Why These Folks Festival Musicians Should Be Honorary Citizens of Planet Bluegrass

Among all the accomplished roots artists performing at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival that begins today (Aug. 15), Dan Rodriguez of Elephant Revival might have the best reason for being there.

To provide some heavy lifting to a town that needs it, he has the qualifications and local knowledge to deliver the goods.

Rodriguez, who plays guitar, banjo and bass in the inventive string band that defies categorization, lives in Lyons, Colorado, a town of 2,000 that was practically destroyed -- along with the Planet Bluegrass Ranch where the Folks Festival is held -- by last September's floods.

As Lyons and its residents continue to rebuild physically and emotionally, Rodriguez can't think of any place he'd rather be Sunday (Aug. 17), when the Folks Festival wraps up its three-day run with Randy Newman as the closing act.

"The town's recovery, and the recovery of Planet Bluegrass is a huge inspiration to me that will no doubt inspire the show," said Rodriguez, one of a handful performers that submitted responses via email to questions regarding what this weekend means to them.

From left, members of Elephant Revival at the 2012 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival:
Bonnie Paine, Daniel Rodriguez and Bridget Law.

The band based in Nederland -- off the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway about 35 miles southwest of Lyons -- also includes Sage Cook (banjo, guitar, mandolin, tenor banjo, bass and fiddle), Bridget Law (fiddle, octave fiddle), Bonnie Paine (washboard, djembe, musical saw, stompbox) and Dango Rose (double-bass, mandolin, banjo). Elephant Revival will be onstage at 1:45 p.m.

While they all have a place in their hearts reserved for the community and the festival, having also played there in 2012, Rodriguez obviously feels the closest connection.

"Being a resident of Lyons, I have a healthy dose of pride for the town for getting back up on its feet," he said.  "Still there is so much to figure out, yet the music helps everything along on its path.  The emotions are still ripe for everyone in Lyons having had the rug pulled out from underneath their hard work and dreams in such a dramatic way.  

"In saying that, I know all the music played on that stage, our set included, will lend itself to some form of healing or resolution.  Hopefully not just for the moment, but an experience that lives on with you."

Veteran singer-songwriter/crowd surfer/conga line leader Peter Himmelman (above in 2012), whose music and live-show antics appeal to kids and adults alike, always tries to leave festivarians with something to remember. No telling what he'll dream up when he follows Elephant Revival at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

"I usually try to give a performance that demonstrates a sense of 'possibility,' " he said, when asked how he will draw inspiration from the community and their recovery. "Something that breaks from the status quo. Given that changes are inevitable -- the easy and the difficult -- I'll try to bring that idea home even more this year."

Though Boston- and Brooklyn-based Lake Street Dive was on Planet Bluegrass' bill in Telluride in 2013, the quartet will make its first appearance in Lyons at 7 p.m. Sunday, just ahead of Newman. Dynamic lead singer Rachael Price (left) is looking forward to "an awesomely run festival, a great lineup of bands, and always a gorgeous setting!"

Not to mention an incredibly touching experience.

"We were all very moved to hear how the community, especially the music community, helped out to support the victims of last year's floods," Price said. "It's always inspiring to come to a place with a strong musical community and get some of that good energy!"

The Stray Birds, featured earlier this week, also will make their Lyons debut as a band (at 12:15 p.m. Saturday), although co-founders Oliver Craven and Maya di Vitry performed on separate occasions in the town before the band took off.

"For years, we've wanted the band to participate in any of Planet Bluegrass' incredible festivals," said Craven, who played fiddle in Adrienne Young's band at RockyGrass in 2008. "Since the flood of 2013, I haven't been back to Lyons, and it's been on my mind a lot.

"There are people and things there that I love, and Planet Bluegrass is such a big part of why that town is so magical. Any opportunity to visit is a welcomed one, so to be on the bill for the Folks Festival is not only an honor, but a chance to return to a setting I love."

De Vitry, who was a finalist at the Folks Festival's Songwriter Showcase in 2012, added, "I've been aware of Planet Bluegrass for a really long time because these are well-known festivals to a lot of people, even on the East Coast."

While he lives in the Los Angeles area, Himmelman, who released The Boat That Carries Us in July, is in tune with the tight-knit group of folks who have persevered while starting over in this mountain town up U.S. Highway 36 from Boulder.

"There's a sense of community that's powerful," said Himmelman, who has performed at this festival eight times, first appearing in 1997. "Not just among the musicians themselves, but with the staff, the audience members and the people who live in Lyons year round. That's something very special to me."

Though Elephant Revival made its Red Rocks debut this summer -- performing with the Colorado Symphony no less -- Rodriguez finds a number of qualities that makes the Folks Festival stand out from the rest.

"For me it is different in that I live in the town where the festival is held," he said. "Quite a few of my friends and acquaintances are involved in the festival, if not the backbone of it.  In this regard, it is more like a homecoming for me. As well, the taste in music (Planet Bluegrass president) Craig Ferguson and (vice president) Steve Szymanski have is really choice.... So every year you go into it knowing you are in for a solid experience."

The fact that there aren't multiple stages at this festival allows Himmelman to breathe some rarefied air while the industry still needs a blast of oxygen.

"In a world where success means scaling something, packaging something for a mass audience -- and thereby losing some of the unique charms of the original product, Planet Bluegrass shines brightest for understanding that its homespun nature is its intrinsic appeal." 

Rodriguez, who proudly holds dual citizenship in Lyons and Planet Bluegrass, sings his praises for the organization that made the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and RockyGrass two of summer's premier musical events. Celebrating the rebirth began at RockyGrass last month, but expect the Folks Festival to be the icing on the cake.

"Post flood, Planet Bluegrass represents courage and fortitude," he said. "It represents vitality within our reality of impermanence. It's an organization that never seems to compromise the virtuous quality of the music it beholds.  For me, it represents coming home."

Just in time to get this party started.

Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more performers from other Planet Bluegrass events, including the Civil Wars, Mumford and Sons and Amos Lee.

The German-born, Boston-based singer-songwriter who was profiled earlier this month opens the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival at 1 p.m. today. Antje Duvekot (photo by Jake Jacobson) recently answered a few folk-related questions via email. Some excerpts:

Who or what brings you to the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival? How familiar were you with it and Planet Bluegrass before getting the invitation? 

"I've played the Denver/Boulder area for some years now and the festival and Planet Bluegrass are quite well known in the folk world in that area and frankly, nationally. The festival attracts the highest caliber of performers and I feel honored to have been invited to the main stage this year -- and on the same night that my utter teen idol and early influence, Ani DiFranco, is playing."

Who are a couple of your folk heroes and what attracted you to them?

"Of this year's festival lineup, Ani DiFranco is a big deal to me since she was very influential to me in my youth when I started writing and dreaming of being a songwriter. It's not that I was influenced by her style per se or tried to copy it but she was hugely inspirational in that she gave me permission in a sense to be brutally honest and personal. I can't think of anyone else who lived her music as much as she did. Living my music, or rather the opposite, music-fying my life fully and without censorship, has been a huge part of my writing and Ani helped me feel comfortable and justified in doing that. I never did meet her and so sharing the bill with her all these years later feels special to me. Other heroes of mine that are playing this year include Josh Ritter, Peter Himmelman, Randy Newman. ...  Heroes in general include Dar Williams, Ellis Paul, John Gorka but, yeah, definitely Ani."

What musicians performing at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival are you looking forward to seeing and why?

"I am also very impressed by Lake Street Dive, especially their kickass vocalist (Rachael Price). And as above mentioned, Josh Ritter, who is to me a true poet in the vain of Leonard Cohen. I used to play the open mic at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts, when I was young and temporarily living in my car behind the Northampton library. Josh, still unknown, was the open mic host at the Iron Horse then. He was very supportive and gave me his CD back then, which I listened to in my car while going to sleep. So in a sense he is part of my story, as are so many of my heroes that I've gotten to meet along the way. I am also completely enamored with Peter Himmelman. His children's albums are just about the most entertaining thing I have ever administered into my earholes."  

Do you consider yourself to be a folk musician? If so, what qualities are essential to become a successful folk singer/musician?

"I do. Acoustic artists like Cheryl Wheeler, Dar Williams, Ellis Paul, John Gorka, Richard Shindell, Christine Lavin, Catie Curtis, etc., resonated with me the most when I was a teen. They called themselves folk, and they were my thing. ...   I can't say I'm equally attached to the more traditional folkies like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, Kingston Trio, etc. I am not. I am more moved by a personal confessional original song about life and love (think Bob Dylan) than by a straightforward folk story song about, say, a mining disaster. I like a social message but it shouldn't be too blatant, and a lot of folk-folk is. This somewhat makes me cringe. But I love a personal story told with a guitar and so I consider myself folk, for sure. I do think one of the qualities required of a folk singer is honesty and bravery to 'say it as it is' rather than to pander to what people may wanna hear. I think I do this. I write what I need to say."

What is your favorite folk song by another artist that you like to include on your set list? 

"Lately, I cover 'The Queen and the Soldier' by Suzanne Vega a lot. She received wide commercial success but definitely came out of the Greenwich Village folk revival of the 1980s."