Despite the rain, the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons attracted the musically faithful last weekend. Photos by Candace Horgan.
Imagine the plight, last weekend, of the folk festivarian. You show up Thursday, wait for hours to get a number that will gain you access to the onsite camping area, drive to the camping area, carve out a small patch of a ground, set up, and wait till tomorrow for the festival’s musical lineup to begin. By that point, the weekend’s hard, steady downpour—42 typical days worth of rain packed into three festival days—had already penetrated the 150 pounds of way-too-water-permeable crap you had brought with you.
Kind of like the plight of the folk musician.
As Massachusetts folkie Stephen Kellogg charmingly chronicled his winding path all the way from total obscurity to semi-obscurity during a Sunday presong interlude, it became clear that we were made for each other, fans and musicians—two cohorts that overlapped heavily at this weekend’s Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons.
Folks Fest is one of three signature Colorado summer festivals produced by Planet Bluegrass, which operates on an 18-acre festival ground abutting the St. Vrain River an hour northwest of Denver. Folks is their most accessible festival—more so physically than Telluride Bluegrass, and musically than the bluegrass-centric RockyGrass. Of the dozen-plus music festivals I’ve visited over the years, from Falcon Ridge to South by Southwest to Telluride to Lollapalooza and its brethren, Folks is my favorite.
Planet Bluegrass has had plenty of experience putting on outstanding festivals: at 18 years old, Folks is the youngest of the three. And it’s a tribute to their management that the rain derailed neither the logistics nor the patrons’ enjoyment.
By the last day, the grounds had become a mudpit—dozens of shirtless, mud-slinging kids resembled “Lord of the Flies” extras. But the weather had eased enough to allow dozens more to erect elaborate Jenga-esque rock cairns in the river, and to enable the scores of musical acts to do their thing on two stages for a full, and fully attentive, audience.
Still, it became clear to me early on that this would not be one of those scribble-down-every-song-title concert-reviewer experiences, so my recollections from here are necessarily free-range and personal.
— FRIDAY —
Friday was headlined by Amos Lee and Patty Griffin, I hear, and God bless those who stuck it out for them. We went home—the rain kept us away until Saturday morning—just after Hudson Valley folkie Dar Williams’s late-afternoon solo set. Not that she drove us away. In fact, hers was probably the festival’s most memorable set for me, as she played wise, winsome songs from her forthcoming album, “Promised Land,” and others. (She also surmised from the stage that our 17-month-old son Hank, dancing in the rain and on my shoulders, was in touch with his own bodhisattva).
While Williams’s fame seems to have plateaued, her unerring moral compass and knack for story (she has branched out into young-adult fiction) have made her a reliable folk avatar.
— SATURDAY —
Saturday boasted the festival’s best lineup overall. My day started with Susan Werner, whose most recent album, “The Gospel Truth,” featured a promising conceit—“hymns for the spiritually ambivalent.” Politics, religion and folk music are organically intertwined, and rarely in the genre’s 50ish-year history (go ahead, argue about it…) has there been a ruling cultural and political paradigm so handy for liberals to hate.
This was done all weekend in varying degrees of nuance and effectiveness, and Werner’s set, while spirited and well-received, wobbled along the fine line between tolerance and the hating of the haters. Great Lake Swimmers, next up, played discursive, low-key songs as broad and appealing as its native Canada, and were a refreshing contrast.
Todd Snider followed. Considering himself “a gypsy first and a singer second,” Snider felt like the festival’s irreverent little brother. With clever y’allternative songs such as “Beer Run,” he whipped the crowd into a lather. The Waifs, who followed Snider, had similar popular appeal, closing Folks Fest’s best-received one-two punch.
Greg Brown and Nanci Griffith closed out the day, a twofer of golden folkies that brought in a more contemplative air. Brown could read the dictionary and I’d listen raptly, partly because I like dictionaries but mainly because his gritty voice is filled with experience and possibility.
With longtime guitarist Bo Ramsey accenting classic songs like “Billy From the Hills,” Brown left his fans in a satisfying, languid brood. Austin quasi-legend Nanci Griffith was the festival’s fairy godmother, between songs offering sweetly geeky cries of “Thank you kindly!” and enveloping the crowd in a warm, fuzzy sonic blanket.
— SUNDAY —
Sunday’s highlight, far as I saw, came mid-afternoon. The Mountain Goats (more properly, a guy named John Darnielle playing without his regular band) were (was?) a last-minute replacement for original headliner Jakob Dylan, but would have been a better booking from the git-go. Some put Darnielle into the “freak folk” category—certainly his is not typical folk, and his performing style is long on bizarre gestures and tics. His hyperliterate, obsessed-with-detail approach to storytelling and song are certainly atypical.
Amid wacky song titles such as “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” and lyrics about Bartles & Jaymes in a motel room in south central L.A., he got to something genuine.
Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers, fresh off a late-Saturday-night “Moongrass” concert that made them sentimental favorites, followed with a taut, soulful set. Next was 24-year-old singer-songwriter Missy Higgins, whose Fiona Apple-esque keyboard-based songs were arresting and her voice was outstanding. But her banter was awkward and she was unfamiliar to this crowd (and perhaps festival organizers… Higgins’s bio on the Planet Bluegrass site listed a web link that led instead to the Waifs, Folks Fest’s other Australian act). Despite Higgins’s efforts and talents, she didn’t get much of a rise out of folks. Perhaps it was time to go.
So I went, a few songs into the set of Tim O’Brien—legendary and amiable and dexterous and dull—and I missed entirely the set of festival closer KT Tunstall, a Scottish performer who’s swell but an outlier for this sort of event. Outliers can be memorable Folks Fest highlights—in 2007, Chris Isaak’s festival-closing set, smacking of “Vegas, baby,” was nothing of the folkie sort, but provided a brace of cultural cold water for our subsequent reentry into the real world.
But for me, the weekend’s highlight didn’t occur on stage at all, but back at the campground Saturday night. I couldn’t sleep at all, but just 30 feet away I heard a song circle. From previous years I recalled these things going well past midnight, one, two in the morning. It was raining buckets though: I wouldn’t even leave my tent to pee (enviro-nazis be damned: thank god for plastic cups).
Still, they went until 4:15 a.m., and just before they played what would be their last song, I think it was Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” the rain finally stopped.
Jeremy Simon is a Lafayette-based Reverb contributor.
Candace Horgan is a Denver-based photographer/writer and regular Reverb contributor.
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