The three-day Rocky Mountain Folks Festival came to a close under the stars Sunday night in Lyons, Colorado, with a very politically incorrect Randy Newman somehow keeping the crowd on his side ... and on the edge of their seats.
So what if he mangled "Short People," adding a couple of four-letter words not found in the original version. "You'd think I'd remember that, you know," Newman said at the piano bench 12 minutes into a set that ultimately fell short of his allotted time. "It's like having a hit with 'Purple People Eater.' "
Whether he was playing it up for laughs or having a senior moment didn't matter. The acerbic wordsmith and the 19 artists who preceded him on the main stage succeeded in putting this mountain community up Highway 36 from Boulder in a celebratory mood and -- for a mid-August weekend at least -- forget about their troubles that started last September.
Also among the comeback players of the year from the 500-year flood were the folks at Planet Bluegrass, the organization responsible for putting Lyons in the festival business.
Before introducing Irish rocker Imelda May on Saturday, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper praised Planet Bluegrass president Craig Ferguson and his staff, saying, "I have to confess ... we were gonna get those roads done by Dec. 1 no matter what, but I wasn't sure he'd have it ready for all of you. And so Craig and the team at Planet Bluegrass, give them a huge hand. They have done a miracle here and I stand here on behalf of the entire state of Colorado to say how important Planet Bluegrass and Lyons are to Colorado."
Later that night, just before Brandi Carlile's remarkable headlining performance, Ferguson (right), the president of Planet Bluegrass, offered his own emotional recount of the flood. Seeing the St. Vrain River turned into a "raging lake" from a cliff overlooking his Planet Bluegrass Ranch property, he and his family had escaped their home while reluctantly leaving their dogs behind.
"Me and the kids and mom were pretty shocked," Ferguson said. "So we collect ourselves in town, trying to bring sense to what we do next. ... I was in a hurry. What I heard was the dam broke, at any minute there (would be) a 20-foot wall of water. The next day after the flood, I did something really stupid. I tubed across the river ... I wanted to check on the dogs. So I tubed across the river and I get to my house, there's 2 feet of mud in there, I'm sloshing through, I go upstairs and there's the dogs up on my bed, wagging their tails."
The Fergusons and the family dogs recovered, and 11 months later, the spirited representation of that resiliency was standing before a sellout crowd, dying to take their picture as incontrovertible evidence that wonder in the world does exist.
Festival musicians found other ways to pay tribute, either through song, including Elephant Revival's "The Garden," or truth-in-advertising endorsements by thankful artists such as Carlile, Lake Street Dive's Rachael Price and Sarah Jarosz, who Friday completed the Planet Bluegrass trifecta after previously playing the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Lyons' RockyGrass.
Now 23, the multi-instrumentalist has three albums under her belt, including Build Me Up From Bones, a Grammy nominee for best folk album that's in the running for the Americana Music Association's album of the year next month.
"Planet Bluegrass has the best festivals in the world, in my humble opinion," said Jarosz, the wise-beyond-her-years singer-songwriter who first attended RockyGrass Academy at the age of 11.
No argument here, but some performers let their actions speak louder than words. Just committing to the festival was a sure sign of faith that everything was gonna be all right.
Dispatch, including Denver native Brad Corrigan, and Ani DiFranco were among the major acts that agreed to appear even when this year's festival was in doubt -- then showed up for exhilarating sets on the main stage lasting 60 to 90 minutes that made for an incredibly moving experience.
Of course, RockyGrass in July gave curiosity seekers and true bluegrass fans a sneak preview of Planet Bluegrass 2.0. But the party really got started at this 24th annual Folks Festival, with an impressive lineup of must-see acts, all confined to one main stage.
The artist has your undivided attention, and vice versa. Having to choose between Neil Young and Jack White at the 2012 Austin City Limits Music Festival is never a concern in Lyons or Telluride.
So while Planet Bluegrass and Lyons take a well-deserved bow and/or break, here's a rundown of my Five Folks Festival Faves of 2014. Four are so-called solo acts (though three of them have established working relationships with strong supporting band members) that I had the pleasure of seeing for the first time. The other is a group that's been together for about a decade, but is breaking out in a big way in 2014. In chronological order:
Greg Brown, 5:30-6:45 p.m. Friday, Aug. 15
With his "dear friend," tiny Ani DiFranco, going unnoticed while sitting in the VIP area's front row before her set, this Iowa son of a preacher man had no tricks up his sleeve -- just a booming baritone and acoustic guitar while sitting comfortably during his entire set.
An early afternoon downpour might have made some folks nervous, but a relaxed Brown was as cool as the refreshing temperatures, gliding through his set with effortless charm, wearing a cowboy hat, North Face sweatshirt and long camouflage shorts that he said were still drying out after spending part of his day fishing the St. Vrain River at a higher elevation.
"There's a great spirit around here. Has been for a long time. Will be for a long time," Brown said before tearing into "Down in the Flood."
Mid-song, his welcomed comments undoubtedly touched the nerve of many flood victims as he shrewdly observed, "Sometimes when there's a big old flood, that's what they say, the insurance companies and people like that, 'It's your fault.' Kinda funny after you've been sending money to insurance companies week after week, month after month, year after year, you have a little trouble, they don't want to pitch in too much, do they?' "
Back for his 13th appearance at the Folks Festival, Brown let his "Freak Flag" fly again, while leaving students attending the week's Song School something to think about before offering slice-of-life examples with "Bones Bones" and "Fat Boy Blues."
"It's not hard to write a song," he said frankly, recalling the time he was walking around his farm in southern Iowa. "If it was, I couldn't to it. ... Of course, it's easy to write a song when there isn't a whole helluva lot else to do. ... I started walking around just moaning. I was just going, 'bones, bones, old bones. Stiff old bones.' So I did that for about a year. And then I turned it into a song. So you could do the same thing."
That sounds simple enough, but it would be interesting to hear what his folk-singing wife Iris DeMent and daughter Pieta Brown, both deeply personal and thoughtful songwriters, might say about that.
Ani DiFranco, 7:15-8:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 15
The founder of her indie Righteous Babe label years before mainstream record companies went in the tank was one of the first musicians I interviewed while working at The Denver Post.
In that 1995 article where it was predicted she would have "a long and glorious career" (duh!), DiFranco was celebrating her independence as an artist willing to do what she wants with the ability to mix genres that might not seem to be a natural fit.
"I think traditionally that punk music and folk music have a lot in common," she said then at the tender age of 25. "Basically, punk and folk are the kinds of things you don't hear on the radio, you don't see in the stadiums; they usually come out of the community and they are very grassroots-based music ... and they don't have anything to do with (major) record companies."
Still as sharp and passionate nearly 20 years later, the New Orleans transplant and mother of two appeared at the Folks Festival for the fifth time, just days before announcing details about her 18th studio album, Allergic To Water, scheduled for an October release.
With Crescent City drummer Terence Jenkins and bassist Todd Sickafoose contributing to the propulsive beat, DiFranco presented solid new tracks such as "Happy All The Time" and "Careless Words."
Yet, after sharing a gentle behind-the-stage hug with Elephant Revival's Bonnie Paine, it was the opening "Angry Anymore" from 1999's Up Up Up Up Up Up that put her career in perspective.
There was bountiful joy spread across her face as she sang "I'm not angry anymore," from the song she said she wrote "long before it was true," finishing parenthetically with "Do you believe me?"
The wild cheers left no doubt.
Imelda May, 5:30-6:45 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 16
The crowd lulled into an afternoon nap got a jolt more powerful than a gulp of Irish coffee when this sexy siren from Dublin hit the stage after a special introduction by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who called May "one of the great Irish artists out in music today."
With a fine blend of punk spunk, hot blues, cool jazz and retro rockabilly, May's talents luckily aren't confined to the Emerald Isle.
Backed by a touring band of old-school musicians that includes her husband Darrel Higham (electric guitar), Dave Priseman (trumpet), Steve Rushton (drums) and Al Gare (electric and double bass), May first came to my attention in 2009, while invading America to promote her second album, Love Tattoo.
"I don't tend to set out on huge world domination goals or have anything in mind. I just like to play; I like to gig a lot; I like to write music," she told me during a phone interview.
Imelda May (right) performing on the Folks Festival stage
with guitarist -- and husband -- Darrel Higham.
Five years later, May has delivered a 2-year-old daughter and two more albums, including the fiery Tribal last month, which includes songs such as "Wild Woman," "Hellfire Club" and "It's Good to be Alive," all rave-ups she performed in Lyons.
Showing off a bewitching voice and dazzling smile, May did her best to motivate a mellower crowd, bonding with what she called a mosh pit of "caged animals" to the right of the stage. But just to make sure everyone else knew she felt comfortable in this environment and the tour bus didn't take a wrong turn, the red-hot singer in a slinky red dress confidently set the record straight:
"This is a folk festival. I know that. I'm aware of that. ... We're rocking our asses off up here," she said, her tone mixing swagger with compassion as some steadfast supporters applauded. "... I'm raised on old, traditional Irish music, and old roots American music as well. And I know very well if you didn't have folk music, you wouldn't have rock 'n' roll. ... I'd just like to tell you that in case anybody here's confused. (laughing, then saying what others were probably thinking) 'What the hell are they doing here?' "
If there were any questions by the end of her rollicking set that wrapped up with a tribute to Elvis -- "your King," May pointed out -- on the anniversary of his death in 1977, you couldn't tell by the number of well-wishers in the artist area behind the stage that included Hickenlooper (left) and his 12-year-old son Teddy.
With apologies to Jerry Lee, on a May day in August, there was a whole lot of handshaking going on.
Brandi Carlile, 9-10:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 16
"This is a triumphant, triumphant thing, this festival this year. Our hearts have been with you. We've been so excited to get here all summer long," said the brand new mother, who knows all about momentous events after her wife Catherine gave birth to Evangeline Ruth Carlile on June 15.
"What should we do?" she asked. "Maybe we should raise a little hell."
After opening with "Have You Ever," Carlile did just that with "Raise Hell" from 2012's superb Bear Creek. She was ably assisted throughout the night while flanked by longtime playing and songwriting partners (and twin brothers) Tim and Phil Hanseroth, along with drummer Konrad Meissner and Jeb "Eagle" Bows, the fiddler who's from nearby Ward, another small Colorado town affected by the floods.
"What Can I Say," "Again Today" and "Caroline" were popular selections early in the set.
Then the Washington state native who teased about having a Colorado house band strengthened her already firm connection with the Centennial State by singing with a familiar duet partner, Gregory Alan Isakov, on his "That Moon Song" and the Patsy Cline cover "You Belong to Me." The latter was one of the lovelier moments of the night after Carlile joked, "What's a folks festival without some out-of-tune shit," while adjusting her acoustic guitar for the intro.
Covering Dolly Parton ("the most punk rock female country and western singer") on "Jolene" and Fleetwood Mac ("The Chain") during the set's second half were highlights as Carlile's electric, charismatic performance left dizzy fans in her wake as she whirled and twirled across the stage.
Saving the tenderest moment for the finale, Carlile brought out her sister Tiffany for a heavenly rendition of "Calling All Angels," which Jane Siberry wrote, then performed with k.d. lang in the 1990s.
"I'm gonna send this one out to my little daughter Evangeline and my wife Catherine," said Carlile, noticing her 2-month-old attending her first concert was still awake backstage.
Calling all angels, calling all angels / We're trying, we're hoping, but we're not sure how this goes
Lake Street Dive, 7-8:15 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 17
The quartet of former New England Conservatory students named after a dive bar in Minneapolis seemingly has made a meteoric rise in 2014 after the February release of Bad Self Portraits, still my choice for album of the year.
Before tripping over one word, Folks Festival announcer Andy Schneidkraut aptly described the band as "that inexplicable intersection of all things musically tasty -- soul, pop, gospel, rock -- lying together in a jazz bed in an afterglow of bliss."
The "overnight sensations" -- lead singer Rachael Price, group founder Mike "McDuck" Olson (guitar, trumpet), upright bassist Bridget Kearney and drummer Mike Calabrese -- are actually seasoned performers who haven't made a Faustian deal with the devil to suddenly take the country by storm.
In our interview just a couple of weeks before their groundbreaking album rocked the nation, Price made that perfectly clear:
"For us, it's something that we've wanted for a really long time," she said.
Six months later in their first Folks Festival appearance, Lake Street Dive proved it with the most explosively tuneful set of the weekend.
In honor of the title cut from their most recent album, Price came up with the idea of taking "one big Rocky Mountain Folks Fest Bad Self Portrait. ... If you want to participate, pull out your device of choice, just turn around backwards so we're all facing the same direction, and snap yourself making your favorite bad face."
Lake Street Dive bassist Bridget Kearney (right) can't resist laughing
while lead singer Rachael Price poses for a Bad Self Portrait.
It provided a moment of comic relief, particularly Price's awkward pose. But their sounds were prettier than any picture, even as the sun started to set, as polished performances of swinging numbers such as "Rabid Animal," "What About Me," "Stop Your Crying," "Seventeen" and "You Go Down Smooth" showed off Price's powerhouse vocals and the group's exquisite harmonies and featured flashes of instrumental razzle-dazzle.
Technically, this was my second look at Lake Street Dive live after seeing an abbreviated eTown session in Boulder in March, but after witnessing this full-blown show, there's no telling how far they'll go from here.
With the buzz that spread throughout the festival grounds this night, expect this East Coast-based band to go west -- in Colorado and beyond -- for many more years to come.
As so many promising bands and veteran acts have already expressed, a stop at Planet Bluegrass is like living in another world.
Folks Festival photos by Michael Bialas. See more from this and other Planet Bluegrass events.