The Birthday Party That Changed Guitarist Peter Stelling's Life

When Annabel Lukins Stelling turned forty last year, she and her husband hosted one hell of a birthday bash. Two hundred fifty friends, many involved in the Colorado or national music communities, were strewn across the lawn of her Boulder home. "I am not the only one who thinks my wife is awesome," says Peter Stelling. Lukins Stelling has long been involved in the music industry. She's spent the past eleven years working for the floating festival Jam Cruise, where she is currently director of artist relations, and she and Stelling routinely host touring musicians at their home.

One frequent guest is New Orleans-based guitarist and songwriter Anders Osborne. He met Lukins Stelling more than twenty years ago, and they have been close ever since; in fact, he debuted a song about her a couple of weeks ago. He also played at her birthday party last year, which, much to everyone's surprise, proved a life-altering experience for her husband.

Stelling moved to Colorado in 1996 and spent eight years running his own contracting company. During those years, he also belonged to a few local bands, but by the time he met his future wife, in 2004, his stage appearances were limited to an annual gig as Eric Clapton in a popular re-creation of The Last Waltz and a handful of sit-ins with local bands. A career in music was not in the forecast. "None of the bands were trying to go anywhere. We were just writing and playing music for fun," he says. "My life was more about my wife, my career, and the birth of our daughter, Lyric, two years ago. Music was on the back burner for a long time." But about a month before his wife's party, he started playing with friends in Denver again.

And that's a good thing, because on that night in July, Osborne asked him to sit in on a couple of songs. Stelling didn't think much of the gesture, figuring Osborne was just being nice. But once he started playing, Osborne's outlook changed. "I didn't know to what extent he could play at all," Osborne says. "So when I went to play Annabel's party, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to see what he had. I need to say this: I adore Peter. As a human being, there really aren't many like him. He is honest, straightforward, sensitive and solid, all qualities that are important to me in a person.

"When he played those first couple songs with us at the party, I heard him play the same way. The sounds that were coming out reflected the amazing qualities of his personality. He listened really well to what I was doing and responded gently but with complete confidence, and his tone sounded much more experienced than I expected."

Osborne asked Stelling to stay on stage for the entire two-set performance. "It was the highlight of my life up until that moment," says Stelling. "Here I was, playing with Anders Osborne, for my wife, in our own house, on her birthday. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience." About a month after the party, Osborne called Stelling and asked if he would play with him at the Gothic Theatre on a Friday night, then play two shows with him at the Telluride Blues and Brews Festival on Saturday and Sunday. After those three gigs in three days, the musical bond between Stelling and Osborne was solidified. Stelling went from a trusted friend to one of Osborne's go-to sidemen, routinely joining him for shows around the country. "About every couple of months, Anders calls me to come do a short run of three or four gigs," he says.

"There is just something about Peter and me playing together," says Osborne. "It has a little heartland-rock-and-roll vibe to it, and I like it. He's a stellar guy and a great guitar player."

Stelling doesn't try to steal the stage, but rather supports the structure of each song, taking the occasional solo Osborne throws his way. "I am not a flashy guitar player, so my niche in Anders's band is simply complementing him," he says. "I am freeing Anders up to go explore."

The partnership reached a high point when Osborne extended the invitation for Stelling to play with him last spring at the 2014 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Together they manned the main stage immediately before Phish played a rare three-hour, two-set headlining slot for a crowd of 435,000. "When I decided to bring him to New Orleans for Jazz Fest, it was all because of the man he is," says Osborne. "He has the technical skill, but more importantly, he is a teammate and a brother. Peter fits right in with us, and New Orleans needed to see his face and get to know him. It was great to have such a good friend and brother up there with me."

For Stelling, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities keep piling up. "My life since playing with Anders at our house has been a major kick in the ass," he says. "I am playing with some incredibly talented musicians, so you can't rest on your laurels. I even had to start taking guitar lessons."

Still, playing music is likely to remain a hobby. Stelling is a 43-year-old family man with a successful career, and if he were forced to choose between playing with his daughter and spending extensive time on the road, it's safe to say he would put his guitar in the closet.

"I have the best of both worlds. I get to be home with my family and then get to do stuff like play Jazz Fest right before Phish. I am still amazed every time Anders Osborne calls me. My mantra throughout the whole thing is to stay humble and grateful. That's what got me here, and that's how I am going to keep operating."

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Brian Turk
Contact: Brian Turk