Rocky Mountain Folks Festival 8.16 - 8.19.19

Planet Bluegrass
Lyons, CO

Words & Photos by Ty Hyten Photography

Dramatic shifts in the Colorado summer weather didn’t impede this year’s Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons. Brief and sudden downpours rolled in and soaked the crowd, rattled sun shelters, and brought strangers together in tight spaces. Ultimately, the storms blew through quickly enough not to put a damper on the buoyant atmosphere. The annual festival is set on the beautiful Planet Bluegrass grounds, a pastoral space bordered by the St. Vrain Creek. The nonchalant environment is the perfect backdrop for folk, bluegrass, country, and soul artists, both local and national. The festival lacks the scramble bouncing stage to stage, long lines, and twenty-somethings in costume. Instead, the festival has been crafted to be relaxing and family friendly. Adding to the ambiance is an impressive collection of artists who care deeply about songcraft. You can catch music from a tarp, under a sun shelter, or ankle deep in the St. Vrain.

Friday, August 16:

As festival-goers rolled in Friday, Lyon’s boy-next-door, Daniel Rodriguez, shared a mix of new songs and songs written with the recently disbanded Elephant Revival. Elephant Revivals’s Charlie Rose as well as another Lyon’s resident, Arthur Lee Land, joined Rodriguez on stage. Rodriguez’s gentle folk pop was given new legs by Land’s guitar playing, injecting something reminiscent of the Grateful Dead.

The highlight of the day came with North Carolina’s Mandolin Orange. Their deeply personal songwriting, sharp wit, and genuine vocals embodied the heart of the festival. Band member Andrew Marlin’s insouciant vocal, melodic and meandering mandolin playing paired beautifully with partner Emily Frantz’s easygoing voice. Folks Fest is no stranger to messages of equality, peace, political critique and Mandolin Orange delivered all three artfully.They played “Gospel Shoes” and “Wildfire” both beautiful examples of storytelling that highlights some of the ugliness that plagues America. They also covered Colorado hero and touring mate, Gregory Alan Isakov’s “Amsterdam;” fitting for the home crowd.

Friday ended with folk legend Ani DiFranco. Ani was a force of nature. A tight ball of energy, she bounced in front of her mic, slammed the strings in her open-tuned guitar with an infectious smile while wearing her conviction on her sleeve. The set was powered by heavy bass, love, and positive energy.

Our night cap included the Folks Fest tradition of standing in line for the tarp lottery. A cast of characters and diehards stretched the sidewalk into the venue, singing songs, and making new friends in an attempt to get first crack at the venue the following morning.

Saturday, August 17:

Saturday began with a burst of bad weather while Virginia’s The Steel Wheels served up a collection of upbeat bluegrass songs. They excellently delivered several songs in the traditional single mic style.

Portland’s Haley Heynderickx was a great surprise sandwiched in the middle of the day. Her brand of indie rock was unexpected and extremely enjoyable. Her sense of humor was dry and dulled the discomfort of the falling rain. She mentioned more than once that the band wasn’t accustomed to playing stages of that size, but I suspect they’ll have many more large stages to come. Heynderickx’s subdued voice, quirky song writing, dissonant guitar lines, and inclusion of a trombone were wonderfully melancholic and a refreshing juxtaposition with the more traditional music of the day.

Another surprise was Canadian trio East Pointers, who performed on the mainstage and a second set Sunday at the Wildflower Stage. The group blended highly polished pop vocals with rapid-fire Celtic picking and fiddling paired with digital drums. Both sets had the crowd moving in a way they hadn’t moved yet, with the Wildflower Stage bursting at the seams on Sunday.

The biggest crowd of the night was Violent Femmes whose brand of uniquely instrumented punk music had the huge crowd moving. They worked many of their big songs, including “Blister In The Sun,” “American Music,” “Please Do Not Go,” and “Day After Day.” The music was nostalgic for many, but relevant enough to connect with younger fans as well.

The evening was capped by a performance by Ben Folds. Ben only shared the stage with a gigantic Steinway grand piano. Folds energetically hammered the keys and flexed his piano prowess with masterful beautiful interludes. He played a mix of Ben Folds Five songs and his solo work. Notably, his set missed the 1997 hit “Brick,” but included hits “The Luckiest” and “Rockin’ the Suburbs.” After seeing his lighthearted and highly energetic performance, it was easy to understand all the hype I’d heard over the years about his live shows.

Sunday, August 18:

Sunday was kicked off by Colorado’s Gasoline Lollipops. Their gravelly mix of Americana and country mix was rowdy. They were the first of a long list of powerhouse bands that lit up the crowd under the perfectly sunny Sunday sun. The rivers were full of kids on tubes and wading parents.

Sunday was a display of the two most explosive acts of the festival, The War and Treaty and St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Those who packed out early missed perhaps the highlight of the festival.

War and Treaty, fronted by husband and wife Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount-Trotter, was overflowing with soul. Trotter Jr.’s musical career took off while stationed in one of Saddam Hussein’s bombed out palaces in Iraq. There he had access to a piano and was encouraged to pursue music by his superiors. When one of those superiors was killed in battle, he began songwriting, eventually returning to the states to make a full-time go at it, where he met his future wife. Both singers dramatically belted their soulful songs. Michael dramatically fell to his knees at one point. The two had musical chemistry that mirrored their transparent love for one another. They exchanged loving glances as each other wailed their parts.

St. Paul and the Broken Bones, the Alabama seven piece was the perfect entree after War and Treaty. St. Paul was deliciously soulful, powered by frontman Paul Janeway’s powerhouse of a voice and stage antics that included rolling around on the stage and destroying a bouquet of flowers that were handed to him. The crowd was on their feet well into the sea of tarps, dancing to the syruppy songs punctuated by horns. Janeway’s buttery voice over the spinning of a leslie speaker made love to the crowd.

The festival ended with a longtime friend of the festival, Josh Ritter. Ritter is touring on his new excellent album, Fever Breaks and it was a first chance for Colorado to catch the songs live. His infectious smile and beautifully written songs were the perfect way to cap a weekend based on peace and songcraft.

As tarps and camping chairs were hauled out for one last night, the weekend and summer felt complete. It was another year on the stress free and joyful grounds of Planet Bluegrass, where the bands and fans connect more on a message of peace and love, than a strict adherence to the folk genre.

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