Rocky Mountain Folks Festival 8.18 - 8.20.17

Planet Bluegrass
Lyons, CO

Words & Photos by Ty Hyten

As US-36 transformed from highway to city street to a scenic bicycle-lined road along the gold and green foothills, a feeling of peace sunk in. For the three days to follow, the only thing left for me to do was to pitch a tent, get a wristband, and soak in music, in or around the Saint Vrain River.

The beauty of the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival is both in the scenery and tempo. With one mainstage, fifteen minute breaks between sets, and nice, lengthy one-hour plus sets from every artist, there’s no rushing around for fear of missing something. If you need a beer, go grab one. If you want to dip in the river, there’s plenty of time for that too. In fact, some of the most prime spots for taking in the music are in a stretch of shallow water, just right of the stage, that festival-goers fill with camping chairs. There are camping spots along the river and if you get hungry for breakfast, you can walk into the tiny downtown of Lyons.

The 27th Annual Folks Fest began peacefully. After I pitched my tent and exchanged hellos with a couple of friendly strangers, I walked into a set from Scottish singer-songwriter Rachel Sermanni. Like many of the artists over the weekend, Sermanni spent the first half of the week at The Song School, a four day sleepaway camp of sorts for songwriters to hone and share their craft.

Up on the massive ship-like mainstage at Lyon’s Planet Bluegrass, Sermanni’s acoustic set was haunting and beautiful. Her songs felt traditional and contemporary at once – a ghostly old soul channeled through a young woman. Songs like “The Fog,” “Ferryman,” and “Sleep” sucked the daylight from the scorching afternoon sun and transported me into a gorgeous fog, somewhere else. This was accompanied and offset by Sermanni’s delightfully dry sense of humor and genuine gratitude to be sharing her songs with the large, captive audience.

During pauses in the set, children could be heard playing in the river – stacking stones, tubing, and splashing. The temperatures and the sun of the day were brutal all three days, so parents and artists alike took to the river as a refreshing respite from the shirt soaking heat. The river was gentle, but fast and a tube ride was a necessary activity.

The pinnacle of the festival arrived on the first evening, with a man I consider one of Colorado’s treasures, though his career has planted him firmly in the national and international hearts at this point. Gregory Alan Isakov and his talented band of hometown heroes delivered a powerful, transformative set. After the dark of night fell, Isakov took the captive audience along with him into a deep well of place, time, and emotion – transmitted as sound. He is a master of the songwriting craft. His songs gave me goosebumps, and competing emotions of heartfelt joy and deep sorrow tugged back-and-forth at one another, leaving me somewhere between a full smile and tears. Songs like “Liars” and “This Empty Northern Hemisphere” built to great waves, washing through the expansive 4,000 person crowd, breathing energy into festival sun beaten bodies.

The festival could have ended right then and there and I would have be the most content I’d been in weeks, but the energy of the show rolled out into the campgrounds, volkswagen campers, and into two more nights of fantastic shows.

As the sun rose on Saturday, children played loudly as though they hadn’t a clue what waking to screaming at 7AM feels like for a man who had stained his teeth purple during the latter half of his favorite artist’s set the night prior. The sun also wasted no time turning a cheap tent into a toaster oven. It was clear that the time had come to wrestle with an ill-fitted air mattress pump and some cheap tubes and float the St. Vrain.

The morning atmosphere on the festival grounds was that of a comfortable neighborhood. Strangers smiled and good mornings were exchanged. On the mainstage, I found Australia’s The Mae Trio, on their first US tour. Their three-part harmonies were beautiful and turned what I thought would be a quick couple of songs into a permanent seat. Their gorgeous pop bluegrass and Australian wit made a new fan out of me.

North Carolina duo Mandolin Orange was another highlight of day two. Their Americana-melding music is both sweet and approachable while still being lyrically substantial. Songs like “Gospel Shoes” and “Wildfire” were remarkably poignant in the current climate in this country and packed a strong message atop gentle mandolin tremolos. While they typically travel as a duo, they played on the mainstage with a full band. Many of the band members were on the recording of their latest album, Blindfaller, and breathed that same life into their live set.

One of the biggest surprises of the day was Loudon Wainwright III. The prolific singer-songwriter, actor, and funny-man is a fantastic songwriter. The humor in many of his songs is subtle, but his humor on stage at Folks Fest was even stronger than the melodies of classics like “The Swimming Song.” Those who weren’t familiar with his folks songs, may have recognized him from on screen appearances in movies like Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, M*A*S*H, or The Aviator.

Thankfully, Wainwright’s contract must not have made too many demands on keeping it clean for the hundreds of children in the audience. He got off to an early start, sharing with the kiddos the importance of saying “fuck you dad!” every now and then. His material, often lighthearted but brilliant, touched on topics such as sex, divorce, “that bitch Susy, at the Durango airport,” and his regiment of old man meds on the funniest song of the set, “My Meds.” Loudon’s irreverence delivered some true belly laughs and his honesty and sense of humor about growing old were comforting. In a tribute to his late father, an editor at Life Magazine, Wainwright read a long obituary for a dog that his father had written. It was a little bizarre for a concert, but entertaining nonetheless. He gave me hope for still having some fun in my seventies.

With Saturday’s sunset came another Colorado band, Elephant Revival, that has spilled out of our four borders and gained fans from across the country. If their Red Rocks show earlier this year was a homecoming, playing Planet Bluegrass must have been like playing in the backyard. Singer Daniel Rodriguez lives just over the ridge from the venue. Their set was a jungle of grooves and excited rhythms. They have a diverse musical identity that floated on the fiddle of Bridget Law one moment, the next the warm vocals of Rodriguez. Bonnie Paine’s quivering vocals were as haunting and gorgeous as the saw she occasionally played with a bow. They were joined by special guest Josh Ritter, to cover his “Girl In The War” and were later joined by Yonder Mountain String Band’s Jacob Jolliff on Mandolin. The show was missing the aerialists that often dances above them on stage, but no entertainment value was lost. Much like Gregory Alan Isakov, they’ve found themselves at the forefront of the Colorado music scene, and for good reason.

Saturday night closed with a change of genre and a lift in energy with The Revivalists. Frontman David Shaw worked the crowd, pacing the front of the the stage, hanging his legs down and singlehandedly moving more than all of the members of the bands that preceded. Their funk inspired pop-rock ended up feeling a little more like something brewed in Southern California than their hometown of New Orleans. Though they were slightly outside of this year’s Folks Fest wheelhouse, they mostly had people feeling good and going crazy upfront.

Sunday morning’s dip into music began mostly out of curiosity. The music of Ramy Essam, an Egyptian singer-songwriter, didn’t really grab me upon first listen in the days before the festival because I couldn’t understand the words. The night before his set, I was told his backstory. Ramy was the musical voice of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. His protest performances in Tahrir Square helped fuel the opposition that toppled the Mubarak regime. His music gained fame and he paid in the form of arrest and torture. I had to give him a second chance.

Most of his set, with the exception of a great cover of John Lennon’s “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama,” was all in Egyptian. His message between songs was in English. It was a simple and true message of the power of love and protest. Even though the audience had no idea what they were singing, they felt the music and sang along. His set ended with a huge conga line of people arm in arm singing for peace, “for just one day.” It was powerful.

The scene backstage on Sunday was familial. Musicians from all over the country (and the globe) mingled, exchanging hugs and talking along the river. Artists swam alongside friends, members of Elephant Revival and Dave Rawlings Machine floated down the river in tubes, and Lake Street Dive’s Rachael Price stopped to pose with a little girl.

One of my favorite parts of the day was an acoustic performance by Josh Ritter. Josh’s big smile and all-American aw-shucks demeanor was contagious. The absence of his usual band, ended up allowing him to drive the songs with just an acoustic guitar, laying focus on his craft of telling great stories through song. Upbeat newer songs like “Getting Ready to Get Down” and “Showboat” were naked, but still bursting with energy. “Idaho” and “Best for the Best” were bare and heartfelt. “Snow Is Gone” was a personal highlight, even without the drums to pickup up the beat for the chorus, the song soared; Ritter’s arm was madly strumming with a big ‘ol smile on his face.

Lake Street Dive did what The Revivalists had done the night prior and pumped a sudden burst of energy into the crowd. Rachael Price’s sultry vocals paired with the blast of Mike Olsen’s trumpet snapped people out of a blanket coma and drew them into the night. Mike Calabrese’s drumming helped get shoulders moving and heads shaking upfront. Their performance drew me from the sidelines of casual fandom to full on swimming in the pool.

The long, wonderful weekend came to an end with the Americana supergroup that is Dave Rawlings Machine. Longtime legends and collaborators David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, were joined by Willie Watson, formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show, Brittany Haas, formerly of Crooked Still, and Paul Kowert, of the Punch Brothers. Rawlings, Welch, and Watson each took turns leading on their own songs, including Welch’s “Look At Miss Ohio,” and Rawlings’ and Ryan Adams’ “To Be Young.” Watson shared a handful of covers he has recorded solo and with Old Crow, like “Samson and Delilah,” as made famous by the Grateful Dead. The set was deep with classic covers and David Rawlings’ original modern imagining of yesterday’s porch music. Rawlings’ fingers ran up and down the fretboard, frantically and evenly picking wandering leads. The band shared several songs from Rawlings outstanding new album Poor David’s Almanack as well. One of the last covers of the weekend spoke the loudest, a cover of “This Land Is Your Land.” If it was meant to or not, it was the last piece in a theme that dominated the weekend, the theme of love and inclusion. The week leading into the festival was a rough one for this country. The ideas shared on stage, the community, the peace, and the songs of the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival were a reminder that love will win, and that everything is going to be okay.

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