Folk U. (Day 3): 10 Best of the Fest Moments
The 19th Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado, concluded with a blend of down-under blues, home-on-the-strange weirdness, feel-good funk rock and back-to-the basics traditionalism with roots royalty. Here’s a look at highlights and the final four acts, each lasting about 75 minutes, on Sunday, August 16, with the scheduled times listed below.
1. Fireside chatter
The reigning queen of the folk music revival, Gillian Welch (right) didn’t have to let this intelligent and discerning festival crowd know what was in store when she hit the stage promptly at 9, but did so anyway. “I wish there was like a giant campfire here; it’s kind of the mood I’m in. I feel like sittin’ around a campfire all night singing songs and telling stories. That’s what we’re gonna do here,” she said before launching into “Elvis Presley Blues.” All that was missing were the marshmallows. Welch’s earthy, contemplative lyrics and exquisitely beautiful harmonies with longtime musical partner David Rawlings were a perfect way to end the evening – and the festival. The attentive members of the audience in Lyons – where Welch last performed two years ago – were wrapped in blankets and cheered or howled in the right places as the pair reached into their deep well for customary classics such as “I Want to Sing That Rock And Roll,” “Revelator” and “Orphan Girl,” along with “Long Black Veil.” The latter, a country ballad first recorded by Lefty Frizzell, is one of her favorite ghost stories that Welch said she hasn’t played in a while. “It’s the first song I ever remember singing with Dave,” she said. By then, that imaginary cozy campfire felt more like the heat off a raging bonfire.
2. Leader of the Brett pack
With pasty white skin, a mop of hair the shade of Carrot Top’s and closer in age and resemblance to Harry Potter than Dirty Harry, bespectacled Brett Dennen (left) doesn’t give off the vibe of a charismatic singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band. Until he picks up a guitar. He could be considered a Boy Wonder but, amazingly, he’s turning 30 in October. If his youthful appearance and – at first glance – nerdy, boy-next-door demeanor catch unknowing concertgoers off-guard, just imagine how they must feel when they see him shake and bake around the stage. Dennen and his four-piece band gave the most energetic performance of the festival, a bootylicious display that kept the entire crowd on their feet after an early rain shower had subsided. “San Francisco,” “The One That Loves You The Most” and “She’s Mine” were feel-good dance-in-the-aisle numbers that would work just as well in a Caribbean calypso bar. Then his encore presentation of “World Keeps Turning” was responsible for the global heartwarming that spread throughout the festival grounds.
3. She & Him & Him
M. Ward has gained commercial appeal and mainstream respectability with actress Zooey Deschanel in his side group project called She & Him. But the solo artist known for his quirky and enigmatic persona (think Tom Waits imitating Bob Dylan) is quickly becoming the king of collaborators. His formation of the Monsters of Folk supergroup with Conor Oberst and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James has been highly publicized, and anyone anticipating their appearance in Lyons after seeing an incorrect report in The Denver Post might have been initially disappointed. But the mood of the crowd (and Ward) changed abruptly when he put out the welcome Matt for Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. “I don’t know what I did to deserve this,” Ward said, cracking a smile for once. The threesome played several songs capped by an extended version of Greg Brown’s “I Believe I’ll Go Back Home” and returned for an encore as Ward played the piano, Rawlings mastered the guitar and Welch banged the tambourine. Then Ward returned the favor at the end of night, joining the pair for a three-song grand finale that included Willie Nelson’s “Blue Skies Crying In The Rain” and “I’ll Fly Away,” the lively gospel hymn that left the multitudes screaming “Hallelujah!” as they exited the gates of this roots music heaven.
4. Public service announcement
Much was made of Saturday’s rock climbing accident involving a 26-year-old woman who fell 15 to 20 feet. Dennen, who happened to point out a few hikers on his way into the Planet Bluegrass venue Sunday, was unaware of the incident until he was told by his driver, who quickly called security as a result of Dennen’s sighting. Let Dennen conclude the rest of the story in his inimitable manner: “(Saturday night’s accident) is why they’re restricting anybody from hiking up there. OK, cool. So then I get to the festival and I assumed that they got the people and kicked them out. It’s a rock concert. They kick people out. Trust me, I know. … So I’m hanging out; I have a really good friend that lives here (in nearby Erie). We went to college together and were actually roommates. I heard that he’s here because I got him on the guest list. And I’m backstage and he comes running up to me with all these security guys following him and he’s like, ‘Hey man, I just got kicked out.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And he’s like, ‘I was climbing on that hill …’ (Roars of laughter.) And I’m thinking (to myself), ‘Oh my gosh, I totally got you busted.’ But I didn’t tell him that. I couldn’t say, ‘I’m the one that ratted you out, bro.’ … But then, luckily, the powers that be let him back in. … This all happened because he was trying to impress a lady. (More shrieks of laughter.) But anyway, I’m turning this whole story into a public service announcement. Stay off the mountain!” By this time, Dennen’s voice was cracking like a teenager going through puberty. “That’s all you gotta do. Just stay here where it’s fun and you can drink beer and dance and play in the river with your kids. Just do it.” (Applause, applause, applause.)
5. Mama Mia!
Electric guitarist Mia Dyson (left, in the autograph tent) was born and raised in Australia but is calling American her home now. The blues mama’s latest CD, Cold Water received a four-star review from Rolling Stone. “This is our first time in Colorado and we’re going to coming back, probably in October, so please look out for us,” she said before closing with “Roll Me Out,” a pleasing mix of rock and soul off her 2005 album Parking Lots. Judging by the line of autograph-seekers and CD buyers that formed outside the Country Store behind the festival seating area, Dyson has already made a lot of new American friends.
6. The Chamber of Commerce approves this message
Dennen, whose electric guitar was broken “almost in half” on his flight into Colorado, isn’t too fond of Denver International Airport but said all the pent-up hostility “is incredibly blown away into smithereens by our eternal love for Colorado. It’s probably my favorite place to play. We’ve played in Boulder and Denver all the time, we’ve played Telluride and … I mean, do you know how lucky you are? It really doesn’t get better than this. Stay here. Don’t go moving to California. You stay here and we’ll keep coming here.”
7. Pickin’ and grinnin’
Welch played “One Little Song” solo, saying, “I noticed my partner has departed the stage. He must have more important things to do.” But Rawlings’ break was brief, and he quickly went back to work on “No One Knows My Name” as Welch broke out the banjo for the only time in the set. “I’m still waiting for that great banjo explosion that’s going to take over the airwaves,” Welch said, drawing giggles from the appreciative crowd. “The worse things get, the more people seem to like the banjo.”
8. Let’s dance?
While it was politely received, Ward’s low-key set that included “Sad Sad Song” and “Poison Cup,” gave some in the crowd an opportunity to take a power nap after dinner. Even his subdued cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” with a harmonica intro (“Are you guys in the mood for a love song?”) failed to excite the masses. He did get their attention by referencing Daniel Johnston (“a guy from Austin, Texas”) and dedicating “The Story Of An Artist” to “all the artists who might be out there in Lyons, Colorado.” Ward (right) also drew a couple of chuckles during his “Is it live or is it Memorex?” moment during “Undertaker,” when the music kept playing after he put his guitar down to take a gulp of water and tinker with the piano. If it was Ward’s idea of a joke, many befuddled “Festivarians” are still waiting for the punch line.
9. A serving of Welch on wry
The cool weather was nothing like Welch and Rawlings have experienced during other festival stops throughout the summer, including southern cities where she said, “It’s so humid, it’s like being underwater.” Playing the role of straight man who usually lets his wailing acoustic guitar do the talking, Rawlings exclaimed, “It’s nice out here!” That left the door open for a wry Welch, who fired back, “It’s so nice, we’re gonna play you a tune that’s guaranteed to bring you right down.” What followed was “Throw Me A Rope,” with lyrics including: “I’ve never been so disabused / I’ve never been so mad / I’ve never been served anything /that tasted so bad.”
10. But what about going green?
The environmentally conscious folks running the festival had a rhyme and reason to get their message across. A sign spotted in the men’s bathroom: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.”