This was a year of firsts for the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado.
Most notably (and noticeably, for that matter) was the debut of Mavis Staples, the 77-year-old gospel-R&B-soul singer who still performs with an evangelist's fervor.
"Well, good evening y'all," Staples said after winding up the first delightful surprise of Saturday evening, a cover of Talking Heads' "Slippery People," which I later found out she recorded with the Staple Singers in 1984. "Now, I don't know, this is uh ... (a pause as she received some much-needed intel from one of her five band members) ... it's Lyons. I almost said Tigers. (huge laughs from the crowd)
"It's the very first time, though, for us to visit you all. (enthusiastic cheers and applause) I tell ya. And we've been wondering ... what took you so long? (more laughs and nods of the heads) ... We appreciate y'all thinking about us this time. Don't be leaving us out. You know, 'cause, we are still here." (thunderous cheers and applause)
It was my first time to see Staples as well -- what took me so long? -- and getting a chance to cover eclectic festivals such as this one finally gave me the opportunity. While photographing her performance, I couldn't resist reaching up at the front of the stage to tap her fingers as she sang "Touch a Hand, Make a Friend."
So in a year of firsts, all five of my Best of the Fest Faves led by the Marvelous Miss M, made their Rocky Mountain Folks Festival debuts over the weekend of Aug. 19-21. (Colin Meloy, lead singer-songwriter and guitarist of the Decemberists, did perform here in 2013, but without any other Decemberists.)
Promising to bring joy, happiness, inspiration and some positive vibrations, Staples said, "We want you to feel good. I don't know for how long. Just so you feel good while we're here. All right?"
There was never any question of that. Staples and her band -- guitarist Rick Holstrom, bassist Jeff Turmes, drummer Stephen Hodges and backing vocalists Vicki Randle (left) and Donny Gerrard -- complemented Staples' rock 'n' soul revue in such a way that it surely cured whatever ailed even the grouchiest of old fogies who still idolize the Muppets' Statler and Waldorf.
Staples, the subject of the recent HBO documentary Mavis! that thrust her back into the limelight, showed Folks Festival artists and spectators alike how to perform and entertain simultaneously.
Even Conor Oberst, that night's much-ballyhooed headliner, might have learned a lesson in showmanship by watching Staples' dynamite performance.
Addressing the crowd while the stage crew and his guitarist/guitar tech dealt with some technical issues three songs into his moody opening, Oberst marveled over Staples' show, even dedicating his next number, "Sausalito," to her.
Introducing the song about running away to California, the native of Omaha, Nebraska, must have felt a bit like the fictional Dewey Cox character in Walk Hard after finding out through some last-minute re-arrangements that he and his band were to follow Elvis Presley.
"California dreaming, that's what Mavis was saying. Holy shit!" Oberst remarked in amazement after serving as a close-up witness to the best and brightest performance of the festival. "... I'm embarrassed to be playing right now. It was beautiful. It made me really happy. This one's for Mavis."
Mavis Staples (right) enjoys watching electric guitarist Rick Holmstrom at work.
Proving she's as relevant as ever only an hour or so earlier, Staples sang cuts from her February release, Livin' on a High Note, produced by M. Ward, that included the work of contemporary artists such as Bon Iver's Justin Vernon ("Dedicated") and Ben Harper ("Love and Trust").
Of course, with numbers from her glory days with the Staple Singers ("Respect Yourself") or written by her father Pops Staples ("Freedom Highway"), the Grammy Award winner and crossover performer who's worked with guiding lights ranging from Bob Dylan to Wilco's Jeff Tweedy brought smiles or understanding to all generations represented.
Singing her heart out to songs identified with other artists such as "The Weight," which Mavis and the Staple Singers performed at the Band's unforgettable The Last Waltz concert, and Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" played well to a crowd still strongly connected to the '60s and '70s.
Staples admitted she's one of those "senior, senior senior citizens," but the ageless sage left the young and restless with the most insightful comment of the night, if not the entire three-day festival, while making one last trip down memory lane with a positively uplifting version of the No. 1 hit "I'll Take You There":
"I can hang with all you teeny-boppers."
So while it was impossible to top Staples' performance, several others came very close. Narrowing it down to a final four, here are my remaining festival faves (in order of appearance) among acts that graced the main stage during the three-day event. Three performed on the incredible final day, which began with Scandinavian duo My Bubba and ended with Portland, Oregon's finest, the Decemberists.
Parker Millsap (right) said he and bass player Michael Rose
have been best friends since the eighth grade.
2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20
Two years ago, after seeing him perform an AmericanaFest showcase at Nashville's Cannery Ballroom before a sweat-soaked crowd reacting like they were witnessing the second coming of Elvis, I became an unflinching disciple.
I'm still a believer, wondering how the hell Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton manage to steal this good ol' Okie's thunder. Millsap's latest record, 2016's The Very Last Day, is competing against Stapleton's Traveller for album of the year honors at September's Americana Music Awards, but they'll both likely lose to favorite son Jason Isbell. And that's OK.
But Millsap deserves a huge piece of Americana pie. I can only imagine what "the King" was like when he was 23 years old (before he got drafted), but I'm guessing the country boy charm, the charisma, the looks and the singing chops Millsap possesses should eventually land him in the neighborhood of Graceland, if that's the direction he wants to go.
The fast-talking, wise-cracking son of devout churchgoers known for "Truck Stop Gospel" and "OldTime Religion" opened his Folks Festival set by introducing the latest album's title cut as a song "about nuclear annihilation of the world, and I hope you enjoy it."
Backed by Tulsa drummer Paddie Ryan, upright bassist (and former professional drag racing driver) Michael Rose, Millsap's best friend since eighth grade at Purcell Junior High, and fiddler Daniel Foulks (right), the only Eagle scout in the band, the fearless foursome started their own fireworks display. Off The Very Last Day, "Hands Up" and a cover of "You Gotta Move," the slow-building blues song made popular by the Rolling Stones, were particularly explosive.
The heavy breathing during the adrenaline rush of "Hades Pleads," the album's opening number and this set's closer undoubtedly left many gasping for oxygen, though.
Elvis may have left the building long ago, but there's a new kid in town knocking on the door. Good Lord, let him lead the way so that others may truly follow.
The Accidentals' Savannah Buist (right) and her fiddle fire up the crowd
while Katie Larson (left) and Michael Dause join in on the fun.
12:15 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 21
Who starts their first set in Lyons with a drum solo? The freewheeling trio of Savannah Buist (bass, guitar, violin, vocals), Katie Larson (bass, guitar, cello, vocals) and Michael Dause (drums, guitar, backing vocals) does, at least for a sleepy audience in need of a wake-up call on a perfect summer afternoon in August.
What was that loud buzzing sound heard about an hour after these Michiganders began playing? Members of the crowd were telling late-to-the-party guests what they had just missed.
"They're gonna be around for a while," one pleased spectator sitting up front told another nodding in agreement after the Accidentals closed with "Parking Lot," a song about "being a minor" that kicks off their recent EP of the same name.
They certainly are familiar with that topic. Their combined ages (62) fall 15 years short of young-at-heart Mavis but the Accidentals bring that same positive energy.
With the exuberance of youth, though, they also play and act like seasoned professionals. Their own material ("Epitaphs," "The End," "Sixth Street") is smart and fun, and they covered Jack White ("Lazaretto"), the Beatles ("Taxman") and Rush (Dause pulling off Geddy Lee-like lead vocals on "Tom Sawyer") with equal aplomb.
It's hard to believe 21-year-old Buist, wearing a Stars Wars vest, and 20-year-old Larson (left), sporting a Darlingside T-shirt in honor of the Massachusetts-based group that was up next, are self-proclaimed "massive nerds" and introverts.
Their journey was previously covered in my recent interview with them, but needless to say Buist, Larson and Dause have thrown their version of the Millennium Falcon
-- a GMC Savana van nicknamed "Black Betty" -- into hyperdrive.
May the tour de force be with them.
The Lone Bellow's Zach Williams (left), Brian Elmquist (center)
and Kanene Pipkin harmonize while sharing a single mic.
THE LONE BELLOW
5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 21
With a leap of faith, lead singer Zach Williams turned into the ultimate frontman.
Already known for their sweet three-part harmonies on rousing numbers such as "The One You Should've Let Go" and "You Don't Love Me Liked You Used To," Williams (acoustic guitar) and core members Brian Elmquist (guitars) and Kanene Pipkin (mandolin, bass, keyboards) must have wondered what else they could possibly do to stand out on a day that included the festival's strongest overall lineup.
A couple of songs after a moving rendition of "Marietta" brought tears to the eyes of the Georgia native, Williams stood at the edge of the stage, seemingly feeling more comfortable each time he did it. Crowd-surfing was out of the question because none of the patrons in the exclusive seating area would have dared risk their lives to catch him.
So to become one with the crowd, Williams (right) jumped off the 7-foot-high stage by himself, stepping on a chair to lead the masses in song, then moving on to the fence separating the haves from the have-nots before taking the safer back entrance to reunite with his bandmates. (See a series of shots in the Lone Bellow photo gallery.)
It was quite an extraordinary act of derring-do, and one many in attendance likely won't forget for some time. As backing members Jason Pipkin (bass, keyboards) and Justin Glasco (drums) took a break, the trio settled down for an acoustic set that featured each of them on lead vocals during the serenade around a single mic.
Kalene Pipkin's "Lovely in Blue" was lovely indeed, and Elmquist's "Watch Over Us" and Williams' "Telluride" were both powerful.
The others returned for a soulful new song called "May You Be Well," that may or may not be on their next album, to be produced by Dave Cobb and scheduled for an early 2017 release.
The Lone Bellow welcomed Darlingside fiddler Auyon Mukharji onstage to help wind up the set that ended with the intoxicating "Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold" from their self-titled debut album of 2013.
No matter what happens during their steady climb, though, Williams may forever be remembered as the guy who gave them a most pivotal jump-start.
Having a whale of a good time Sunday as the closing act of the Folks Festival were (from left) Nate Query, Colin Meloy and John Moen of the Decemberists.
8:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 21
After a couple of questionable choices over the past few years to close the festival (Don McLean, Randy Newman), the Folks Fest folks certainly saved one of their best for last. The quintet that's essentially been together since the new millennium brings intelligence, creativity and, on occasion, inspired lunacy to a folk rock circle that has been known to take itself too seriously.
Colin Meloy and most of his bandmates -- Chris Funk (guitars), Jenny Conlee (keyboards, organ, piano, accordion), Nate Query (bass) and John Moen (drums) destroyed that notion the minute they and backing vocalists Kelly Hogan and Nora O'Connor walked onstage -- wearing party hats.
Other than the opening sight gag, Meloy and Co. played it fairly straight during the first hour of their well-received set that included songs from their most recent full-length albums such as 2015's What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World ("A Beginning Song," "Make You Better") and 2011's The King is Dead ("Rox in a Box," "Down by the Water").
Meloy, one of those witty songwriters who sometimes might be too smart for the room, kept his snappy chatter to a minimum, but did manage to reel off a couple of perceptive lines that elicited a few guffaws.
After "We Both Go Down Together," a jaunty song considering it's about a joint suicide, he listened carefully for a moment before saying, "It's funny because when you guys stop clapping, there's literally crickets. Funny in only an ironic way, really."
As the chirping crickets seemed to get louder, Meloy (left) went after a favorite political target in this neck of the woods.
"So I don't know if you've been watching any news lately but, oh, boy," he said. "Donald Trump has some new campaign managers and they sat him down and said, 'Donald, listen to me. You gotta listen close. If you want to be the ideologue that really takes over the world, you gotta appeal to everybody. You gotta really change your tune. You can't just be running around being a racist demagogue. You gotta talk about your upbringing.'
"He said, 'My real upbringing?' 'No, you gotta make up an upbringing.' "
Not everyone got the joke, but the Decemberists proceeded to conclude the first hour with "The Chimbley Sweep," which included a "contest" pitting Meloy against Funk in a guitar god battle from each side of the stage. It was funny, in an ironic way, really, but lacked the zany hilarity of the "pickoff" that also involved Bela Fleck at the 2011 Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
More goofiness ensued during the encores capped by "The Mariner's Revenge Song" that involved a whale of a backdrop. You had to be there to get the full effect, but just imagine the Marx Brothers (with Margaret Dumont) playing electrified folk-rock music during their heyday.
If not quite as musically satisfying as 2009's The Hazards of Love tour of grandeur, it turned out to be a delightfully unexpected way to end a Folks Festival.
No one even requested a second helping of "American Pie."
Festival photos by Michael Bialas. See more from all three days featuring the top acts mentioned above, along with Lucinda Williams, Andrew Bird, Conor Oberst and David Wax Museum.