I was trying to meditate.
And following the instructions of the host of the Drepung Monks, a primarily a cappella octet and featured act at the 19th annual Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, I was supposed to shut off my thoughts and anxieties about the past and the future, and to live, during this meditation, in the present. A late addition to the Aug. 14-16 schedule, this meditation session packed the Wildflower Pavilion second stage with festivalgoers looking for enlightenment, or at least looking for a break.
I drew down my eyes and considered this prospect. Never mind that I wasn’t supposed to consider the prospect (I am a lousy meditator). Was it possible to do such a thing within earshot of all those kids, shouting by the river and playing with squeaky balloon helicopters? Was it possible to do such a thing at a festival with more than 30 musical acts, all taking from the pastiche of the past, and staking a claim in tomorrow’s music landscape?
Certainly, Lyons this weekend was a fine place to catch up with a certain segment of this music world, scene, one steeped in folk, blues, Americana and related genres that are eminently approachable yet less stirred by the eddies of musical stardom.
Friday’s headliners shared a cabaret aesthetic. It’s not unusual at a quasi-counter-cultural festival for a performer to open his set with the sentiment, “I’m so tired of you, America.” It’s more unusual for that performer to sing the next song in French, and later invoke the prime-time drama “Dynasty” as well as how his hair was gelled and moussed.
But Rufus Wainwright, despite a folky family lineage, is no typical Folks Festival guest. His droll, sophisticated lyrical references usually play to urban audiences, but his set was the weekend’s most anticipated, and he did not disappoint.
The artist who preceded him, Madeleine Peyroux, also had a way with the French language and aesthetic. Leading her band through torch songs that harked back to the ’30s and ’40s, her set was like butter. Each piece seemed like it was in the same time signature, and between the two of them, they set an elegant tone for the evening.
Earlier, balladeer Dougie MacLean gave us evocative visual portraits of his native Scotland land (bracing after a week of 90-degree days), and Peter Himmelman mixed a few catalog chestnuts with improvisational whimsy — devising a setlong musical joke about an audience member who answered his mid-song query “Does anybody need anything” with “I need a beer!” and goading the audience to form a daisy chain that lapped around the festival grounds.
Of the three days’ lineups, Saturday’s appealed to me least. Ostensible headliner Don McLean and his iconic, interminable “American Pie” promised little but memories (for some); the wailing electro-blues of Susan Tedeschi and J.J. Grey and Mofro were more contemporary and precisely crafted, but not my style. I nearly stayed home.
But no day at Folks Fest is without its pleasant surprises. A late afternoon set by Over the Rhine was my own find of the festival (never mind that this act has been around for 15 years). With downbeat affinities to Cowboy Junkies and soft-rock singer Jann Arden, Karin Bergquist’s soaring vocals carried songs such as “Ohio” and “Suitcase” that dripped with emotion, backed surely by husband Linford Detwiler and touring musicians. We don’t hear Over the Rhine much in these parts, but I hope they’ll be back soon.
It was a good day to consider the kiddie-magnet sand spit known as “the beach,” and the longer shore of the St. Vrain River that borders the festival grounds. With tall cliffs rising from the riverbank on the far side, the Planet Bluegrass festival site (Rockygrass is also hosted there) is arresting.
Children and adults built intricate river cairns, plunked down festival chairs in the river (no more than ankle-deep in many spots) and tubed past the new, large-scale “Where the Wild Things Are” cutouts. Despite spots of rain each day, foul weather didn’t define the festival as it had during the downpour-infused 2008 festival.
The gorgeous natural features produced a scare Friday evening, when a woman scaling a cliff face for a better view fell nearly 25 feet to a landing about two-thirds of the way up. Though her injuries were not life-threatening — she broke a leg, according to stage announcements — the rescue operation to get her off the cliff landing was extraordinarily involved, involving a makeshift rope-system setup and taking more than two hours.
For fans of roots music’s new frontiers, Sunday was the festival’s best day. Classically training cellist Ben Sollee was a highlight; he segued from an opening suite into something more sharp-edged, plucking the strings percussively and displaying impressive vocal and emotional range. Then Portland’s Blind Pilot gave us a low-key indie take, evoking a freight train passing through small towns.
Perhaps the day’s best was by another Portland native, M. Ward, whose set began as inscrutably as his name suggests, and who revealed more of himself as he progressed. Devising complexly layered acoustic guitar lines, Ward had help from Sunday headliners Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (who I missed, but who were fine last I’d seen them.)
It was after Ward’s set that I headed over to the “Wildflower Pavilion” for the meditation. Once we’d received our instructions, the assembled monks let loose an otherworldly series of hums and chants.
When finally my mind began to be lured beyond my brain’s working orders, the humming stopped. “Good evening,” we were told, and sent on our way. The meditation lasted only the length of a song, and it was time for another song to begin.
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Jeremy Simon is a Lafayette freelance writer and regular contributor to Reverb.
Brian Carney is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb.
MORE PHOTOS: Gillian Welch/David Rawlings, Joe Pug, Bret Dennen, Ben Sollee, Over the Rhine, Peter Himmelman, Susan Tedeschi, Vance Gilbert, Amy Speace, Sweet Talk Radio, Blind Pilot, Mary Gauthier, Will Hoge, Rufus Wainwright, Mary Gauthier, Mia Dyson, Drepung Monks and others.