Lyons Laughs Last at Mother Nature
My nephew sent me a video last September that turned my stomach as I viewed the murky waters surge past where my family and I had sat in years past. So, the feeling of crunching down the main path toward the big stage on August 15th and finding the meadow filled with tarps and the folks who spread them was like seeing a long lost and dear friend. While the St. Vrain River is still fenced off in parts and uphill toward Estes Park looks like a Breughels painting of hell, the big stage stands high, dry and proud. Save one hell of a cloudburst on Friday afternoon it was a typical Folks Festival with a corn flower blue sky overhead, punctuated by puffy clouds and a good, strong Colorado sun illuminating the young, the grizzled and the in-between. Organization was so smooth that it gave cause to wish Planet Bluegrass might take on Congress and get that mess straightened out.
Oh yes, there was music in unforgettable sets that may have strained the Folks Festival Hall of Fame. It was truly a year for the women who rose above even some genuine living legends during this wonderful weekend. Each act seemed to feed off of the spirited performances before them and gave it their all…even the first acts to hit the stage. Women, as different as the sweet powder snowflakes of Colorado gave inspired performances that begged for encores in other times and places. Early on, Sarah Jarosz was superb, with clean, confident folk, spiced by covers from rock and pop legends like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Cat Stevens. Ani DiFranco, the ageless role model and resident sage provided powerhouse impossible to define pop filled with thoughtful, socially conscious lyrics and fiery arrangements brought to the center by her guitar playing. Alynda Lee Segarra of "Hurray for the Riff Raff" spoke out for the people in the rapidly growing fringes of society in smart, insightful and passionately done songs. Imelda May was more like the pure musical Id rocking hard with no apologies for her rockabilly roots. In the pre-prandial performance of Saturday Ms. May and her scintillating guitar-playing husband raised temperatures in the already warm Lyons sun. Brandi Carlile was not to be outdone and finished the evening with an energetic and at times sensitive set that showed versatility and a connection with the audience that was very strong. Her songs were colorful, high-octane pop that made you forget the walls people seem to put up between themselves. When she sang “Keep Your Heart Young” my old blood felt revitalized. Last of the big-time ladies was the rookie of the year: Rachael Price of “Lake Street Dive” whose huge voice belies her petite beauty. Not exactly an overnight sensation, Lake Street Dive seems to be building a momentum that will give rise to folks bragging in the future of seeing them back in 2014. Price has versatility, charm and a voice as big as the Flatiron mountains smiling down on her Sunday set.
Ladies aside, there were so many other indelible memories in this year of the rebirth. There were expert songwriter gentlemen like John Fullbright and Josh Ritter. Fulbright’s beautiful love songs “When You Are Here” and “She Knows” show that there are young people who can teach us a thing or two. Ritter’s “Joy to You Baby” was worth a day in the sun alone. As for ensembles the very young and very good “Stray Birds” were the embodiment of the beauty of traditional music, playing clean and pristine lines that go back a long, long way. Again, without straining to define the style or influences of “Elephant Revival” this quintet created a mid-afternoon concert of such grace and inspired playing that it was terribly sad to see it end. Where else could you see washboard playing that is downright erotic. What gives “Elephant Revival” such a compelling charm is their utter synchronicity that blends to make a big, versatile sound with places for individual expression. You would also have to say that Ron Poltz was the embodiment of the spirit of Lyons when he soldiered on, sharing his set with a cloudburst that challenged artist and audience to stay and be moved, which they were in most part despite getting soaked.
There were impressive newcomers like Antje Duvekot and a song called “Dandelion” that defined the beauty of confidence and rocking Ron Pope who played the rock guitar like legends of 45 years ago, then crooned a sweet love song that won over the festivarians. Yes and the veteran Peter Himmelman who once again made an entire audience get up and laugh and dance. Brave young Ben Sollee began Sunday in the tough curtain raiser slot with just his nice baritone and a cello but won the morning.
Lastly, there were the two towering old professionals, two guys who can be called genius without any argument. Festival favorite Greg Brown gave one more inspired effort filled with musical wisdom, laughs and the occasional wiping of tears. Is there a better song on planet earth than “Tender Hearted Child?” I don’t think so. Appropriately, since Brown performed later in the day he also described a few in my family “I gotta get up and move around/ It’s been a long way up and a short way down/ I got bones, bones, old bones, still bones/ I’m creaking and groaning like an oak tree bent/ that strong old fellow, what happened to him?” The finale was perfect with the great Randy Newman just sitting at his 88’s, pounding out one gem after another, interspersed by self-effacing humor that mixed a false arrogance with a celebration of the stages of life. He sang beauties like “Marie” and the so, so appropriate “Louisiana 1927” but he finished with a truly magnificent flourish, saving “Feels Like Home” from his brilliant opera Faust for the very wonderful last. It had been three days of brilliance, a weekend of inspiration, a trio of days to remember and a lot of Boulder ice cream.
photos: 1. festivarians, Sarah Jarosz, the stage, Greg Brown, Ani DiFranco, Sky, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Imelda May, Josh Ritter, Brandi Carlile, Drepung Loseling Monks, Elephant Revival, Peter Himmelman, Festivarians, Ron Pope, Rachael Price, Randy Newman...