Nicki Bluhm, Jason Isbell and The Family Crest shine at Lyons' Folks Fest

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Nicki Bluhm channeling Grace and Dolly at this weekend' Folks Fest in Lyons. - PHOTO BY LORING WIRBEL
  • Photo by Loring Wirbel
  • Nicki Bluhm channeling Grace and Dolly at this weekend' Folks Fest in Lyons.
No matter the breadth of talent booked by Planet Bluegrass for each year’s Folks Fest in Lyons, a significant number of Festivarians arrive with a set agenda in mind.

For this weekend's 25th anniversary event, the planned draws included Sufjan Stevens’ first Colorado performance of the acoustic "Carrie and Lowell," an unusual joint appearance by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin, an emergence from seclusion by the elusive Gillian Welch, and the first showing by guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson since his stunning new album Still.

Even fans with the most predetermine agendas often run into utter surprises during each year’s festival, and Saturday's festivities were no exception, thanks to the gypsy folk act Taarka, the experimental spoken-word poet Shane Koyczan, indie-rock choir The Family Crest, and the madcap jam band Session Americana, produced by Anais Mitchell.

Still, the most interesting acts of any given year are typically ones that balance surprise and expectations – a hybrid of the set agenda and the total unknown. Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell's Pine Hill Project, for example, combined two beloved folk songwriters in an unexpected duo. Shindell in particular rarely appears in the U.S. since his move to Buenos Aires. The Pine Hill Project’s Kickstarter-funded album featured Kaplansky and Shindell offering 11 unusual cover songs. Some of these, like Dave Carter’s powerful “Farewell to St. Dolores,” were performed at Folks Fest. But so were some unreleased Shindell tunes like “Deer on the Parkway,” and a haunting Sept. 11 ballad by Kaplansky, “Brooklyn Train.”

Another artist that insiders thought they had pegged was The Gramblers, led by San Francisco’s newest chanteuse, Nicki Bluhm. Bluhm is a remarkable singer, but few in the audience expected her to channel elements of Grace Slick and Dolly Parton. Bluhm led The Gramblers through a set that steadily increase in power and decibels.

Even the well-known alt-country artist Jason
Isbell, who closed Saturday’s show, brought along some surprises. Isbell had a reputation for abuse of pills and the bottle, while he was in Drive-By Truckers and in his early solo years. Saturday night, however, proved a clean-and-sober salute to 12-step redemption. Isbell provided a powerful and crisp tour through his two most recent albums, Southeastern and Something More Than Free, minimizing the appearance of the more relentlessly depressing tunes in favor of those emphasizing hope. His violin player, Amanda Shires, was nowhere to be seen, as she and Isbell have married and are expecting a baby within weeks.

Isbell still knows where all the bodies are buried in the Deep South, but he’s given up pill laments for patter about diapers. The Folks Fest crowd loved it all, treating Isbell’s performance as just one more surprise in a weekend festival loaded with the unexpected. 

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