From the Planet Bluegrass organization, the same brilliant minds as Telluride Bluegrass and Rocky Grass, the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival has been going strong for 27 years. And like Telluride, the genre of the festival has slowly loosened to broader interpretations, allowing for some of the country’s (and world’s) most spectacular artists to grace the stage in the lovely town of Lyons, Colorado. This year’s lineup included national acts such as Lake Street Dive, Elephant Revival, The Revivalists, Dave Rawlings Machine, Gregory Alan Isakov, and many others.
A routinely family-friendly festival, Folks Fest has grown in recent years, with the 2017 attendance likely setting records on both Saturday and Sunday nights. Having seen some major work since the 2013 floods, the Planet Bluegrass venue itself shows some beautiful improvements. The surrounding vistas remain incredibly gorgeous and picturesque, rivaling any outdoor venue in the country, and providing the perfect backdrop for a laid-back festival.
Friday’s schedule kicked off with the traditional morning Songwriter Showcase, followed by a pair of female-led acts, Austin-born Brooklynite Phoebe Hunt with her band The Gatherers, and a solo singer-songwriter hailing from Scotland, Rachel Sermanni. Both artists eased the festival crowd into the weekend, Sermanni delighting the calm Friday attendees with her traditional Scottish folk songs, many inspired by the poems of Robert Burns. Gregory Alan Isakov, South African native and a Colorado local, closed the first night with a lengthy set of remarkable, delicate, and often haunting tunes. A pure lyrical genius, Isakov demanded attention and all but silenced the crowd at times, leaving everyone dreaming of what the rest of the weekend held in store.
Yet despite our dreams, Saturday mornings are often tough for festival and bluegrass folks. In that regard, Idaho-born Korby Lenker couldn’t have been a more perfect opener. The winner of last year’s Songwriter Showcase, Korby’s unique blend of folk, acoustic, and island-tinged music came on easy and delightfully. Following Lenker, Melbourne’s all-female Mae Trio took the stage, their bluesy take on bluegrass and folk music serving as the perfect lunchtime pick-me-up before some more traditional bluegrass music from Ben Sollee & Kentucky Native. Among others, Sollee’s refreshing take on Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was a fan-favorite and an impressive feat from a fairly young picker.
Hailing from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Mandolin Orange filled the mid-afternoon slot on Saturday, their slow, thoughtful songs steeped in bluegrass and good ol’ fashioned country music finding a perfect audience with the relaxed Folks Fest atmosphere. The band found themselves naturally at home on the Planet Bluegrass stage; their song “Wildfire,” from the 2016 album Blindfaller, resonated particularly well with the Colorado foothills crowd, many of them all too familiar with recent forest fires. Led by duo Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin, the group played a stellar set, heavy on songs from Blindfaller, proving their recent rise in the bluegrass and folk circuit shouldn’t be ignored. Folk legend Loudon Wainwright III followed, playing a handful of his classic folk songs, including “The Picture,” “Daughter,” “The Swimming Song,” and his hilarious “My Meds.” Loudon proved he’s still got it, cracking the crowd up and getting them up and dancing before one of the weekend’s more anticipated sets.
Elephant Revival took the stage in the early evening, the hot summer sun slowly relenting as a cool breeze came over the festival grounds. Opening with a pair of songs off of their newest release, Petals, the band shined with their newer, heavier sound on “Hello You Who” and “Home in Your Heart,” led by multi-instrumentalist and transcendental siren Bonnie Paine. A couple of songs later, the band welcomed Josh Ritter and Phoebe Hunt to the stage to join in on “Grace of a Woman. A beautiful tribute off of 2013’s These Changing Skies, fiddle players Bridget Law and Phoebe Hunt played some stunning duets on the song. Ritter remained on stage for “Girl in the War,” a poignant, evocative song covered occasionally by Elephant Revival at recent shows and truly brought to life with his presence. “When I Fall” and a rare cover of Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar” let the bass-heavy side of Elephant surface once again, with Dango Rose leading the band on electric double bass. Following a few more songs, the band closed out their Saturday set with members of Mandolin Orange, Ben Sollee, Phoebe Hunt, and Josh Ritter, playing “Good Graces” and a blistering take on “Rogue River.” New Orleans septet The Revivalists closed out Saturday night, understandably delighted to be the weekend’s one true rock and roll band. Lead vocalist David Shaw took no time getting to know the fans, while still staying plenty involved with the rest of the band. Each member of the group, from guitarist Zack Feinberg to drummer Andrew Campanelli, had their moment to shine as the band took us through a well-curated set of some of their better-known songs. They capped off the evening with a fiery version of The Beatles’ “With A Little Help from My Friends,” led by Shaw singing the song in true Joe Cocker fashion.
Sunday got started with Egyptian legend Ramy Essam, a true testament to the far-reaching, genre-bending selection artists at Folks Fest. Known for his appearances during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 in Cairo, his music felt especially fitting in light of recent events in Charlottesville and Boston here in the United States. Folk and bluegrass queen, Mollie O’Brien, played a lovely set with Rich Moore before Fort Collins’ SHEL took the stage. SHEL was one of the largely-unknown standouts of the weekend. Yet another all-female band, the four ladies stunned the folks in attendance with a delectable, distinctive sound. Constantly flirting with rock, folk, bluegrass, grunge, and other alternative genres, they played a music entirely their own, remaining social and engaged with what was likely a very large audience for the local band.
Canada’s Wailin’ Jennys took the stage next, with, you guessed it, more astonishing female leads, along with a couple lovely lads! The group was just another example of Planet Bluegrass’ ability to book incredible bands that most of us have barely heard of, but undoubtedly should have. Josh Ritter was a certain exception to that, but he wowed the packed Sunday crowd nonetheless, his huge, positive presence enveloping the crowd as one of the few solo artists of the weekend. He welcomed Daniel Rodriguez and Bonnie Paine from Elephant Revival on for a song, played an original take on the traditional song “Louis Collins,” and graciously opened the stage for Lake Street Dive shortly thereafter.
Having catapulted onto the scene in the recent years, Lake Street Dive is one of those constantly-hyped, “must see this summer” kind of bands. Having said that, the Brooklyn-based quartet lived up to their reputation beyond belief, playing an impossibly tight set reminiscent of the glory days of Muscle Shoals’ Swampers and Motown’s Funk Brothers. Frontwoman Rachael Price carries the torch and charisma of old female legends, with Bonnie Raitt and Aretha Franklin both coming to mind, while the always-stunning upright bass player Bridget Kearney keeps everything wonderfully put together. Opening the set with an acapella intro to their famous single “Bad Self Portraits” from the 2014 album of the same name, the band played the hits right off the bat, leaving time for them to dig deep into their catalog. They followed with “Neighbor Song” from 2010’s eponymous Lake Street Dive, gathering around a single mic a few songs thereafter for their stripped-down take on George Michael’s “Faith” from their 2012 album Fun Machine. Guitarist and trumpeter Mike Olson shined during the stripped-down segment of the set, and drummer Mike Calabrese played an impeccable solo before the band return to its full format. “Call Off Your Dogs,” “Side Pony,” and “How Good It Feels,” all off of their latest album Side Pony, each showcase the band’s obvious professionalism, their immaculate attention to detail and their sheer joy for playing good, timeless music. Another cover from Fun Machine, their rendition of Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It,” let Price flaunt some surprisingly strong guitar skills before ending the set with two more tracks off of Bad Self Portraits, “Seventeen” and “You Go Down Smooth.”
Not to be forgotten, the infamous Dave Rawlings Machine closed out the weekend with the classic, foot-stomping folk-rock music of Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch and friends. The group’s enthusiasm was infectious, the Sunday crowd wide-eyed and lapping up every second of the final set. His song “To Be Young,” co-written with Ryan Adams, rippled through the field, bringing dreary fans to their feet, as did his raw take on the Grateful Dead’s “Samson and Delilah.” Ultimately, this year’s Folks Festival proved one of the best yet, showcasing a broad variety of folk-influenced music from across the world, while constantly providing a relaxed, family-friendly outdoor atmosphere that rivals the most illustrious venues in the country. Planet Bluegrass in Lyons hosts a variety of other concerts this summer and fall, as well the annual Telluride Bluegrass and Rocky Grass festivals. More details can be found at bluegrass.com!
Check out the full gallery below, with photos by Chris Klein: