Folks Festival 2019 Review: Planet Bluegrass Defines Festivals While Redefining Folk!
Folks Festival 2019 Review: Planet Bluegrass Defines Festivals While Redefining Folk!
Close your eyes.
Are they really closed? Probably not if you’re reading this. Let’s start over. Keep ‘em open for a sec…
Imagine the most scenic, immaculate and comfortable music venue. Fill it with people that are peaceful and cheerful. Place it on the banks of an amazing river. Build the stage and invite top-tier talent from around the world to perform upon it.
Now close your eyes… (but just for a moment – I want you to keep reading!)
What did you see?
Possibly, you just painted a picture in your mind that fits Planet Bluegrass in Lyons, Colorado to a tee.
There’s a reason the folks from Planet Bluegrass have been curating Folks Festival for almost 30 years. These ‘Folks’ know how to do it right. That is to be expected from the team that brings us Rockygrass (also in Lyons) and, possibly the most iconic string-centered festival in the world, Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Still, upon arriving at Folks Fest, it is striking just how perfect everything is!
I arrived and passed through the beautiful little town of Lyons, where plenty of visible signage easily pointed the way to the parking area.
After being directed to a spot by a team of smiling, friendly parking attendants, we then made the short and enjoyable stroll along the riverside path, over the newly constructed pedestrian bridge, and into the festival grounds. Once inside we easily picked up our credentials, again from smiling, friendly staff, and made our way into the 29th Folks Festival.
Through the main gate and past the many interesting vendors, one is immediately struck by the attention to order and detail the planners of this festival give.
Recycling stations are abundant, not as unattractive clusters of plastic bins, but instead as fitting wooden structures that add to the ambiance while serving an important purpose, instructing you into which bin to toss your compostables and recyclables.
There are also signs stating the rules of ‘tarping,’ a Planet Bluegrass tradition. Festivarians go through a process of lining up, getting numbers, and lining up again in order to place a tarp on the main festival grounds from which to enjoy the daily festivities. While many folks have mixed feelings of the ‘tarper’ philosophy, it leads to an orderly system that rewards those who have been playing along for decades with a comfortable spot to sit and enjoy the day. For those who don’t play the ‘tarp game,’ no worries. You’ll find room to stand and dance, as well as space to sit throughout the festival grounds.
One of the best features of Planet Bluegrass is its proximity to the St. Vrain Creek. Literally, right on it. Music can be enjoyed from the banks of the St. Vrain, or from within it, as many folks spend their day splashing and tubing in the rejuvenating waters.
The campgrounds for the festival are also extremely close to the river (or on it, depending on your spot) making for a weekend that is centered as much as playing in nature as it is on music and community.
Then there is the music at Folks Festival. Telluride Bluegrass has morphed into a conglomerate of musical styles – from bluegrass, jamgrass, rock and even some funk. Rockygrass brings the heavy hitters of the bluegrass world, with some slight genre-bending.
Folks Fest, in contrast, typically takes a turn to the more engaging and thoughtful acts, inspiring folks to really pay attention to the amazing artists sharing their stories with the grateful crowds. Of course, sometimes the Violent Femmes join the party and things get weird.
Friday at Folks Fest kicks off with the Songwriter Showcase, in which 10 finalists in the competition perform on the main stage for a new guitar and a spot on the 2020 festival lineup. The Showcase is a perfect way of ensuring the future of events such as this, and a way that Folks Fest continues to curate the best in up-and-coming musicians from around the country.
Folks Festival 2019 saw local musician Daniel Rodriguez, formerly of Elephant Revival, but now forging a strong musical presence of his own, wow the early Friday crowd. The beautiful duo of Mandolin Orange kicked the evening into gear before the one-and-only Ani Difranco hit the stage to remind everyone of the boundaries that can be shattered when folk music turns to punk.
Festivarians on Saturday were treated to acts such as Americana duo The Small Glories, who impressed the early crowd with their musicianship, harmonies and songwriting. The Steel Wheels brought their Virigina-based roots music to an enthusiastic audience, and The East Pointers maintained the energy that Folks Festival was going to need for the headliners of the evening.
Excitement started to build in anticipation of the Violent Femmes taking the Planet Bluegrass stage.
Personally, I have been a huge fan of Violent Femmes ever since I first heard them in 7th grade, which was sometime way back in the 1900s. Just about everyone knows the Femmes’ iconic self-titled album with the 80’s anthem, Blister In The Sun. Most casual listeners are still pretty familiar with every song on that album. Then there are the fans like myself, who never stopped listening to everything this amazing band from Wisconsin has ever produced, and realize just how important they are to the world of music.
While it may be tough to pigeonhole the Violent Femmes into a genre – they range from gospel and blues to bluegrass and rock, always with a heavy dose of murder-ballads – they have no doubt been heavily influential on modern ‘folk’ music. Anyone who questioned their inclusion at Folks Festival needs a bit of a musical history lesson, in my opinion!
Still, when the Violent Femmes took the stage and looked out upon a sea of folks seated in lawn chairs, they must have been a little taken aback, as this is not their usual experience.
I don’t know how much the setlist was altered in order to possibly shock the crowd onto their feet, but the result was evident.
Violent Femmes delivered an artful and energetic set that spanned their almost 40 year career. They hit on all the popular sing-alongs, like Add It Up and Gone Daddy Gone. The deeper and darker side of their catalogue was touched upon as well, with tunes like Country Death Song and Black Girls perhaps giving a little jolt to the older folks in the crowd, who, nonetheless, seemed to enjoy the show!
Knowing this was, after all, a “Folk Festival,” the Femmes rose to the occasion. On the most widely known Femmes song, Blister in the Sun, Gordon Gano grabbed the fiddle to pick the popular melody. Gano also incorporated the banjo on several tunes, while bassist Brian Ritchie hopped on the xylophone for a number. Drummer John Sparrow maintained the snare-driven percussion that defines the Femmes’ sound, even when a giant gong came crashing onto him after a gust of wind. He didn’t miss a beat, and performed his percussion solo on the Weber Grill that was incorporated into the kit.
The often reserved Folks Festival crowd danced and sang along, and the result was an energy that extended throughout Planet Bluegrass and beyond.
When headliner Ben Folds took the stage Saturday evening, the crowd was attentive and joyful. Folds played through a beautiful set of music that ended Saturday night at Planet Bluegrass leaving all Festivarians fulfilled.
While I was unable to attend on Sunday, the lineup made me wish I could. While many a festival tends to tone things down a bit on Sunday, Folks Festival seemed to do just the opposite. In contrast to many of the string-duos and vocal harmonizers of Friday and Saturday, the Sunday Folks lineup brought an unexpected bit of rock and funk.
Country-rockers The Gasoline Lollipops were on the stage mid-afternoon, possibly waking up any Festivarians that may have had a later-than-normal Saturday night at Planet Bluegrass. Later, The War and Treaty brought their funky Southern soul to Planet Bluegrass, before St. Paul and the Broken Bones hit the stage with a lineup of brass and funk that surely defied and delighted the gods of folk.
What is Folk Music? I don’t know, and won’t pretend to. I trust the good people at Planet Bluegrass to define these things for us. If they say it’s ‘Folk,’ I believe them!
All I do know is that, once again, Planet Bluegrass has dictated what a true music festival experience should be. Festivarians, folks and fans joined together to celebrate music, of all kinds.
Now you can close your eyes again, and think about joining us at Planet Bluegrass for the 30th Folks Festival in 2020!
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