Steve Earle, Allison Moorer, Sarah McLachlan Go to Telluride Bluegrass Heaven (Day 1)

"Don't expect too much in the way of bluegrass when I pick up a banjo," Steve Earle said three songs into his set from the Shellman stage at the 38th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival on June 16, 2011. "Because I only know how to play the kind of banjo that scares sheep."

It's a line Earle has used for the umpteenth time onstage, but it always gets a laugh. And it was highly appropriate on the opening day in Telluride, which doesn't hold to the firm and fast rules of other bluegrass events.

In fact, the first day that was capped by the more traditional playing of the Telluride House Band -- Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer and Bryan Sutton -- provided a nice mix of music that featured three women -- two of whom can hardly be identified with the bluegrass genre.

Allison Moorer, the younger sister of Shelby Lynne who first hit the scene as a country darling from Alabama, then became an Academy Award songwriting nominee ("A Soft Place to Fall"), is a prominent part of Earle's touring troupe rebooted as The Dukes (and Duchesses).

Married to Earle shortly after the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival (also run by the efficient Planet Bluegrass staff) in August 2005, she was a hit with the Telluride crowd that demanded "More Allison" after she and new co-member Eleanor Whitmore provided fine backup harmony on "City of Immigrants" from Washington Square Serenade.

It was the first song in Earle's 75-minute, late-afternoon set that strayed from his new album,
I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive
. Earle began with the hard-hitting "Waitin' on the Sky," the album opener, then followed it with the record's next three songs -- "Little Emperor," "The Gulf of Mexico" ("a sea shanty of sorts," Earle said), "Molly-O" and "Every Part of Me."

He also gave beautiful Telluride its props early on, recalling his first appearance there. "Don't look at the waterfall. That's the first rule," said Earle, not only known for his personal alt-country tunes but also as a fiction writer/radio host and actor in David Simon's The Wire and Treme. "The first time I played here, which was about 15 years ago I guess, I looked up during the set and saw the waterfall and forgot the entire second verse of the song I was playing."

Earle brought back memories of those years with chestnuts that included Copperhead Road," "Guitar Town," "The Galway Girl," "Dixieland" and the show-closing "The Revolution Starts Now," relying on his longtime Dukes rhythm section Will Rigby (drums) and Kelley Looney (bass). Whitmore (fiddle, mandolin) and the tattooed Masterson (guitars), the other onstage married couple, brought a hip energy to the mix and displayed their versatility throughout the set, which should serve them well when they release their first album later this year.

Of course, Moorer also displayed savvy musical skills, playing electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards and accordion. But the golden pipes are her most powerful instrument, and she knocked out the crowd with a soulful rendition of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," which can be found on the tribute album Dear New Orleans, along with Earle's "Dixieland."

"Am I overmarried or what?" Earle asked rhetorically about his red-hot redhead who's currently a blonde. She's also the loving mother of John Henry Earle, born in April 2010.

Proud papa didn't perform an encore, but did return at the end of his set to show off John Henry, raising the cutie up for all of Telluride to see. Wonder what he thought about the waterfall.

The Earle set was followed by a superlative 90-minute performance by Sarah McLachlan, the Canadian songbird who made a mark in the past two decades with her sad songs, gorgeous melodies, pop sensibilities and female-empowering Lilith Fair.

Also possessing a magnificent voice, she was making her first appearance at Telluride and was well-received.

"This has got to be one of the most beautiful places in the world," McLachlan said after opening with "Awakenings" from 2010's exquisite Laws of Illusion.

She also drew from an impressive catalog of hits ("Building a Mystery," "Adia," "Sweet Surrender," "Hold On," "Possession" and a glorious encore of "Angel"). McLachlan even went back to 1992's Solace with "The Path of Thorns," one the Grammy-winning artist said she hadn't played in a while, but "I brought this one back because it sort of made sense. It became new and fresh to me."

Flanked by accomplished guitarists Peter Stroud (at left with McLachlan) and Luke Doucet, McLachlan also had vocal and musical support from Melissa McClelland (Doucet's wife who sang lead on a bluesy "Passenger 24" from her 2006 album Thumbelina's One Night Stand) and keyboardist Vincent Jones, all of whom played on her final Lilith tour last year. New members include drummer Curt Bisquera and bass player Cedric LeMoyne (formerly of Remy Zero), whom McLachlan called "cute as a button."

Following "Building a Mystery," she continued her praise of Telluride, comparing her visit earlier in the day to Bridal Veil Falls a religious experience. "God, it's just amazing standing up here and looking at this amazing scenery," she said. "I kinda wish I could do every gig here."

After closing her eyes there for a moment to pause and reflect, an at-ease McLachlan, who recently turned 40 and went through a divorce, said she "saw this surreal, glorious view of the valley and both sides of mountains. And I felt a different kind of alive that I haven't felt in a long time. And I just want to thank the folks who brought me here today. Because I'm in such a great place. I still feel high from that experience. My body's still tingling."

An experience of a different kind was found earlier in the day at Elks Park, where Abigail Washburn and the Village performed an impromptu set without microphones or amplifiers right in the middle of the crowd.

Her six member band -- including multi-instrumentalist, Kai Welch, fiddlers Jeremy Kittel and Odessa Jorgensen, drummer Jamie Dick and bassist John Estes -- gave the audience a 360-degree view. Rotating to give everyone a full-frontal glance, they did yeoman's work while presenting songs from Washburn January release City of Refuge. They'll twice more this week in Telluride, opening for Mumford & Sons in a NightGrass show Saturday at the Sheridan Opera House (11 p.m.), then on the main stage at 2 p.m. Sunday.

See the slideshow from Day 1 of Telluride.

A "Faces of Telluride" series leading up to the 38th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival included Part 1 on banjo player Abigail Washburn, Part 2 on Trampled by Turtles singer-songwriter Dave Simonett and Part 3 on singer-songwriter Nora Jane Struthers, who won last year's band competition with the Bootleggers.