Photos by Josh Elioseff
Review by Sheri Guyse
“You’ll like this festival,” she said to me, “because it’s intimate… not like Telluride.” I didn’t laugh directly in the stranger’s face as I leaned against the fence waiting for the familiar sound of bagpipes to announce the tarp runners, but I wanted to. The sister Planet Bluegrass offering, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, holds a special place in my heart for many reasons. Telluride is light years different than music festivals I usually frequent with their endless seas of humanity, 30-minute bathroom lines and hefty walks from stage to stage to stage. But she was correct. Rocky Mountain Folks Festival wasn’t better than Telluride, nor was it really comparable. It was a relaxing weekend of musical favorites with surprises tossed in to add the joyful element of discovering new music, delivered in a perfect postcard setting.
Usually in the Wildflower Pavilion, Ellis made her first appearance on the Friday main stage to share her vulnerable songs of love and openness. Indie pop band, Lucius, followed with a lively set that showcased the talented Holley Laessig and Jess Wolfe’s in-unison vocal performances. Colin Hay, who has been a solo artist far longer than he was ever in Men at Work, is a songwriter of considerable depth. Ever the consummate performer, he brought moving music and a steady stream of self-depreciating humor, including a charming story about meeting Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Friday night was headlined by the great Loreena McKennitt who knows just how to wow an audience.
On Saturday, Seryn, Denton, Texas-based folk rockers brought their grab-you-by-the-soul sonic harmonies that filled Planet Bluegrass Ranch with eclectic world sound and packed the stage with so many instruments one could mistake it for a geeky music shop. Band members often switched instruments throughout the set, whether that meant Chris Semmelbeck jumping off the drum kit to grab a banjo or vocalist Jenny Moscoso banging the extra floor tom that Trenton Wheeler released so he can sing into his ukelele. Yes, you read that right. Most songs were from their critically acclaimed album This is Where We Are, though we were treated to “Ivory Black” and “Kaleidoscope” which are tracks from their new album slated for release this fall.
Is there anything more engaging than watching a quick-witted Irishman manhandle a heckler with such humor and grace it seems pre-orchestrated? Foy Vance peppered his soulful set with charming anecdotes and a performance that brought festivarians to their feet with just him and his drummer, Paul Hamilton. My personal stand-out was his cover of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
A delightful Saturday surprise, and perhaps my biggest festival discovery, was Shane Koyczan and The Short Story Long. The Canadian quintet delivered a combination of music and lyrical rhythm so poignant I told the stranger next to me that if the next piece was anywhere near as good as “Stop Signs” that he would have to hold me. He wiped the tears from his eyes, too, and replied, “deal.” The power of the Saturday performance was evident the next day when the group appeared at the Wildflower Pavilion for a mid-day set with an audience so large, every bit of sitting and standing space were occupied, as was most of the space within earshot outside the pavilion. Yes, Koyczan’s words bring tears, but his words also bring deep laughter and cringes of empathy. He gets it.
Festival favorite Patty Griffin was back and as ethereal as ever, playing largely from her new album, American Kid. The night was closed out by the John Butler Trio, who I wasn’t terribly excited about seeing until I was fully immersed in the magic. Within minutes I was in awe of his seamless shifts between musical power and sing-a-long song craft. The crowd must have shared my sentiments as his seasoned trio inspired the festival to their feet for a night of singing and dancing.
Sunday began sunny – weather and music-wise – with Canadian act, Chic Gamine, and their Motown-style harmonies. The sky quickly transitioned into a gray and a steady rain-turn-drizzle, setting the scene for the beautifully melancholy Lynn Miles. Denver-native Nathaniel Rateliff captivated with honest songwriting and the fearless Ariana Gillis followed soon after.
It’s difficult to describe Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires without using the words James and Brown, but I’ll try. His set came complete with wardrobe changes, a horn section and funky flamboyances so enchanting it’s no wonder his nickname is “The Black Swan of Soul.” His deep wails and theatrical dances perfectly complemented his soulfully funktastic soulfulness. It wasn’t folk and I don’t think one person minded.
A solo Colin Meloy was a rare treat as we enjoyed a few of his songs woven into in a set mostly from The Decemberists catalog. Hearing these long-time favorites played by just him and a guitar provided for an enjoyable, stripped down show. We were able to cajole an encore from Meloy and he delivered “June Hymn” as day turned to dusk.
I wasn’t able to stay for the Sunday headliner but was properly filled in through the words of John Prine super fan John Wood. “John Prine managed to stir souls yet again, despite a rough vocal start. He brought a nugget-filled setlist, including a gorgeous rendition of the tender ballad ‘Far From Me,’ the rare ‘Maureen Maureen’ and the two killer electric rain songs (fortunately, Mother Nature held up). Punctuate that with a sweet and delicate ‘Hello In There’, a typically sweet ‘Angel From Montgomery’ and a master’s class in storytelling in the form of an exquisite ‘Lake Marie’ and you have a 90-minute Prine set with a handful of curveballs,” Wood said.
Bravo to Planet Bluegrass for delivering a wonderfully curated and executed festival. They’ve sold me on the notion that each year should include at least one trip to Lyons.