By the time blues guitarist Ben Powell arrived in Colorado, his load had been lightened by a few grams. “I had a little Border Patrol incident in Arizona,” he admits. “They decided that they wanted to take my marijuana from me.” Powell and his girlfriend had left their Leucadia home earlier in the day thinking they’d make Telluride and the 18th annual Blues and Brews Festival by nightfall. On a whim, he chose the southern route along Interstate 8. “It’s cool,” Powell says, “driving through the sand dunes.” The trouble started when they got to Yuma...and the dogs. “‘Show me your papers,’” Powell says, “is alive and well in Arizona.”
It wasn’t Powell’s dreads that gave him away; Yuma’s border stop is rife with drug-sniffing dogs. In short order, he learned why Arizona is considered one of the reddest of the red states. When the dogs zeroed in on his travel stash, border guards placed Powell in custody and likewise detained his girlfriend while they tossed the car. “They apologized for having to place me under arrest. And as for them taking my herb, they assured me it would not be a problem where I was heading.” Possibly the border agents knew of the Telluride festival’s weedy hippie reputation. “I smiled and thanked them for protecting me.”
Powell went on to take first place in the acoustic-blues competition, but it almost didn’t happen. Yuma took wind out of his sails and precious travel time off the clock. “I really felt maybe it just wasn’t in the cards.” But, they chose to press on. They made Durango by nightfall, slept a couple of hours, and by eight o’clock the next morning, Powell was on stage. “I barely had time to go to the rest room. I literally had to tune during the first song.” Later, he was invited to play a showcase on the main stage when it hit him. “I got a big puff of great smelling smoke.” He stopped playing and told the audience about Yuma. “The crowd was sympathetic.” He laughs.
Telluride’s Blues and Brews festival is a three-day mini Woodstock that draws thousands of fans to Colorado for competitions and headliners such as the Grateful Dead’s Bill Kreutzman and his Seven Walkers, Robert Cray, Eric Bibb, Marcia Ball, Mavis Staples, and Willie Nelson. At some point in the near future Powell will have to deal with the pot ticket issued him by the Arizona Border Patrol, but, he says, he’s not yet been turned off to the Telluride experience. “I’ll probably go next year,” he says, “and I’ll drive 15 north to the [Interstate] 40 all the way.”