Under threatening skies, the 21st annual Rocky Mountain Folks Festival kicked off Friday in Lyons with the annual songwriter competition. While the clouds provided a welcome respite from the normal baking heat that most festival goers experience during the afternoons, when the rains finally came during the Sweet Honey in the Rock set, it wasn’t as much fun, though in true Planet Bluegrass fashion, the crowd simply donned rain ponchos and continued to soak up the music.
Caleb Hawley, a songwriter from New York who has been attending Folks and the weeklong Song School for several years, and wrote his first-ever song while waiting in the overnight line to get into the festival, won the song competition and its concurrent prize of a new Taylor guitar and an appearance on the main stage at the 2012 Folks Festival.
The first several artists played relaxing sets punctuated by some recognizable covers. Vance Gilbert rendered a Jimi Hendrix double of “Castles Made of Sand > Little Wing,” and also played “Round Midnight,” during which he sang a fake duet between Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong.
Anais Mitchell, who displayed a mesmerizing stage presence, played perhaps the most literary-inspired set you will ever hear, showcasing songs from her CD “Hadestown,” a musical retelling of the story of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and the meeting with Hades and Persephone. She also threw in an enchanting cover of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
Livingston Taylor’s trademark understated humor was on display frequently in his songs, such as “Answer My Prayer,” which he said he wrote as a show tune with Placido Domingo’s voice in mind, thinking he would sound like him if he sang it.
The rain, which had drifted in and out during the afternoon, finally hit during Sweet Honey in the Rock’s set, with its stunning vocal harmonies providing an uplifting spirit to the afternoon, especially on a cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and the fantastic “Jesus on the Mainline.”
Martin Sexton was more than up to the task of following such amazing harmonies, opening with a yodel version of the “Star Spangled Banner.” His fingerpicking prowess on “Failure” provided a textural counterpoint to the vocal melody, while a stunning “Glory Bound” showcased his full range.
After so many singer-songwriters during the day, Brandi Carlile brought a passionate rock intensity to her closing set. A blistering take on “Folsom Prison Blues” brought everyone to their feet dancing. She even pointed out a Colorado connection to “Caroline,” which she wrote in Colorado. She also debuted a few songs, like “Promise to Keep,” and closed with a beautiful cover of “Hallelujah.”