By Miranda Brooks
Folk music is not for enjoyment. Folk music is meant to be endured. The dry humor of that sentiment rang true as players and listeners alike gathered atop Reservoir Hill to celebrate Pagosa Springs’ 18th Annual Four Corners Folk Festival. Laid upon the daily duties of the modern day working (wo)man, was the warm blanket of an ever evolving genre that still stands fully and reasonably undefined. I traveled alone with no agenda but my own. With rested eyes and an eagerness to last the miles, the festival even fulfilled some unknown expectations.
The ease of the festival grounds made the family affair ever more endearing. The very short trek from my campsite to the late night pavilion seemed like a luxury even Telluride could not provide.
Baskery bathed the crowd in delight as the three sister act spun their own version of folk; a genre untapped and apparently non-existent in their home country of Sweden. Named after the town of their father’s birth, Baskery played its fiddle, bass, banjo and kick drum with fever and a slight ‘we do yet we don’t give a fuck’ charm. The girls’ blonde hair and high legs did not hurt the matter any. The vocal-only interludes of coos were enchanting as rhythms were provided without beats.
An industrious seven-piece outfit from Illinois, The Giving Tree Band seemed to have a style all their own. Presented under the classification of rock and roll, it was true indie-folk that I experienced. The multi-instrumental exchange and high energy of the boys quickly skirted the seated audience aside to make way for the folks on their feet. Bringing more than a girl could ask for, and with all bases covered, the band played the mando with keys, banjo, bass, guitar, beats, slide and steel for days. An epic rendition of “I Shall Be Released” may have been the best I ever heard; warmly desperate and bright with emotion.
An early rise and run down Reservoir Hill landed me at The Springs Resort & Spa just in time to beat the crowds and the sun; a soak and a shower seemed like the only natural way to start my first full festival day.
Before hitting the main stage, I was sidelined by the workshops of the morning. Nestled among the trees and only feet from fellow campers, the workshop tent provided an intimate and all-inclusive acoustic stage for artists to relate to an inquisitive audience; where songwriting techniques and creative processes were discussed alongside performances.
The layout of the festival grounds made so much sense; the food vendors were positioned in a small round-a-bout upon entrance, with one fully-staffed beer booth midway down along the lawn which overlooked the main stage and its massive tent that provided protection from the sun and rain. Textile and jewelry and other miscellaneous merchants were marketed together and found within short reach.
Aoife O’Donovan had a smile on her face the length of her performance. Reminiscent of Gillian Welch, she sang roaming songs of trials, troubles and tribulations with an honest traditional Americana style. The Northeast native was humble and seemed to be having a tremendous amount of fun as she related easily to the crowd between takes and gave many thanks for the opportunity to share the afternoon with us. And with a closing cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “Love Letter,” when push came to shove, O’donovan solidified a standing ovation.
The Wood Brothers were, as anticipated, a true highlight. The Boulder-born bros heavily promoted their latest album The Muse, produced by Nashville great Buddy Miller. They ripped open on electric for “Postcards From Hell” and during “Give It One More Day,”Chris Wood laid down his bass and proceeded to dance as slow and steady and sexy as the great Elvis. Giving way then to lower volume songs, the guys played their more well-known “Luckiest” and covers of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Payday” and “Pallet On Your Floor.” “We don’t do this for the living. This living is pretty meek. We do this because we have to,” Oliver Wood said in a somber tone. “Because we aren’t good at anything else,” Chris Wood chimed. A simple statement to put things into perspective as the men explained their tight schedule of flying in and out within hours just for their 70 minute set.
John Hiatt & the Combo played to the diminishing sun. His easy going set included “Have A Little Faith In Me” and “Riding With The King.”The group played “Thing Called Love” and drew out the lyrics – to express in true mid-western blues form – “are you ready for this messy, messy, heavy thing called loved?” I think the answer was a defiant yes.
(Sunday morning I woke to find a message on my phone that a friend had died. Later, I sat under the main stage tent listening to music and taking notes as I cried. “You can be all kinds of emotional.” – The Lone Bellow)
Travis Book of The Infamous Stringdusters and Sarah Siskind make up the married duo Sunliner. Having formed recently and with plans to expand into a four-piece band, the two sang songs primarily from Siskind’s catalogue. Covered, an album created nearly 10 years ago alongside legend Bill Frisell, has finally been shown the light after its lengthy time steeped on the shelves. The couple recalled their meeting in Pagosa Springs during a late night set a few years back and spoke fondly of their affection for the town and the festival.
Slaid Cleaves was a standout for me. He dug deep in the bag of ‘old time’ as he incorporated yodeling seamlessly with topics of pawn shops, jail time and bar rooms. Based in Austin, Texas, Cleaves explained the long road traveled as a songwriter with humorous stories about the antics of receiving inspiration. “I Ain’t Got No Home'” was a sincere nod to Woodie Guthrie’s withstanding genius.
Nederland’s own Elephant Revival was a crowd favorite as they were ever present through the weekend, performing a workshop Saturday afternoon before closing down the late night pavilion. Their main stage performance was sweetly subdued as high grass met low valley Appalachia with a Celtic tradition. The band stood modestly to show their position at the forefront of a new bluegrass movement. They snuck in a CCR cover that came just in time for the rain. The band promoted their latest efforts These Changing Skies, an album produced by Sally Van Meter.
Brooklyn-based The Lone Bellow had me at “Angel From Montgomery” and did me in with “Slip Sliding Away.” Their songs, with breath taking harmonies, ranged from topics of love and loneliness to dancing in circles around love and loneliness. Their sound, albeit pleasing and entertaining, was not as original as their lyrics. “You Never Need Nobody” was a standout composition. I appreciated their passion but with such strong comparison to Mumford and Sons, the Avett Brothers and the Lumineers mixed with Lady Antebellum, my attention easily turned to grass-side conversation.
Performing since the age of nine, to call fiddler Natalie MacMaster a pro may be an understatement. She was joined on stage by husband Donnell Leahy and six year old son Michael Joseph. She moved with ease on stage, hardly ever seated, as song after song was delivered with perfection. Outside of the main tent, in the open field with no cover, the summertime rain fell and the people danced their very best river jig. It was heart fulfilling.
My unknown expectations were met as music proved, once more, to provide an unparalleled vehicle to explore; to present ourselves as we are, or in ways as never before.
This was my first trip to Pagosa, but not my last.