Every year at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival is filled with memorable moments. Singing its praises has become an annual tradition.
From seeing Gillian Welch and Over the Rhine for the first time in 2009, when I first began making the trek to Lyons, Colorado, to cover the event on a regular basis, to witnessing joyous and touching tributes at Planet Bluegrass with artists like Brandi Carlile and Elephant Revival in 2014, almost a year after the town’s devastating floods, always makes me yearn to come back for more.
Though, either in Lyons or elsewhere, I previously caught more than half of the 20 acts scheduled to hit the main stage nestled alongside the St. Vrain River, the anticipation of seeing three personal favorites perform again in this majestic setting was almost overwhelming.
So, as I’ve been accustomed to doing the past few years, here is a snapshot look at my Best of the Fest Faves of 2017, all of whom I’ve enjoyed in Lyons or at other Colorado venues. A detailed look at each act will follow.
In a phone interview before the festival with Emily Frantz of Mandolin Orange, the fine fiddler and singer seemed delighted that this festival “does put a big emphasis on sort of songs and songwriters. And there doesn’t seem like there are a whole lot of festivals that, at least outright, sort of claim that.”
That emphasis is commonplace on this upcoming list, with some of the best voices I’ve ever heard pleasantly echoing in my head long after the drive back down Highway 36 toward Boulder began each night. If the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival ever decided to stage a sing-off that included some of these would-be competitors, a la American Idol or The Voice, it would be impossible to pick a winner. They’re all No. 1 in my mind.
Maybe next year, I’ll focus on a few up-and-coming artists who are always part of this festival. For instance, this year I was hoping to see but missed Phoebe Hunt & the Gatherers (though I did catch the fiddler/singer’s guest appearance with Elephant Revival), the Mae Trio (which includes two sisters from Australia) and Ramy Essam, a charismatic Egyptian (he constantly posed for pictures with new fans in the backstage are) whose influences include Rage Against the Machine and Nirvana.
Expect to hear more from them in the future. For now, though, here are some highlights from my 2017 festival fab five (in order of appearance) among acts that graced the main stage during the three-day event. Just like in 2016, Planet Bluegrass saved some of the best for last, with three of this list’s artists among Sunday’s four final acts.
7:15 p.m. Friday, Aug. 18
Seeing this North Carolina wonder woman perform on this stage as a member of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2011 ahead of the Civil Wars was an unforgettable experience. As a solo performer, Giddens continues to thrive, having released the highly regarded Freedom Highway in 2017, the follow-up to 2015’s Tomorrow is My Turn, and playing a recurring role on CMT’s Nashville, a television show set in the Music City that needs more music, less soap suds.
Included among her new album’s offerings were a rousing rendition of “The Love We Almost Had,” “We Could Fly” and “Freedom Highway,” the latter a Staple Singers cover that was preceded with some soft-spoken social commentary.
“This is important,” Giddens said. “A lot of stuff going on but there’s been a lot of stuff going on for hundreds of years. A lot of great stuff, a lot of terrible stuff. America is a mixture of these things. So we’ve got to talk about all of it, the good and the bad.”
Earlier introducing her song “At the Purchaser’s Option,” Giddens, demonstrating her keen sense and appreciation of history, said, “This year has shown, the more that you know about the past, the more you can predict what’s gonna happen in the future. It’s just the way it is. And if we don’t really investigate what’s happened in the past, we’re gonna keep repeating it.”
In fact, Giddens digs a lot into her musical heritage, and with a band that included former Chocolate Drops bandmate Hubby Jenkins, her sister Lalenja Harrington and Louisiana’s Dirk Powell (her Freedom Highway cowriter and co-producer who played keyboards, guitars, accordion and fiddle), she covered a lot of ground in sharing her admiration of influential songs and singers.
After taking turns on the banjo and fiddle (she also plays a mean game of croquet), Giddens belted it out of the park with an a cappella version of “Pretty Saro,” saying the traditional song performed by Iris DeMent on Songcatcher “makes me think about what brings us all together and how we’re all thinking about the same things.”
Referencing Aretha Franklin and Dolly Parton as “feminist singers” who “pretty much cover everything” among her personal influences, she respectfully roared through the former’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” and was gospel glorious on Odetta’s “Waterboy” before closing it out with an encore performance of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Lonesome Road”/“Up Above My Head.”
After this history lesson, more students will want to take a class in Giddens’ School of Thought.
9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 19
Having already seen their electrifying act at the Ride Festival in Telluride in 2013, I thought I was fully prepared to witness another lively set from these seven raucous rock ’n’ rollers who came together in New Orleans after living all across the country.
While the folk was missing, there was a whole lot of madness in front of the stage that I never anticipated at this festival. Led by the showman in perpetual motion, lead singer David Shaw, the band that also includes Zack Feinberg (guitar), Andrew Campanelli (drums), George Gekas (bass), Ed Williams (pedal steel guitar), Rob Ingraham (saxophone) and Michael Girardot (keyboard, trumpet) stormed through a 90-minute headlining set that caught old-timers off guard and brought a spice-of-life taste of the Deep South to the mountains.
Though he’s 34 and identified himself as “grandpa of the group” when we chatted before the 2013 Ride Festival, Shaw, who is originally from Ohio and grew up worshipping grunge acts like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, fulfills the role of a committed rock star now. He used his unlimited supply of energy to send the crowd into a frenzy, including members of the poser pit that is reserved for VIPs, artists and other special guests of the festival who usually prefer to quietly observe and respectfully applaud.
Two songs into their set, the tall, tattooed Shaw was imploring audience members to get on their feet because “it just feels a little better.” If that encouragement wasn’t enough, the performances of “Amber” (led my wild man Williams pushing his pedal steel to the metal) and “Stand Up” (both off 2015’s Men Amongst Mountains, the Revivalists’ most recent release) certainly did the trick. The Folks Festival was experiencing a soul revival, and the adrenaline rush toward the front of the stage was living proof.
The name of the group, Shaw told me, came from when his guitarist saw a 60 Minutes piece “and they were talking about how Bruce Springsteen does his shows with a revivalist’s fervor.”
That zealous behavior was visible here, too, as the Revivalists have emerged as seven members who “pride ourselves on being a band’s band, where everybody contributes,” and weren’t worried four years ago about being part of a publicity “machine” or getting signed to a label.
Now they’re appearing on shows like Jimmy Kimmel and Conan, have a hit single called "Wish I Knew You” and are gearing up for more September dates and the Austin City Limits Music Festival followed by the first leg of “The Deepest Dream” U.S. headline tour that begins in November.
Really letting his hair down for the encore’s two songs, it should be no surprise that Shaw had a swaying and supportive crowd singing along to "Wish I Knew You,” (You shine like a star / You know who you are) and (perhaps in the indomitable spirit and style of the late, great Joe Cocker) “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
In this case, each smiling spectator was a friend until the end.
3:15 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 20
What happens when two Canadians and an upstate New Yorker get together? For starters, it adds up to incomparable three-part harmonies. The three Jennys — soprano Ruth Moody, mezzo Nicky Mehta and alto Heather Masse — played the Lyons festival for the first time, six years after their first Colorado appearance, when I saw them at the Rialto Theater in Loveland.
Playing a variety of instruments and telling funny and endearing stories about themselves, they were like a refreshingly cool breeze in the midst of hot-fun-in-the-summertime afternoon, undoubtedly the inspiration behind the audience participation award for most sing-alongs during a 75-minute set.
There was a false start to show opener “Bright Morning Stars,” the title song of their most recent studio album (also six years ago), but other than Mehta spraying hand soap all over her shirt 30 seconds before going onstage, the Jennys breezed through their remarkably relaxed one-off appearance (they start a fall tour in November) without a hitch. While raving about their return to Colorado, Masse even mentioned the edibles.
Mehta, in an August phone interview from her Winnipeg home, said scaling back tours in recent years so each of them can spend more time with their families that now total four boys (Moody’s 9-month-old son Woodson is the latest addition) has made their return “tricky” because of fewer rehearsals. Yet the Jennys seem like they’re always in tune. And they basically have been since she and Moody officially formed the group in 2002, added Masse in 2007 and currently are complemented on the road by Moody’s brother Richard (viola) and Adam Dobres (guitars).
Set mainstays such as Mehta’s “Arlington” (from 2004’s 40 Days), Moody’s “Glory Bound” (2006’s Firecracker) and Masse’s “Bird Song” (2011’s Bright Morning Stars) featured Jennys’ songs and incredible voices by each of them.
And yes, if you haven’t guessed by now, I am an ardent admirer of the trio, first becoming familiar with their material in 2010 before interviewing Moody for her 2010 solo debut The Garden, which turned out to be my favorite album of the year.
The Jennys undoubtedly added to a list of growing admirers on this day, and covers of Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” and an a cappella version of Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” (on the new album to be released this fall) will only fuel the passionate fire.
Seeing a boy holding up two different signs throughout the set to request Jennys songs, Moody acknowledged him and obliged with her lovely “One Voice” to close the set.
Before the final sing-along, Moody offered one fitting — and timely — message:
“This is a song that I wrote at a festival not unlike this one, where I was very inspired by the idea of people coming together and celebrating life and celebrating each other through music. … It’s about singing together but it’s also, in a larger sense, about all of us coming together in the spirit of peace and harmony and hope.”
These voices of reason have never sounded lovelier.
6:45 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 20
Though they were founded in 2004, the Boston- and Brooklyn, N.Y.-based rock-pop quartet finally broke big in 2014 with the release of Bad Self Portraits. Shortly before that, I interviewed lead singer Rachael Price, who had waited patiently, confidently for the group’s success to arrive.
Six months later, in their first Folks Festival appearance, they were on their way, and later reached the top of my list of favorite performers of the year.
Excellent then, they are really strutting their stuff now, with Price owning the stage like she had saved up her entire life to pay in full.
The other members — group founder Michael "McDuck" Olson (guitar, trumpet), upright bassist Bridget Kearney and drummer Michael Calabrese — also are getting their share of moments in the setting sun, too. Calabrese kicked off “How Good It Feels” with a riveting drum solo and Olson’s trumpet blasts were the antithesis of the straight-laced, blond-haired, horn-rimmed glasses-wearing shy guy character he portrayed onstage, seemingly to make sure he stays out of the limelight.
That’s where Price belongs, though. Always a sensational singer, she has evolved into the ultimate entertainer.
With the Wailin’ Jennys’ Masse, who joined Kearney on Joy Kills Sorrow’s first album, in the captivated audience with Mehta to enjoy the beginning of the set, they saw (and heard) the breathtaking voice of Lake Street Dive do what she was born to do best.
“I never wanted to do anything else but sing,” Price, the musician’s daughter who grew up near Nashville and was voted the most talented in her senior class, told me in that February 2014 interview.
Price does that and more now. Looking ravishing in a slinky white dress, she moves and grooves. She plays electric guitar. She cracks wise, leaving Olson with a besmirched look ahead of “Neighbor Song” (from 2010’s self-titled debut album) by saying, “ ‘McDuck’ and I were once upstairs/downstairs neighbors. This was a little while ago but it was a beautiful time in both of our lives.” She welcomes special guests (in this case, Yonder Mountain String Band mandolinist Jake Jolliff, formerly of Joy Kills Sorrow). And, goddammit, she really knows how to croon a tune, whether it’s “Seventeen” and “You Go Down Smooth” from Bad Self Portraits, "How Good It Feels" from 2016’s Side Pony (produced by Grammy winner Dave Cobb) or a cover of Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It.”
Seeing Lake Street Dive doesn’t require a Price check. They’re worth every penny.
8:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 20
Known primarily for his collaborations with creative partner/co-songwriter Gillian Welch, Rawlings has performed on this Folks Festival stage plenty of times, usually as the masterful musician known to flatpick on his cool 1935 Epiphone Olympic archtop guitar while generally staying out of the way vocally unless he’s providing harmonies.
This time it was Welch who essentially played the steady enabler as the Dave Rawlings Machine made a triumphant return 10 years after their first Folks Festival appearance.
Just over a week after releasing Poor David’s Almanack, the third solo album of his career, Rawlings took center stage but was never alone. Among the hired Machine gunners were superb players and vocalists Brittany Haas (fiddle), who was “doing the work of 10 men, folks,” Welch remarked; Willie Watson (guitars, fiddle and, after his “special journey,” a bongo session); and Punch Brothers’ “overqualified” Paul Kowert (bass, deep vocals on “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire”).
The three talented musicians also performed on Rawlings album, his eighth studio collaboration with Welch. All of them were featured during the set on several of the new songs that included the folky “Money Is the Meat in the Coconut” (led by a knee-slapping, hand-clapping Welch), “Midnight Train,” “Cumberland Gap” and “Come On Over My House.” The latter song was highlighted by a double fiddle jam by Haas, a Princeton grad who has been a member of Crooked Still with Aoife O’Donovan, and Watson, a founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show whose solo career continues to build with the upcoming release of Folk Singer Vol. 2 (produced by Rawlings).
While occasionally handing off lead vocals to Welch (who also broke out the harmonica with the missing winged nut on "Wayside/Back In Time”; “Look at Miss Ohio”) and Watson (Blind Willie Jefferson’s “If I Had My Way I’d Tear This Building Down”), Rawlings kept the between-song chitter-chatter to a minimum, putting the focus on — where else? — the songs.
The Dave Rawlings Machine seemed like one big happy family, a band so entrenched in the Americana scene that it was a natural and fitting way to close out such a down-homey festival, especially when they huddled around a single mic for a marvelous medley of “I Hear Them All”/“This Land is Your Land.”
After a shout-out to Woody Guthrie en route toward the finish line — the encore was Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately” — Welch succinctly summed up the festive occasion by saying, “If you haven’t figured it out by now, this is pretty much a folk concert.”
Folk, yeah! Was there ever any doubt? Now let the countdown begin to the 28th annual Folks Festival that is scheduled for Aug. 17-19, 2018.
Rocky Mountain Folks Festival photos by Michael Bialas. See more from the 27th annual event that took place on Aug. 18-20, 2017, in Lyons, Colorado.
Michael Bialas is a journalist and photographer who enjoys writing about entertainment and sports for a number of online publications, including No Depression and HuffPost. Follow him on Twitter: @mjbialas