:: RockyGrass ::
:: July 25-27, 2014 ::
Photos by Josh Elioseff
Words by Jonathan Dowdell
Emotions were running high at the 42nd Rockygrass festival, the first major event at Planet Bluegrass since the September 2013 flood that ravaged the small mountain community of Lyons, Colorado. In the 10 months since the flood, hundreds of volunteers from near and far pitched in to bring the Planet back to life with one common goal in mind: make sure all of the necessary repairs would be made in time for RockyGrass.
While strolling down Main Street, one might not realize the devastation that occurred in the early morning hours last fall, when the warning sounds echoed through the canyons. It was a nightmare the residents of Lyons never thought they would have to live through. The community is still looking down a long road to recovery. But this weekend, with the storefronts open and the smiling faces ready to welcome the Festivarians who traveled both near and far, it was evident that the town of Lyons was ready to kick off another festival season with a sense of renewal.
Fresh off their triumphant victory in the band competition at the 2013 festival, local outfit The Railsplitters kicked off the 42nd annual RockyGrass. In hindsight of what happened it almost seemed fitting that the first set of the weekend would be a hometown band. Consisting of Boulder area residents Lauren Stovall (guitar and vocals), Pete Sharpe (mandolin and vocals), Leslie Ziegler (upright bass and vocals), Christine King (fiddle and vocals) and Lyons, Colorado’s own Dusty Rider (banjo, pedal steel and vocals), The Railsplitters set the tone for the joy that Rockygrass has brought to the Front Range for many, many decades, as well as the rebirth that was an especially poignant theme this year. Introducing the song “There Is A Time”, singer/guitarist Lauren Stovall commented on how a few verses have taken on a new meaning in light of last year’s disaster. When she sang, “Time is like a river flowing/Wiith no regrets as it moves on/Around each bend the shining morning/And all the friends we thought were gone,” those in attendance could feel the sense of release with the power of her words.
Abigail Washburn and her musical contemporary and husband Bela Fleck graced the RockyGrass stage for the first time since the Sparrow Quartet played in 2008. Performing as a banjo duet and also as a banjo quartet for a tune by adding Noam Pikelny and Tony Trischka, the sweet sounds of their instruments reverberated off the red rock walls above the St. Vrain River. The four pickers plucked their way through the old standard “Banjo Picking Girl”, each accomplished player taking turns picking for those in the crowd.
As Bela noted during Friday night’s set, “So much has been done [to Planet Bluegrass]but nothing has changed.” RockyGrass has always had a feeling of family and acceptance. You can walk the grounds and see strangers sharing tarps, families in the kid’s tent creating art projects, new friendships beginning in the lengthy line for Sister’s dumplings, or just beaming Festivarians standing in the river, cooling their core temperature in the high altitude sun while beautiful music is being created on stage. As if to mark that point, a brilliant rainbow stretched over the canyon at one point during their set.
Two musical powerhouses hit the stage for the headlining spot on Friday evening. Ricky Skaggs, no stranger to the Planet Bluegrass family, performed with his band Kentucky Thunder and was joined on stage by Bruce Hornsby on piano and vocals. Opening their set with a blazing “How Mountain Girls Can Love”, Skaggs and Hornsby set the tone for their set of traditional bluegrass songs, including a reworking of Hornsby’s “The Way It Is” that pleased the Festivarians in attendance in the dark recesses of Planet Bluegrass. Ending their set with a cover of the Rick James funk jam “Superfreak” brought the house down and the raucous crowd left night one of RockyGrass smiling, knowing that they had two more days of fun to come.
Saturday morning opened with the high energy of Pert Near Sandstone. Hailing from the Twin Cities, the boys in Pert Near were a jolt of (un)traditional bluegrass. Their music brings about thoughts of rambunctious frolicking through dusty alleyways in a small town, which was evident as their set progressed; you could see more and more people ascending on the designated dancing area to enjoy their infectious spirit. To get a sense of how hard these Midwestern boys were working in the early morning sun in the Rockies all you had to do was look at clogger Andy Lambert, sweating and smiling through ‘bouts of catching his breath and acclimating to the high altitude.
Trying to follow Pert Near Sandstone would be hard, but with Town Mountain on deck for the lunchtime set, they quickly made it known that those planted on their tarps wouldn’t be going far. Merging the sounds of Asheville, North Carolina mountains with those of the Colorado Front Range peaks, Town Mountain didn’t let the dancer’s dust settle for long. From their stellar cover of the Bruce Springsteen song “Fire,” with amazing harmonies that drove to the heart of the song’s unrequited love to their rollicking original “Dead Man’s Cove,” the quintet most certainly made their mark on the festival and made sure that you would see them on that stage in the coming years.
A highlight of Saturday was the reunion of Uncle Earl. Formed by Lyons resident KC Groves, the return of the g’earls to the Planet Bluegrass stage was one of the most highly anticipated sets of the weekend. KC was joined on stage by Abigail Washburn on banjo, Kristin Andreassen on guitar and clogging, Rayna Gellert on fiddle and Erin Youngberg on bass. It had been many years since this lineup of Uncle Earl had performed together but after hearing the songs, harmonies and musicianship, it felt like it had been just yesterday. Groves mentioned that, when their RockyGrass reunion was first announced, they had reached out to fans for requests for their set list. One of their friends, John Wood, had requested their cover of the Bob Dylan song “Wallflower.” Wood, a joyful and big-hearted fixture of the Front Range bluegrass scene, had passed away suddenly at Telluride this year. The g’earls dedicated the song to his memory, a moving moment for the close-knit community that surrounds this festival.
Alison Krauss and Union Station closed out the night, displaying their expert musicianship and the beautiful harmonies of Krauss and guitarist Dan Tyminksi. Tyminksi’s warm timber enraptured the crowd under the starry Colorado night, setting the stage for the solidarity of late night revelry in the campgrounds.
Sunday morning opened with a highly anticipated, and what would be prove to be a deeply cathartic, set – The Watergirls, an all female string band of Lyons musicians, born in the wake of the flood. Featuring KC Groves, Sally Truitt, Enion Pelta-Tiller, Lauren Ling, Cynthia Renwick and Monica Whittington, The Watergirls owned the traditional Sunday morning gospel set. The flood of 2013 affected each member in different ways, with one losing their home and another answering the calls to bring friends to safety. The Watergirls performed songs of positivity and acceptance, love and kindness in their hour plus set, bringing tears of joy, sadness and heartfelt trust in the human spirit to the captivated crowd.
Fiddle player Enion Pelta-Tiller lost her home and possessions in the flood, one of those items being a stand-up acoustic bass that belonged to her brother, who passed away 8 years ago. Pelta-Tiller had no hope for its survival, as the storm had all but completely destroyed it. Her friends in town had other thoughts on their mind. Groves had contacted luthier Lonny Lewis in hopes that he could repair it for her. After taking one look at a picture of the destroyed bass his only response was, “Are you kidding me?” However, after 9 months of tireless work, he repaired the instrument and was in attendance to present to her the refurbished bass. It was impossible to not be moved by Pelta-Tiller’s genuine surprise and speechless appreciation in seeing a treasured piece of family history returned.
Groves brought out a host of special guests during the course of the gospel set. Bela Fleck, Sally Van Meter and all the members of Uncle Earl joined in for a beautiful rendition of “Keys of the Kingdom.” Even with much of Lyons seemingly back to normal there are still those who have yet to return home. Groves underscored that point by bringing fellow musicians/friends/neighbors Terry Kishiyama and his son, David Tiller, Enion Pelta-Tiller and their son Aesop, Gary McCrumb and Brian Schey, all local musicians who lost their homes. Taking turns on vocals, Tiller, Schey and Kishyama reminded us all that despite whatever hardships may come our way, we can still smile for what we have.
Closing out The Watergirls set was the Sally Truitt-penned song “Little Rain,’ written in the weeks following the flood. This is a powerful song about not only what happened, but also what is currently happening in Lyons. The beautiful refrain says it all: “You can change our land around/You can keep all that you found/You can watch us stand our ground/But you can’t take our town.”
If The Watergirls owned the heart of the weekend, Darol Anger’s Big Chill most certainly brought the most humor and levity. Anger has been a mainstay at Rockygrass for many years and the only thing missing from his set this year was his top hat as he acted as a ringleader to the madness on stage. With a rotating lineup of Mollie O’Brien, KC Groves, Kristin Andreassen and Enion Pelta Tiller, Darol conducted his way through 60’s rock and pop hits including “Dancing in the Streets,” “Drive My Car” to “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” “You Really Got Me,” and, finally, a crowd sing-a-long of “Hey Jude.”
Planet Bluegrass favorites Hot Rize, performed songs from both their classic catalog and from their forthcoming album, their first in 24 years. Their set was relaxing and full of the old time harmony and near perfect instrumentation their audience has grown to expect from a band of this caliber.
Closing out the weekend in a boisterous fashion was The Sam Bush Band. Tipping his cap many times to the music of John Hartford, bridging the contemporary and the old school, Sam Bush brought the crowd to their tired feet during his almost two-hour set. Bush’s crowd-pleasing stage presence and his arsenal of musical compadres ended RockyGrass on a merry note.
Many things have changed in the year since the last festival. Families have been displaced, homes destroyed and even the Planet itself has gone through a major overhaul. Everyone in this community lost something in the flood, and for many in Lyons, healing, rebuilding and returning home is a complex and ongoing situation. But what we didn’t lose was each other. As the first of three festivals this summer, Rockygrass marked not only the rebirth of Planet Bluegrass, but also served as a celebration of the close-knit musical community that makes Lyons unique.