Rocky Mountain Folks Festival 2023
For over 30 years now, Coloradans and visitors to the Centennial State have been able to take advantage of a unique musical weekend in the foothills outside Boulder. The Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, organized by Planet Bluegrass (who also put on Telluride Bluegrass and RockyGrass) started in Estes Park (just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park) in 1991 before moving to its current home, the Planet Bluegrass Ranch in Lyons, about half an hour north of Boulder. The festival, and the site itself, survived a devastating flood in 2013, followed by pandemic-induced silence in 2020, to endure as one of the state’s most beloved events. What I learned by attending for the first time this year, though, is that it’s much more than music that makes the Folks Festival both exciting and important.
Our portion of the festival (which lasts three days in total) began early Saturday afternoon with an easy walk along the North Saint Vrain Creek from parking to the festival grounds (camping is also available). By then, the lawn was mostly full of families and groups in lawn chairs, on tarps and under shelters, but there was still plenty of room alongside (and in) the creek, with a decent view of the main stage. We found a spot for our chairs on the rocky shoreline as Leyla McCalla and her band were playing. A daughter of Haitian immigrants, MCalla’s latest album, 2022’s Breaking the Thermometer, deals with the instability and violent history of her parents’ home, but there’s also joy and beauty in her music, and that’s what shined through on Saturday. The easy rhythms and McCalla’s expert banjo playing (an instrument that originated in West Africa and was carried by enslaved hands through the Caribbean before arriving in North America) gave the folks in Lyons reason to dance, even under a brief, light rain shower.
After McCalla’s set, it was time to explore the grounds. Planet Bluegrass places a heavy emphasis on cutting down waste (or, as they call it, Sustainable Festivation). Beverages were served in plastic cups which, when brought back for refills, resulted in a discount. Food was served on reusable plates which could be returned to receptacles set up across the grounds. By the end of the night, this resulted in relatively little waste and as tidy a festival grounds as I’ve seen.
Back to the music – New Englander Stephen Kellogg was up next on the main stage. Simply a man and a guitar, Kellogg shared stories of trying to raise four daughters while constantly touring (Folks Festival is a very family-oriented event, so these tales landed perfectly). Replacing guitarist extraordinaire Celisse on the bill was Katie Wise & Bhakti Explosion with JJ Jones. Billing themselves as “mantra rock,” this chant-loving group has found the right home in Boulder and an appreciative crowd at Planet Bluegrass Ranch.
As dusk approached Lyons, Colorado, it was time for the nationally known touring artists. Roots rock duo (and husband and wife) Shovels & Rope took over, with Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst trading instruments and vocals on the crowd-pleaser “Colorado River” and their familiar tune “Birmingham.” Wrapping up the night on the Main Stage was Josh Ritter & The Royal City Band. The singer-songwriter-author performed with his full band, solo, and as a duet with bassist Zack Hickman. And, after wandering the grounds during the evening, we returned to our seats by the creek – where we now had a space to ourselves – to soak in the music while gazing at the stars in the clear night sky. A good musical festival is about, well, the music. A truly memorable one, like the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, is made up of so much more.
Go here to read more about Planet Bluegrass: https://bluegrass.com/