Back to the Folks Festival 2016
Finding Folks 2016
“To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.” -Mark Twain
I haven’t done much studying of religion since I converted from Holy Communion to donuts and coffee on Sunday mornings around 1967. However, I do remember the story in Genesis of the "Tower of Babel" that God used to cut humans down to size when they tried to rise above their raisin' by building a skyscraper intended to reach heaven. The Supreme Being put the kibosh on the construction by sending the petty humans in different directions speaking a myriad of tongues. Instead of one people, speaking one language there were thousands of confounding forms of communication which put on end to the skyward thrust of those Old Testament monolith of hubris. While Lyons, Colorado does not have a tower of Babel it does have a sort of silo/ivy-covered tower that symbolizes the opposite of that scattering of the languages in the Holy Land. In Lyons, in mid-August the Millennials speak to the Gen-Xers who translate for the Boomers in the tongue of music which is understood by all in an astounding gathering of the tribes on the sometimes rain-freshened pastures of the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. As has been said by many and many times it is the vibe of the festival so full of love, peace and understanding that is unique. This is my understanding for sure, at least in my audience participation since the summer of Love which wasn’t completely full of love anyway. Most musical gatherings are rife with strife but problems in Lyons might be running out of Moscow Mule mix by 7 pm. My great-niece lost her wallet full of cards and cash, only to find it undisturbed at the Lost and Found the following morning. Try that in LA!
Folks old, new and in-between sit together, sip together, eat together and even sing or dance together as dozens of musical acts spread their own flavor of this universal language from the old stage that actually rose up out of a seemingly Biblical flood just a couple of years back. While the reason for being of this event is a celebration of the best and most underappreciated music in America the festival is more than just musical. The joys of the three days present a large umbrella of sensations from bouncing down the St. Vrain river in an inner tube, to dozing under an easy-up on the meadow near the surviving Oak tree. Kids run free and friends can’t help but converse while some life changing lyrics roll through the sunshine or surprise rain-showers. The comradery of festivarians extends to compliments on your t-shirt or tattoo while waiting in line for pot stickers or Boulder Ice Cream after picking your way across the gravel through this sort of gold camp of experience. Despite the macrobiotic eaters and gluten free freaks there is a smokers tent, still populated by those who experience nicotine and other more mind enhancing substances not far from Craft Beer and Gin drinks that seem perfectlty logical at 5 O'clock. After all, we are on vacation so have a corn dog or one of those hot fudge sundaes because festival calories don't really count. Conversations come easy at the communal tables by the Wildflower Pavilion where we discussed Grateful Dead shows in the early 1970’s and the year it poured rain but Patty Griffin blew us away even as we hunkered under blue tarps. This year, after having to skip 2015 I approached Lyons with a greater appreciation and pondered the easy synchronicity of the physical setup of this huge undertaking. The technical crews here are real professionals. The sound is always top-notch, the acts are always on time, the lighting is evocative and if there was a need for security I am sure that would be done with aplomb. Blending staff and volunteers is way harder than it looks and the Folks Festival maintains order without ever seeming to utter a discouraging word. They have everything under a relaxed control except Mother Nature.
Friday was a bit of a challenge but the tarps were down and wise Festivarians were ready, up until the wind blew the rain sideways and thunder shook the red rocks. There were murmurs but no one left including the stalwart old pro Cheryl Wheeler who laughed at lightening and provided some electrical moments with lyrics tested over decades. It felt like she was speaking to me when she sang “I suppose stranger things have come to pass/ many’s the forest I can’t see/ I was so down and lost and fading fast/ how did you find your way to me?
The music stayed strong with the visually and musically lively set by David Wax Museum followed by the excellent singing of evocative lyrics by Passenger who had the unenviable task of preceding the legendary Lucinda Williams. When he sang “Anywhere” the high provided made you believe every word. While Lucinda is indeed legendary she did have to prove it and she did hedge her bets with one of the world’s strongest lead guitarists in Stuart Mathis at the front of a truly great band. She rocked hard and carved in oak one more show demonstrating her greatness with even some clever political statements that got the faithful roaring their approval.
It’s impossible to describe every moving moment of memorable song since each set has their share but I have my favorites. While Parker Milsap has a voice like dripping honey tinged with some Kentucky sour mash and Kathy Mattea carries on a glorious tradition of fine women songwriters my Saturday was defined by Darrell Scott and the gilt-edged greatness of Mavis Staples. Scott is the best kept secret in America if what you don't hear on the radio is any way to judge talent. He is a gifted guitarist, a brilliant songwriter and his voice is without peer in today’s folk idiom. If country stations played Darrell Scott it would improve the brand by 500%... but they don’t. When he played “Uncle Lloyd” it was challenging to mop tears off my face with a straw hat. La Staples got the entire meadow on their feet including my septuagenarian siblings and made her set a celebration of the power of song sacred and profane. This is a woman who lived with segregation and terrible repression but turns all of the ugliness she has borne to shame with her grand spirit and rare talent.
Sunday, the last day when the petrol is normally a little shallow in the tank for we Boomers was intentionally invigorating with the cool and clean Darlingside elevating the lyrical barre, followed by the unique singing of the Ukraine’s “Dakha Brakha” whose harmonies were other worldly and their head gear amazing in the heat of Colorado. The all-important late afternoon set by Lone Bellow proved to be the most solidly satisfying of the festival that pumped up the crowd for the all-too-filled with audience participation numbers by the beloved Dougie Maclean. While the faithful did get to hear a song so popular it is considered an anthem in not one but two countries (Caledonia) they heard themselves singing verses more than they heard Dougie. He was charming and showed a beautiful voice and guitar skills but he should have done more solos. The festival ended as did each night directed at the Gen-X middle ground with the Decembrists; just as Conor Oberst had held the spot on Saturday and the wildly talented Andrew Bird on Friday. While I am sure they were all mouth-gapingly awesome and it certainly was reported that they were I was at the mercy of family who paced themselves for the long haul which ended around 9 p.m. Nothing makes the younger generations happier than telling you just what you missed.
Last year at this time I was lost in a sea of medications and uncertainty so to fold up my low-backed chair, sling my camera bag over my shoulder and point my tiny flashlight at the sod of Lyons after three sweet days was a kind of victory I could not believe was possible those many months ago. What better tonic for anybody than to join the multitudes in this annual celebration of what makes life beautiful and worth observing every year, despite the ravages of Father Time. When we Boomers have finished decimating the planet and spreading our fertilized legacy the Millennials will look back on these days and describe how great the Decembrists, Conor Oberst and Andrew Bird were back in the teens.