on the environment and infrastructure of a town (especially in small mountain communities). And while they typically generate a lot of tourism dollars for local businesses, oftentimes that isn’t enough to get them invited back.
For instance, Gumble recalls Snowmass’s Mammoth Festival which his company, SBG Productions, was hired to produce from 2013 to 2015. Mammoth Festival featured live music, chili cook-offs, and a beer festival right in Snowmass Village. But, he says, “the community just didn’t embrace it. And right there, you’re dead.”
Like so many other Colorado festivals, Mammoth Festival went the way of its namesake.
“But here [in Telluride], the festivals have been around longer than most of the people,” Gumble says.
That fact has given the town ample time to smooth out the kinds of kinks and wrinkles that might trip other municipalities up. Telluride’s traffic and parking logistics have been fine-tuned and perfected; the in-town festival camping has been carefully contrived; waste and garbage systems have been streamlined. The town has essentially been designed to transform into a festival or concert grounds whenever necessary. That gives it a distinct edge over other mountain towns for retaining and maintaining such large-scale events, year after year.
There’s also the $1.8 million Town Park stage that finished construction in 2016. It acts as a selling point to attract talent in and of itself, according to Gumble.
“Telluride is probably one of the most beautiful places you could see music in the world,” he says. “And the people that have the best views are the people on the stage.”
The experience of playing on Telluride’s stage is unlike any other venue in the world, Gumble attests. While they’re playing music, artists are staring straight up into the box canyon towards Bridal Veil Falls, surrounded by the San Juan Mountains. Some have described it like playing “inside of a Bob Ross painting,” Gumble says with a chuckle.
As if to prove his point, Quinn Sullivan and his band, who had just finished their set, walked offstage to wild applause. Gumble stepped away momentarily to snap a photo with them, and as he did, Sullivan told him, “I’ve never played in a place like this.
Pretty views aren’t the only geographic advantage to hosting festivals in Telluride, though. Because the town is far enough away from the Front Range, it lies just outside of Live Nation’s “radius clauses.” These contractual provisions prevent artists who play at Live Nation venues (i.e. Red Rocks, Mission Ballroom, Fillmore Auditorium, etc.) from performing for up to 90 days prior to and after their show, within a 250-mile radius of the Live Nation venue. It’s an anti-competition clause that essentially bars artists from making stops in Vail, Breckenridge, Winter Park or even (especially) Fort Collins on the same tour they play Red Rocks or the Mission Ballroom.
But not in Telluride. Counterintuitively, its distance from Denver plays to its festival advantage as well.
“I put radius clauses in too,” Gumble says. “But I don’t radius out Denver, and they don’t radius out [Blues and Brews].”
Gumble also attributes Telluride’s level of local engagement as another important ingredient in its success. Many locals either work for SBG Productions or volunteer at the festivals to get free tickets. Others, who choose to leave town, put their homes on Airbnb. And the rest typically buy tickets, Gumble says. But nearly everyone is contributing or participating in some way or another.
“A lot of locals [volunteer] religiously,” Gumble says. “Some of them volunteer for every [festival], all summer.”
That can make finding volunteers for Blues and Brews somewhat challenging, he admits. It’s the last music festival of the season in Telluride, and a lot of the regular volunteers just want to have fun.
“We all work really hard to cater to the tourism industry. And this is kind of [the local’s] treat to themselves.”
And specific to SBG Productions, Gumble recognizes that he couldn’t possibly make Blues and Brews happen without his staff—who he calls his “best friends.” It’s easy to tell he’s still impressed they were able to pull Blues and Brews off this year on such short notice and with all the health and safety hoops they had to jump through. If he hadn’t had the people on his team, he never would have been able to make this happen, he says. Not this year, and not in years past.
“I’m so fortunate to have the people I have who have my back . . . I have the best employees in the world,” Gumble says. “They’re so proud of what we produce. It makes my job easy.”
All told it takes roughly 700 people to pull Brews and Brews off: some 250 paid SBG employees and another 450 volunteers (local or not).
“You start to realize this [festival] is a machine, it’s a monster,” Gumble says. “I just kind of look around when this is going on and I get chills up my spine.”
A monster, indeed—one that’s made up of all the elements that have earned Telluride its name as the cradle of Colorado’s festival culture. At this point that’s as much a part of Telluride’s identity as its ski culture or its history as a mining town.
And nothing is going to change that, says Gumble.
“From the town government to the promoters to the citizens of Telluride, we know how to festival,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what music you see here . . . the result is going to be a good experience.”