Over three days of perfect weather Friday through Sunday, the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary in high style, with a diverse array of musical performances from some of the masters of the singer/songwriter craft. Joe Craven, who sat in with several performers during the three days, said, “Folk is a staple, a way of sharing and being. Your stage can be anywhere.”
Folks has suffered from a perception as the red-headed stepchild of the Planet Bluegrass troika of festivals (which includes the RockyGrass and Telluride Bluegrass festivals). This weekend, Folks sold out all three days for the first time in its history. Folks had a strong lineup this year, especially the closing three acts Sunday of Richard Thompson, the Waifs and John Prine. In the process, Folks finally secured its own identity.
Liz Longley, the winner of the 2009 Songwriter Showcase at Folks, kicked the festival off Friday with a quiet, introspective set. Jonatha Brooke, sporting red, “Wizard of Oz”-style shoes, followed, paying tribute to perhaps the premier singer/songwriter in American music, Woody Guthrie. Brooke visited the Woody Guthrie archives New York, eventually recording an album, “The Works,” of unfinished Woody songs. She cobbled together “All You Got to Do Is Touch Me” from the scraps of two Woody songs, in the process making the music sound more contemporary.
Darrell Scott, who is one of the true geniuses of songwriting, played a late afternoon set that highlighted many songs from his double-CD “A Crooked Road,” including “A Father’s Song,” which Scott wrote by setting words to chords he “stole from” his father. On “River Take Me,” Scott showcased his brilliant guitar playing, alternating between fingerpicking and percussive strums. Craven and saxophonist Bob Hemenger sat in on a few songs, including a fiery “Banjo Clark.”
Tift Merritt sang with passion on her set, particularly on “Mixtape,” an ode to the lost art of making mix tapes for friends and lovers. David Wilcox followed with a set that made you feel like you were in his living room, especially on “Chet Baker’s Unsung Swan Song.”
A happier, mellower Ani DiFranco closed the set with a solo performance consisting of mostly new songs about being married and a mom. DiFranco has always had a naked honesty in her work, and the new material is no different. For those who prefer DiFranco’s more strident political style, she delivered in spades on a reworked “Which Side Are You On?,” a Pete Seeger labor song that she wrote new verses to. When she sang “It was 30 years of digging, got us in this hole, the curse of Reagonomics, has finally taken its toll,” the folk tradition seemed stronger than ever.
Folks made room for some more diversity in the lineup with the Saturday afternoon performers. Marc Cohn fired up the crowd on “Listening to Levon,” a song about hearing Levon Helm and the Band for the first time. Cohn’s latest release, “Listening Booth: 1970″ spotlights hits from that year, and he had fun with several of them, including a jazzy “Wild World.” Cohn’s guitarist, Shane Fontayne, played a beautiful solo on the crowd favorite “Walking in Memphis.”
Jenny Lewis rocked out the afternoon with a rambunctious and unpredictable set. “Jack Killed Mom” seemed part country, part punk, while “See Fernando” had a rocking chorus. Lewis either sat at the piano or strutted around the stage whooping it up to the delight of the crowd.
Folks favorite Greg Brown came out with a much mellower set that seemed to meld perfectly with the twilight by the river, particularly on “44 & 66,” with its lyric “66’s a long old jet plane, goin’ to a folk festival.”
Swell Season closed Saturday with a high energy folk-punk set. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova showcased stunning harmonies on “Buzzin’ Fly” and “Into the Mystic.” Fiddle player Colm Mac Con Iomaire got the stage to himself for a hypnotic Irish air called “The Court of Newtown,” and the band rocked out on “When Your Mind’s Made Up.”
Sunday kicked off with a banjo gospel set from Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck. Washburn’s vocals on “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” had a heavenly sweetness to them.
Craven found the musical truth to variety of instruments, including fiddle, mandolin, a colander, a tin bowl and other kitchen appliances. He said he was giving himself an “extreme folk makeover.” Whether it was “O Susanna” or “In the Pines,” Craven rapped out new, seemingly impromptu words before using a traditional chorus as an anchor.
Michelle Shocked brought out several local musicians, including Dobro player Sally Van Meter and banjo player Sally Truitt, to help her re-imagine her 1992 album “Arkansas Traveler.” Shocked mixed in some intimate personal stories, such as being friended on Facebook by the guy who stood her up on her senior prom, or introducing “Prodigal Daughter” by telling how she made peace with her mom 25 years after leaving home.
On a weekend of superlative musicianship, Richard Thompson stood out as a master of his craft. On “Sunset Song,” I could feel my jaw hitting the grass as Thompson’s fingers moved like lightning. Thompson showed a dry sense of humor on “Hamlet (Dog Eat Dog in Denmark),” and dedicated “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” to the late Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny.
The Waifs, who were introduced as “Planet Bluegrass family,” stood up to the challenge of following Thompson with a brilliant set that brought many to their feet dancing. Whether it was newer songs like “sundirtwater,” the wry delivered-with-a-wink “Feeling Sentimental,” or old favorites like ‘Fisherman’s Daughter,” the Waifs high-energy set was a joy. Vocalist Donna Simpson celebrated her 40th birthday, and had a cake delivered to her onstage at the end of the set.
American treasure John Prine closed the Folks Festival with a mellow set that enraptured the listener. Prine does more with three chords than any performer on the planet. Even his “bad songs,” such as “Fish and Whistle,” which Prine said he wrote as “the worst song ever” to get back at a record producer who insisted he needed another song for an album, are genius. He dedicated a slower, more desperate “Angel from Montgomery” to Bonnie Raitt, and his slower, solo rendition of “Sins of Memphisto” showed off Prine’s delicate fingerpicking. Shocked joined Prine on the encore, the classic “Paradise.”
Follow Reverb on Twitter! Here!