Planet Bluegrass can add another extraordinary weekend to their list of performances, as Folks Fest proved to be a great success. Tickets sold out early. In the days leading up to the festival, I heard many people wish they had a ticket and could go – not without good reason. This year’s lineup was loaded with musical treasure.
Folks Fest began on Friday with the songwriter showcase, where songwriters from all over the country came to compete. It was a great showing of new and upcoming talent, which I am sure made choosing the winner a very difficult decision for the judges. The first place winner, Robby Hecht, was given a cash prize and presented with a brand new Taylor guitar by Andy Lund, of Taylor guitars.
Caleb Hawley was the first performer to grace the main stage with his presence. He won last year’s songwriters showcase, and was no doubt delighted to be playing the main stage this year. His music is a blend of genres – folk, blues, rock and jazz – and full of energy. He plays and sings with passion, building his songs up energetically, while his band follows him without a hitch. His smooth finger picking on the quieter, mellow songs was satisfying and reminded me at times of an early Richard Thompson. However, at times his words were difficult to understand. I would have liked to have heard his lyrics more clearly, but overall I loved what he brought to the stage.
Next up, Holly Near stepped onto the stage and opened with a nearly unaccompanied intro that caused people to stop what they were doing, listen, and enjoy the build into full accompaniment through the duration of the song. She has the cute charm of a country girl, and her vocals are, at times, akin to the old time Appalachian singers; a clear, raw tone, with an unaffected simplicity. “Peace Becomes You” struck me as reminiscent of songs like “Georgia on My Mind”, with its soulful piano and smooth vocals to still your soul, while other songs like the gospel infused “I Ain’t Afraid” roused the audience onto their feet, and got them clapping and moving with the beat. She moves through the music like a veteran of the folk industry, which comes as no surprise considering she helped pave the way through the folk movements of the 60’s and 70’s. The influences of those she worked with during those times, such as Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez, can be heard in every song she does. Her heart for activism and passion for people was evident, and her belief in music being a force of great, positive change was ever-present in her passionate, poignant lyrics.
Justin Townes Earle defies category. His blend of rockabilly, ragtime blues, and old country rock is engaging to the ear, especially the ragtime. He plays ragtime and blues on that guitar of his like it is woven into the very fiber of his being. At times it is incredible how much sound and rhythm he can create from a single guitar. Lyrically he is candid and emotional. You can feel the essence of a tortured soul in both the lyrics and his delivery of them. The audience clearly enjoyed his performance, pressing for an encore at the end, which he gladly offered.
Dawes. What a great set! These guys came on and reenergized the audience with their lively personalities, exceptional playing, and their tight vocal harmonies. Each one of the four members is extremely proficient on their instruments (Of course, do we expect any less at Folks Fest?) and because of this, they are able to create interesting layers and textures in their sound, and flow tightly through the transitions. I was pleased at their ability to gather great power and energy for their upbeat songs, and then move into a slower, more lyrical ballad without sacrificing any of that energy – think “A Little Bit of Everything.” You could really hear the influences of bands like Mumford & Sons, My Morning Jacket and a little bit of Jackson & Brown in their tunes. Their lyrics are very relevant and most anyone can relate on some level. I think this is a big part of what makes them so likable to the audience. They were rewarded at the end with the first standing ovation of the festival.
Kathleen Edwards… simply beautiful. Everything about her music is beautiful, from the delicate then driving guitar playing, to the band backing her up, to her sweet voice that just carries you off to some higher place. She has this unaffected way about her, an authenticity that was often raw, honest and exposed, especially in songs like “House Full of Empty Rooms.” Her voice felt like the ocean – vast, deep, and mesmerizing; like you could drink it all in and still not find the end. This voice coupled with her refreshingly heartfelt lyrics, simply draws people in. Add to that her sweet confidence and lack of pretention with the crowd and she’ll have you wrapped around her little finger in no time. The band was surprisingly full and multi-faceted, especially considering they had no drum or bass in the mix. The fact that they were all multi-instrumentalists certainly helped in this, as well as their clear chemistry as a trio. This power was clear when it began to downpour: though some people in the audience moved to drier places, a great number of people stayed and endured the rain so as to not miss a moment. This is an artist I would highly recommend going to see next time she’s in town.
Iron & Wine. Whether the band was backing him or he was on stage solo with only a guitar and microphone, Sam Beam filled our hearts with his sound. When he sings, you can feel all the pent up passion being released. His percussive style of playing the guitar is engaging to listen to and really helps drive his songs forward, not to mention that it perfectly complements that passion you can hear in his voice. He has a very down-to-earth, grounded way about him, and the audience and I found him to be quite funny. The musicians on stage with him were all very gifted and moved fluidly together through the music. However, his duo and solo pieces were definitely where Sam shined the most – where he could truly showcase his talent, ability, versatility and passion. At times the music had a very high energy rock feel to it, at other times it was mellower and more folk inspired, creating a really sweet contrast. I want to mention one instrument I really enjoyed hearing incorporated into some of the songs: the clarinet. It is rare to hear clarinet incorporated into this genre of music, but I found it to be a perfect addition in its warmth and timbre. I would love to see Iron & Wine again, hopefully with more solo and duo pieces by Sam.
Saturday morning arrived bright and sunshiny. The running of the tarps tradition was great fun and quite competitive for those who took part in it. Many families showed up. It was a wonderful opportunity to expose the children to quality music. Though the creek was lower than usual, there was no lack of pleasure provided by it, as was evident by the lack of frowns. Perhaps the low water levels actually helped in this aspect. People brought down camp chairs and settled themselves right in the middle of the creek. Many built cairns out of river rocks and splashed themselves with the cool water. Folks Fest is unique in the way it possesses the cozy feel of a small town family festival, while at the same time providing the quality of music you would expect in a large concert venue.
The day started off with the lovely vocals and guitar of Gretchen Peters, then Girlyman took the stage with their creativity and harmonies. Their vocal intonation was not always perfect, but for the most part they really took it home with their 3-part harmony on songs like “Michelangelo” and “Supernova”. They incorporated a few covers of songs including a fun and lively version of “Stayin’ Alive” that won the hearts of the audience. The group was an overall hit with the crowd.
Following Girlyman was songwriter Richard Shindell. His songs are story songs about life, about people, about the world, and not only does he write from his own personal and unique perspective, but he writes from others as well; the perspective of a boy soldier going off to war, of a taxi driver in New York, the list goes on. His baritone voice, backed up by his gifted guitar playing, tugs on your heart strings. In his songs, you can feel the melancholy, the hope, the love of a soul well travelled.
One of the highlights of the afternoon, Elephant Revival, entered the stage next. “These hearts, these dreams, these webs we weave,” they sing. What about the sounds they weave? These five, talented young musicians weave such an intricate musical conversation it nearly draws the breath right out of your chest. From fast, heart pulsing tunes to haunting, mysterious, otherworldly songs, you can’t help but be mesmerized from the moment they play their first note to the moment they leave the stage. It’s impossible to define their style by any one genre as hints of bluegrass, celtic, jazz, gypsy, rock, classical, and other world music can be heard throughout their songs. Bonnie’s voice alone leaves the crowd spellbound. When they all sing together the harmonies are otherworldly. They played several songs off their newest album, Break in the Clouds. Some songs they played are currently being recorded and will be released in EP’s later this year. They did revisit their first album with “Ring Around the Moon” and Bonnie pulled out her musical saw for a cover of one of her favorite songs, “Over the River,” and they ended their show with the hauntingly beautiful “Raven Song,” a song inspired by Bonnie’s young niece. There is no question that Elephant Revival has great things in store for us. We will surely hear much more of them down the road.
Next up, on stage was Darrell Scott. This man is one of those artists who brings nothing less with him than treasure. To be able to hear him live is a gift; if you were there, count yourself lucky as you are most assuredly hearing one of the “greats.” His music, himself, and all he brings to the stage is rich with substance. If you question that, just sit still and listen for a moment – he is a true storyteller of love and life with his masterful playing, moving lyrics, and evocative, resonant vocals. One thing that struck me was how versatile and dynamic he is vocally; rich and earthy in his higher register, then growls, whispers, talks and croons in his bass, all in a unified musical way. Whether he has a guitar or bouzouki in his hands, or is sitting at the piano, his playing is exceptional. This was one of those shows during which you find yourself not wanting to leave to go to the bathroom because you don’t want to miss a single moment.
As the afternoon carried on, we got to meet Kasey Chambers. The charming little “country girl” from Australia certainly entertained the audience. Her music was quite fun and easy to listen to – the American country/bluegrass influence was impossible to miss. Her stories between songs were endearing and funny in a very unassuming way, and they offered such sweet harmonies and personality that it was hard not to love them.
During the break before Amos Lee, Madi Stratford & Linden Jackson took the stage as an impromptu ‘tweener set. The local teenagers gave a great performance, with powerful passionate vocals from Madi accompanied by Linden’s fantastic guitar playing. Their chemistry is clear. There is no limit to where they can grow and go in the music world.
Amos Lee took the stage on Saturday night amid great anticipation from a primed crowd. He met their anticipation and filled it to the brim. His music contains aspects of gospel, soul, and blues with a deep southern feel to it. His musicality on guitar and the incredible command of his soulful, down home voice meet every expectation you could ever have of him. His band followed his lead with great skill. His tender moments were so sweet, the way he crescendoed into full energy jams, like in “How Could You be So Careless”, really riveted the crowd. When he invited 11 year old Bella onto the stage, no one expected the music that would come flying out of her mandolin. Though only 11, she stood on that stage with the full confidence of a seasoned veteran, and when she played you understood why. The notes flew off that mandolin with expression, technical skill and soul. The crowd absolutely loved it. I’d even go so far as to say she was one of the highlights of that show. It was a great act to end a sun-filled Saturday.
Sunday morning music started off with In the Spirit of Woody Guthrie, then Shannon McNally and her sultry, earthy vocals serenaded the growing crowd. The Milk Carton Kids took the stage after lunch with their classic Americana sound and harmonies. Next on the lineup was what would become one of the highlights for me on Sunday: The Dunwells.
I had never heard of them before, but it didn’t take long to become a huge fan. They bring to us a blend of folk, rock and pop that is dynamic and full of energetic rhythms, lyrical passion, solid instrumentals, and tasty harmonies. The arrangement of these elements and how they are layered truly sets The Dunwells apart. It is clear that their music has been a labor of love, and one that they have spent much time perfecting. Their funny, at times almost shy, humility is endearing, and they lack the pretentiousness of a lot of young sensations. They share the stage equally – none vying for more of the spotlight. It is clear they value and respect one another for the role each plays. Absolutely go check out their album Blind Sighted Faith; it will be well worth your while.
Peter Himmelman’s performance was chock-full of fun. He’s a gifted musician and a true entertainer. He was on the stage, off the stage dancing in the crowd, interacting with people on every level – the crowd ate it up. His rock music was fun and got people on their feet and clapping their hands. At one point the band changed from style to style and time signature to time signature within one song flawlessly. Peter and his band are no doubt accomplished musicians who feed off each other and the crowd in a great way.
Peter was followed by Neko Case, a voice with a gorgeous blend of country twang and smooth crooning. Then Lyle Lovett & His Large Band took the stage. This was the moment that so many in the crowd had been waiting all weekend for. Lyle Lovett is just timeless. He and his band walked on, looking sharp in black suits, and from that moment on he held the crowd in rapt attention. Lovett is a gifted songwriter and of course, between songs he was full of funny banter and stories. His versatility is noteworthy, and his backup singers are equally as great. Arlo McCullen’s smooth voice captivated the audience, while Luke Bulla’s harmonies moved in perfect tandem. Sean Watkins was on stage with him as well. Though he seemed a bit nervous at times, he played the hell out of those guitar strings. Lovett showcased each one of his band mates, telling the crowd about them, building them up and promoting their individual ability. When they’d play solo he would just smile like a proud papa.
Toward the end of Lovett’s show, John Hagan and his cello took us on a mind bending, creative, unpredictable solo. It was surprising because though he is obviously a top notch musician on that stage, he hadn’t had any solos during the evening and had blended in to the accompaniment. But this solo was unrivaled in its creativity and musicianship. Overall, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band was a first rate concert, a true class act. “Well done” to the Folks Fest for bringing it to the lineup!
Every act was unique in its own way, but one consistency they all shared was the genuine, heartfelt authenticity they brought to the stage through their songs and personalities. Each performer embodied that in some way, and really connected with their audience in a way that felt more close to home and more intimate than that of a big pop/rock performance at a superdome with smoke and fireworks and glitter and glam. That is what makes Folks Fest special, and why we keep coming back for more.