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- Posted on Jun 19th 2011 6:02PM by Charley Rogulewski
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"We were like 'Bela, come up here and show us your stuff!'" frontman Colin Meloy (pictured) told the crowd, about singling out banjo sleuth and Telluride Bluegrass festival staple Bela Fleck, "He didn't show up, so we decided, by forfeit, we won."
But Mr. Fleck, who also returned in 2011 and played the night before the Decemberists with his acidic bluegrass outfit the Flecktones, would not blow off the self-proclaimed "Telluride Bluegrass Pick-Off Champs of 2005" again.
Towards the end of the Decemberists set -- which included a performance of 'Dracula's Daughter' (the "very worst song" Meloy has ever written), their "dark" fan favorite 'The Rake's Song' and tracks like 'Down by the Water' off their latest album 'The King Is Dead' -- Fleck sauntered out onstage holding his banjo, prepared to school Meloy and his indie-rock guitar.
While the Decemberists were down a band member -- keyboardist Jenny Conlee is in Portland undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer (fans held up a sign that read 'Breast cancer sucks but Jenny rocks!' in support) -- they made up for it with collaborations, which is what the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, now in it's 38th year, is rooted in. Before the Decemberists' 2011 Telluride Bluegrass unofficial pick-off even started, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers founding member and keyboardist Benmont Tench hopped onstage for the band's rollin' country western number 'All Arise!'
But Meloy and his guitar were no match for Fleck. To keep the competition interesting, Meloy got an assist from Punch Brothers banjo player Noam Pikelny. Outnumbered by banjos, Meloy looked to his fellow Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk for some help, who proceeded to invite dobro master Jerry Douglas onstage. Meloy then raised the stakes and had everyone play on their backs, before Sara Watkins -- best known for playing fiddle with Nickel Creek but currently touring with the Decemberists -- chimed in with her whispery vocals and segued the finger-picking-floor-jam back into the band's 'The Chimbley Sweep.' The group strummed it out together for one more -- a cover of the Fruit Bats song 'When You Love Somebody.'
"That was surreal," Meloy told the crowd later, after clearly being schooled by the Telluride Bluegrass Festival veterans. "It's pretty amazing to be here. I've said that before but it bears repeating."
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