For three thoughtful souls with the power and resiliency to sing awfully sad songs, Missy Higgins, Joy Williams and John Paul White look pretty damn happy. And pretty damn pretty to boot.
Their show of emotion gave the folks on the final day of the 21st Rocky Mountain Folks Festival plenty of reasons to smile. Wrapping up the sold-out three-day festival in grand style on August 21, 2011, the efficient group that runs Planet Bluegrass also treated their loyal legions to a headlining acoustic performance by Jackson Browne.
Browne was a coup of sorts for the Lyons, Colorado-based organization that also runs the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and RockyGrass more orderly than a drill sergeant during basic training. And while the songwriting legend and member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame brought the hippie generation back to the '70s with classic tunes such as "The Pretender," "Take It Easy" and "Running On Empty," his solo set was more nostalgic than noteworthy.
That wasn't the case with Higgins, the Australian singer-songwriter making her third visit to the festival, or the Williams-White duo, more commonly known these days as The Civil Wars.
Each of their 70-minute sets was sad but true blue during a day of memorable moments. Canadian folkie (and Seth Rogen lookalike) Dan Mangan set the bar high in the early afternoon by leaping over a fence to join the just plain folk for a ridiculously infectious chorus of "Robots need love, too." Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops delivered a riveting rendition of Ethel Waters' "No Man's Mama" that could make any wronged woman feel empowered.
Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival:
From left, Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, Hubby Jenkins.
During a well-paced event with more mood swings than a Wall Street playground, it was an intimate folk-popera turn in The Civil Wars' daring Folks Festival debut that made everyone take notice.
Early on, White seemed overwhelmed by the crowd's undivided attention toward them. "It's amazing how quiet you're being," he said. "I cannot tell you how flattering that is to us."
Williams: "Maybe they were taking a nap. Maybe we put them to sleep."
White: "We are just the band for that."
The Civil Wars, gaining in popular and critical acclaim since the release of the superb Barton Hollow in February, made quite a first impression in Lyons, weaving their voices around each other's tighter than a loving couples' embrace. The fact that they are married to other people -- and have only been in a professional relationship since they were shoved into a room of songwriters at a Nashville songwriting camp three years ago -- makes their improbable pairing even more remarkable. (From left, Joy Williams, John Paul White.)
He said: "We knew nothing about each other whatsoever. It was this eerie thing where I knew where she was going and she knew where I was going."
She said: "We don't really even know how this seems to work, so we try not to quantify it very often."
The fact is, it's working. While Over the Rhine's real-life husband-and-wife songwriters Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have a firm grasp on authentic Americana, White and Williams could be the next best thing.
Looking dapper and debonair in his trademark dark suit and bow tie, the bearded White brings a soulful Southern touch to this class act. Williams, in an eye-catching black cocktail dress, provides California calm with a sunny disposition and the flowing hand movements of a delicate dancer. Having grown up in Santa Cruz, Calif., where she admits, "We hug trees there, too," Williams utters comments like, "This is a butterflies-and-rainbows kind of a day, I think." That draws the proper reaction from a guy who grew up in Alabama listening to bluegrass, folk and heavy metal:
"I don't think I've ever said that."
Mixing charm with artistry, Williams and White delighted their mid-afternoon audience by interjecting witty banter throughout a serious set of music that drew heavily from contemplative songs off Barton Hollow such as "Forget Me Not," "20 Years" and "Falling," the first song they ever wrote together.
"A lot of you probably don't know who we are, so we're gonna be doing something a little more familiar to you," a humble White said after they opened with four originals. "We figured out that this song is a lot sadder than the way people normally play it and we could not let that rest."
Their version of "You Are My Sunshine" manages to bring you deliriously down, unlike the way it's used to comedic effect by Caravan of Thieves.
Other covers by the Smashing Pumpkins ("Disarm"), Leonard Cohen ("Dance Me to the End of Love"), the Jackson 5 (an amazingly unrecognizable "I Want You Back") and Michael Jackson (a slower, sexier "Billie Jean") reveal a versatile and adventurous spirit.
By the time they closed with Williams adding a classical touch at the piano on "C'est la Mort" and "Poison & Wine," the stage was set for a return appearance.
"This is our first time here to this awesome festival and I hope it's not the last time," she said. "We would love to see you guys again. John Paul, someone just gave us rock horns at a folk festival and that made me so happy."
White's response? "That needs to catch on."
Happy or sad, this couple belong together. Even if they aren't.
All by herself, Missy Higgins was equally appealing. She followed an entertaining and energetic appearance by the Carolina Chocolate Drops that fit perfectly in between acts matching the Melbourne native's description of her set that night -- "acoustic and chilled."
Even though she was alone on stage, and missed out on celebrating her 28th birthday with her family to get to the States for this festival, Higgins (right) looked positively radiant. A pretty black sleeveless dress and a new 'do with blonde highlights were physical evidence that the loneliness and despair she often writes about don't get in the way of an Aussie having a good time abroad.
"Someone just asked for a happy song. I'm not sure if I have any," Higgins said partly in jest, searching for a missing pick while otherwise moving seamlessly from piano to acoustic guitar.
When a female fan shouted "Angela," her snappy tune from 2008's On a Clear Night that was inspired by a photograph of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Higgins seemed overjoyed -- and relieved. "That's good you said that because I was about to sing another song about being lonely," she offered with a laugh. "It's not that I'm an unhappy person at all; in fact, quite the contrary. It's just happens to be that when I feel like writing songs, and I'm feeling pensive and introverted."
Admittedly feeling high from the effects of jet lag and too much coffee, Higgins played it by ear without a prepared set list, heading into the punchy "Peachy" by saying, "I'm honestly racking my brains for positive songs that I have. Well, here's a song about ... oh, God, no, that's not positive either. At least it's upbeat and angry. Angry is better than sad, isn't it?"
Well, not necessarily. Higgins' sad songs were gripping and touching, and beautiful renderings of "All for Believing" and "Any Day Now" from 2005's Sound of White received reverential treatment from the hushed and huddled masses.
Spending the past few months in Nashville while recording her third full-length album, Higgins shared a couple of new numbers and the stories behind them. A heartbreaking "Cooling of the Embers" was written about her grandma who lives in a retirement home and suffers from dementia.
Intending to write a country song for Keith Urban about "getting drunk and one-night stands" -- until he changed his image -- Higgins decided to keep "If I'm Honest" for herself, along with the harrowing line, "nobody loves me the way that you used to."
Higgins also confessed that she went through an "existential crisis" about three years ago, when she contemplated never making music again. A spot on Sarah McLachlan's Lilith tour last year helped change that, along with the realization "that I should be very grateful to be able to do this for a living."
Seemingly at ease in "one of my favorite places in the world to play," the eco-friendly musician and part-time actress at least concluded her first visit to Lyons since 2008 on an upbeat note with the inspirational "Steer."
"Life is way too short and small to be not doing something that makes you fulfilled and happy and inspired," she said about experiencing an epiphany in Broome, a town in northwest Australia where she wrote most of her second album.
As she left the stage, Higgins seemed genuinely touched when a small contingent in the crowd serenaded her with a quick verse of "Happy Birthday."
What a perfect way to call it a night. Unless you prefer sad endings.
Photos by Michael Bialas. See more from Day 3 of the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival featuring Dan Mangan, The Civil Wars, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Missy Higgins and Jackson Browne.
Follow Michael Bialas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mjbialas