A couple years ago I screwed up the courage to ask Sam Bush the question I'd been waiting to ask for nearly 20 years. When was he going to release a live album?
"Many times I've thought about doing a live album," Bush replied. "It's funny, we have so much fun playing live. You tend to show off a little more when you're playing live. You get enthused and get caught up in the excitement of playing for people as well as the people giving it back to you."
My first New Grass Revival album was Too Late to Turn Back Now, recorded live in Telluride in 1977 at the peak of the band's first phase, when the band and its founder, Bush, reinvented the notion of bluegrass, mixing equal parts Bill Monroe, Aretha Franklin, Keith Richards, Jerry Garcia and Bob Marley to launch a musical movement that has shown no signs of slowing down. When we spoke two years ago, he mentioned a new instrumental dedicated to Telluride Bluegrass Festival founder Fred Shellman that would be appearing on his third solo studio album.
"We were very close to using 'Mr. Freddy' from Telluride, but we wanted to clean it up and refine it a little more. And it did get kind of long. ... Live records are always a possibility, 'cause we're getting a lot of stuff on tape over the years."
Finally, in the summer of 2000, Bush gave his fans what they'd been waiting for all these years, an album that catches the uncontainable energy that has driven any gathering of musicians Bush has ever shared a stage with. Ice Caps: Peaks of Telluride (Sugar Hill Records) is a celebration of the '90s, a decade of post-NGR Bush, all live from the Fred Shellman Memorial Stage, ground zero for the 27-year renaissance in the Colorado music scene.
Bush celebrated his 25th anniversary at Telluride in '99 -- the Festival began one year before his consecutive run started as a way of getting him and NGR into the state -- and was joined this year by Hot Rize alum Tim O'Brien in the quarter century club. "So my deal is, next year when [fellow NGR bandmate] John Cowan's here for his 25th, I want us all to have -- all those 25-ers -- we get our own private port-a-john. That would be appreciated."
It's no secret that Bush loves the Colorado audiences, public port-a-johns notwithstanding. "It's a reflection of the willingness of the whole state to accept almost any kind of music," he once told me of the unique Rocky Mountain fusion going on out here. "The people are ready for anything." For years he's made a tradition out of playing a New Year's show in Boulder, down the road from the Planet Bluegrass offices in Lyons. He's bringing his band of John Randall Stewart (guitar), Larry Atamanuik (drums) and Byron House (bass) to town with him, and he'll be greeted by an opening act of local favorites called Mighty Squirrel, featuring Sally Van Metre, Sally Truit, Gene Libbea, Jean Ballhorn and Caleb Roberts.
Ironically, Bush's legacy will be on display playing throughout the Front Range as a handful of his protgs take various stages to ring in the New Year. Leftover Salmon have taken the mantle of acid grass on their shoulders, and will play a show at the Paramount in Denver, and blues banjo man Tony Furtado hits the Gothic Saturday night with Flecktone alum clarinetist Paul McIndles. Still another generation is represented by Yonder Mountain String Band playing two shows at Boulder's Fox Theater and Denver's neo-punk-grass sensation Sixteen Horsepower playing the Gothic. Even Colorado mainstays Big Head Todd and the Monsters, performing at the Fillmore on New Year's Eve, have admitted to holding Bush in a longstanding awe.
"I don't know if I'd call myself a mentor," Bush modestly declared this summer when the subject of his influence on subsequent generations of mandolin pickers and grassheads was raised. "David [Grisman] and I, we just feel like we're kind of the old boys. We're just glad to be in there somewhere with them."
The chance to cull a disc's worth of classics from his Telluride performances was a welcome opportunity for Bush, who told the Indy that he looked first for material he hadn't recorded before. "I meticulously sat and listened to every dang note that I'd done on a set. You know, when you have a three-hour set -- I have played three-hour ones -- then if you only want to do it once and make meticulous notes, it'll take about six hours to [review] one set. So really the most time-consuming part was just going through and picking songs. There were some I knew and was hoping to get, and some were a surprise that I didn't know came off as well as they did."
Nine of his 14 cuts fall into the "previously unreleased" category, including invigorating new covers of Dylan's "Girl of the North Country," Monroe's "Big Mon," the Subdudes' "Angel to Be" featuring former 'Dude John Magnie on accordion, John Hiatt's "Memphis in the Meantime" with Jerry Douglas joining the band, and Van Morrison's "Hungry for Your Love." A musical and emotional highlight comes from the oldest cut on the disc, the vibrant cover of Little Feat's "Sailin' Shoes," a duet with Cowan, marking the first time the two had performed together since NGR played their last gig, when they opened for the Dead on New Year's Eve in 1989. Bush's own compositions are highlighted by a 12-minute centerpiece fiddle excursion linking "Spooky Lane," "The Ice Caps Are Melting" and his arrangement of "Lee Highway Blues," plus the finale of his mandolin magnus "Stingray," featuring Bela Fleck on the banjo.
Sunday's jam session is certain to be on the long end, and when new grass and New Year's are in the mix, long is good. With 2001 Telluride tickets on sale, the CD in stores and a handful of tickets still remaining for the Boulder Theater gig, you've got three great ways to take in the spirit. Put the paper down and put your sailin' shoes on. Everyone will clap and cheer. That, too, would be appreciated. Resistance is futile.