It’s hard to believe that the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival is celebrating its 25th year on Friday, August 14. I know I should be happy for the nice people at Planet Bluegrass. After all, they started this celebration of great music and songwriting from scratch and have now grown it into one of the nation’s most beloved festivals. But in all honesty, a little part of me is frustrated with this whole 25-year thing.
You see, the Folks Festival is pretty important to me, and my family. We have used this annual gathering of song as a de facto family reunion for quite a while now, 16 years I’m told. Truth is, I once stopped in on a Sunday night by myself back in the ’90s to catch Nanci Griffith and explain to her why I had put her in the acknowledgments of my first book on domestic terrorism, so personally, I’m really at 17 years. Yes, it was a somewhat bizarre explanation but that’s a different story.
The point here is, while I’m glad the festival has made it to 25, all I can think about is the eight years I’ve missed… eight festivals I can never get back; 24 full days of live performances that never made it into my memory. What did I miss? It’s not like I can buy an album and find out.
That’s because the real magic of the Folks Festival is the live performances with their unpredictability. Sure, you can check out the schedule and plan to watch this or that act with whom you’re already familiar, but you can’t predict what you’ll see. The Planet Bluegrass Ranch in Lyons tends to bring out the best in the artists who play there, so the music often transcends expectations no matter how high. And why wouldn’t it?
It’s got to be quite a motivating sight to stand on the stage and look out at that sea of enthusiastic, smiling humanity, a crowd of 4,000 festavarians that spans infants to great-grandparents.
And how many venues have a mountain river running right through them or an old silo set against a dramatic backdrop of red and yellow cliffs that are located only a couple hundred feet from a charming wooden structure filled with a bottomless supply of New Belgium beer? Hey, even nature can be improved upon with the right fermentation process.
So while it’s admittedly fun to see some of today’s best-known singer-songwriters and bands in such a remarkable setting, for me, the best part is being surprised by some new talent I’ve never heard before.
Every year, I query Planet Bluegrass communications guru Brian Eyster as to who will be my biggest surprise at Folks Fest. By now he must know my taste pretty well because his predictions are never wrong. One year it’s the Milk Carton Kids, another it’s Shane Koyczan and so on.
This year Eyster thinks I’ll be blown away by “The Family Crest” and “Session Americana.” Can’t wait to prove him right again.
Another, more obvious artist of intrigue this year, is Friday night headliner Sufjan Stevens. This indie artist has developed a large and loyal following by creating about as diverse a collection of music as one could imagine. Whether his insight is wrapped in pure folk, orchestral inklings or synth-pop, Stevens delivers a dose of hyper-creativity, personal tragedy, optimism and humanity like no one else. Watching his show is like having a thinking person’s carnival performing in your head. So it’s up to you; sit around Friday twiddling your thumbs or go have a lifechanging experience at the Planet Bluegrass Ranch (yes, there are still single day tickets available for Friday).
And it’s not just Sufjan Stevens. From where I sit, Friday’s lineup is as strong as any single day I can remember in my 25-minus-8 years at Folks Fest. I have had the pleasure of interviewing and/or getting to know just about everyone in the Friday lineup over the last decade or so.
Take Mary Gauthier, a true writer’s writer. If she couldn’t play guitar she’d have made a great journalist. I’ve had the pleasure of hanging around during Mary’s songwriting classes a few times at the Planet Bluegrass Song School over the years and she never fails to inspire my own writing even though it’s the tuneless sort.
She understands how to peel back a story until all the pain and vulnerability that life can throw our way is exposed to light and transformed into a naked truth that can knock you right out of your seat. And I hear her Cajun cooking is pretty good too, but I’ve yet to get a taste of that.
And then there’s Peter Yarrow. Think about that. What can you say about a guy whose music and activism have been so critical to changing the way our nation thinks that he wound up standing with Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 as he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech? And he has been involved in nearly every major social justice movement since.
A while back, I had the chance to introduce my then 15-year-old son Sam to Peter who gave him a huge hug and immediately started asking him about his school and bullying and what was being done to create a safe learning environment for all students. Pretty cool moment for me, watching the two of them engaged in conversation over an important issue of our time.
It seems that making the world a better place is not a job one retires from. In fact, I would argue that Peter Yarrow and his music of encouragement and his belief that together we can overcome the obstacles to creating a more loving, peaceful and sustainable world are as pertinent today as ever, perhaps even more so.
Which brings me to the next Friday act, Shane Koyczan. I honestly don’t have a word for what Koyczan does. He’s a wizard or something. He uses the power of the spoken word set to music to tell stories through poem that will move you in a manner that simply cannot be explained. Not kidding.
Last time Koyczan came to Lyons — which was the first time the Canadian had ever performed in the U.S. — by the time he finished his first poem titled “To This Day,” I had tears running down my face. I looked to my right and my whole family was bawling. I looked left and saw Brian Eyster’s futile attempt to hold back the waterworks. And then I turned around and I saw 4,000 people on their feet crying and applauding wildly. It was an absolutely crazy scene. I don’t think any of us fully understood what had just rolled over us, but we all knew it was powerful. I will leave it at that.
You don’t want to miss this Friday at the Folk’s Festival. Australian-born singer/songwriter extraordinaire Kasey Chambers will be playing just ahead of Sufjan Stevens. I have seen Chambers — whose music is perhaps best described support of her first studio album in four years, Bittersweet, which has been receiving some pretty exceptional reviews. And if you decide to make it a full day, Folks Fest Friday kicks off with the Songwriter Showcase, which puts some of the best writers and performers from this year’s week-long song school on the stage. The performances are always impressive and filled of the kind of hope and humility that comes with having your art recognized. The showcase is also a great way to hear the music you just might be buying in a few years.
Taarka hits the stage next, and I suspect this will be one of those surprises for me. The group plays a combo of Gypsy jazz, Celtic, bluegrass and rock that sounds like it should be quite a kick.
I’d love to tell you about Saturday and Sunday but it would just make you crazy because those days are really great but unfortunately already sold out. I’ll just say that a couple of evenings spent with Jason Isbell and Gillian Welch will be something special below the cliffs, by the river, with a cold 1554 in hand.
It is abundantly clear that the folks at Planet Bluegrass pulled out all the stops for this 25th anniversary of the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. I know one group of family and friends who are very appreciative of their efforts, and I suspect there are many more who feel the same.
Congratulations on 25 years.