Review: 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival

The 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival ended a week ago and part of my head, heart and soul are still at the glorious Planet Bluegrass site along  the St. Vrain River. My toes are still feeling the water of this river run over them, my ears are still hearing the sounds of Elephant Revival, SHEL, Lake Street Dive, Dave Rawlings Machine and so many other incredible acts and my heart is still skipping beats when I think about how breathtaking my first trip to Colorado was and how just about every moment of the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival was damn near perfect.

festival crowd collage
Various shots of the Planet Bluegrass grounds at the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival.
Photos by Aimsel Ponti

This is a festival that cares about the environment (incredible recycling efforts) cares about people’s bellies (incredible food vendors…omg the dumplings!) and cares SO MUCH about an incredible line up.

Here’s that beautiful river that festival folks were hanging out in all weekend long.

River good
The lovely, mellow, chilly and absolutely perfect St. Vrain River.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

This is what me and about 5,000 other music lovers  took in over the course of three magical days:

The pocket schedule perked on the knees of yours truly in my happy spot.

For the first few hours on Friday I flitted about checking out everything, stood in the river a few times and paid a visit to the General Store (merch tent) where I promptly bought an official festival t-shirt and a super cool Rhiannon Giddens one.

The first order of business for me started Friday afternoon with Mary Gauthier in the Wildwood Pavilion. It’s a barn-like structure on the festival grounds that was a beehive of music all weekend long. I’ve seen Gauthier a few times through the years and she’s one heck of a compelling songwriter, to say the very least. She played the tender, hopeful, compassionate and frankly important song “Mercy Now” and led us in a sing-along of a freshly-written satirical take on “Na Na Na Na Na…Hey Hey Goodbye,” during which she name-dropped the likes of Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer and several other former yahoos of the Trump administration. It was awesome.

Mary Gauthier
Mary Gauthier in the Wildwood Pavilion during the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Gauthier also brought sixteen-year old Bella Betts from the songwriting school (this happens in the week before festival kick-off) on stage along with several other students and teachers to sing the song Betts wrote called “We Are All The Same.” Gauthier urged people to record it and thankfully several did because this song blew us all away. For real. Tears streamed down my face.

Watch this:

After wiping away of tears and joy from Mary Gauthier  & company, I made my way to a grassy spot I had staked out earlier and settled in for The Weepies. They’re  the duo of married couple Deb Talan and Steve Tannen and they’re a pair of indie-folk firecrackers. And even though I’m still schooling myself on their tunes, their set was tremendous and it included “Not Your Year,” so near and dear to my heart.

Thirty minutes after The Weepies ended, Rhiannon Giddens and her band were on stage. I was bummed to have missed her show in Maine a few weeks before the festival but was SO HAPPY to finally be seeing her.  Her band Caroline Chocolate Drops is excellent and so is her solo work, especially the new album “Freedom Highway.”

Rhiannon ONE
Rhiannon Giddens at the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

The song “At the Purchaser’s Option” was inspired by a print advertisement in the 1800s for a 22 year old slave woman that Giddens saw in a book. The woman also had with her a nine-month-old baby who was “at the purchaser’s option.”

Rhiannon TWO
Rhiannon Giddens at the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Giddens channeled her sadness in thinking about what that woman’s life must have been like into a powerful, searing song. Her voice is a mountain of glory.  Giddens plays banjo and violin (and I suspect a number of other instruments) and her set was jaw-dropping at the festival. “You take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood but not my soul.”  I won’t be missing her next time she comes to Maine.

Closing out the first night was a guy that I’ve been a from-a-distance fan of for a few years but am WAY INTO; Gregory Alan Isakov.

Gregory Alan Isakov
Gregory Alan Isakov at the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

I mean honestly, what’s better than his song “Liars?” In fact, that entire live album he recorded with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra is excruciatingly magnificent.  Isakov and his band ended the first day of the festival in brilliant fashion.  After his set,  I made my way back home to my temporary home, climbed the ladder up to my sleeping loft and fell into a deep slumber, in a state of disbelief that there were still two more days ahead.

Saturday morning kicked off with a set by someone new to me: Korby Lenker. He’s a singer-songwriter out of Nashville and he charmed the pants off of me with his tune “My Little Life.” Lenker was the winner of the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest Songwriters Showcase 2016, earning him a spot on the main stage at this year’s festival. Hey Korby, come to Maine. Let’s hang.

The happy voyage of new music discovery continued with the very next act; Australia’s The Mae Trio. They’re sisters Maggie Rigby, Elsie Rigby along with  Anita Hillman and they’ve been out on the road in support of their latest release, “Take Care Take Cover.” Facebook tells me that  “They perform an insightful collection of original songs arranged for ukulele, banjo, guitar, fiddle, cello, bass and superb three part vocal harmony. ” I can tell you all that’s true! Check them out when you get a minute.

I had to retreat to my  loft for a brief recharge but heard great things about Ben Sollee & Kentucky Native and  Mandolin Orange. But I made it back in time for a fun set from the legendary Loudon Wainwright III. He’s got a hilarious song about prescription medications and really got the crowd going.

The second to last band to play on Saturday was one that completely dazzled me and I became a HUGE and INSTANT fan of. Elephant Revival!!! They’re based in Nederland, CO and are a six piece “experimental/folk/Americana” act. All I know is that I could listen to Bonnie Paine sing tax returns and it would be awesome. She also plays washboard, djembe, musical-saw and the stomp-box. Holy bananas. The other singer is Daniel Rodriguez who also plays guitar, banjo and bass. Where has this band been all my life?

Their set was effing awesome, their originals are to die for and then they put me into absolute orbit with a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar.” Holy smokes. There’s even a clip of it someone shot at the festival. 

Elephant Revival
The Elephant Revival at the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

The Revivalists out of New Orleans closed out the festival on Saturday night and they were yet another band I didn’t know anything about who were absolutely fantastic.  I did however find myself singing along to the last song, “Wish I Knew You” which I realized I had heard a bunch on the radio. Great song. Great band.  Singer David Shaw is the perfect frontman. I’m gonna HAVE TO see this band again.

I awoke on Sunday morning both ecstatic and kind of sad because on the one hand, the lineup was for the day was almost too good to be true, but on the other hand, it was the last day.

I got there at by ten, grabbed a tasty breakfast burrito from the food area and enjoyed sets by Egyptian singer-songwriter (and superhero, look this guy up) Ramy Essam and then Mollie O’Brien & Rich Moore.

Then at 1:30 the primary reason I came to Colorado took the stage. I’ve been ALL ABOUT SHEL for a little over a year ever since they came to Portland (ME) in July of 2016. When I came up with a list of my favorite songs of 2016, one of their songs was at the top. The last time I saw them was in a Tennessee cave. This festival was the sixth time I’ve seen them play live and each time I am pretty much at a loss for words because they’re THAT GOOD. SHEL is an acronym for the four sisters in the band; Sarah (violin, guitar), Hannah (keys, piano, accordion, vocals), Eva (vocals, mandolin, guitar) and Liza (drums, beatbox, percussion, vocals). Click on the cave link above for a ton more background on the band. The only thing that frustrates me about SHEL is that they make me feel like a lousy writer because I always struggle to find just the right string of words to express how over-the-moon talented they are. They’ve been at it since they were kids and make it look easy. They’re the kind of band that belong on a stage. At present they have two full-length albums, a holiday EP and a few other odds and ends out there. Expect a covers EP soonish. In the meantime, feed your ears with what’s out there because SHEL is a really special band.  And follow them on Facebook, etc. And join their mailing list at because you don’t want to miss them if they come anywhere near you. Dig?

Upper left= Eva, upper right = Liza, lower middle = Sarah, lower right = Hannah
SHEL photos by Aimsel Ponti

Listening to them – especially live – is an experience that is many things at once; uplifting, riveting, emotional, immensely satisfying and most certainly one that sends shafts of light zooming through every corner of my heart. Their performance at the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival was all this and more. With songs like “When the Dragon Came Down,” “Stained” and “Is the Doctor in Today,” not to mention their homage to Led Zeppelin with “The Battle of Evermore” they nailed it and as I looked around I could see the crowd was very much into it. I’ve noticed this every time I’ve seen them.  Judging by the length of the line of fans in the merch area afterwards, it’s safe to say they made a lasting impression. In fact, after their set it I realized I didn’t have a proper photo and so I properly fangirled and a helpful stranger was kind enough to snap a few pics, including this one: (yeah, I look nerdy as hell {per usual}but the band all look fab and smiley).


And the festival could have ended right then and there and I would have walked away feeling tremendous gratitude.

But it wasn’t over. Not by a long shot. In fact, the very next act was The Wailin’ Jennys.

The Wailin' Jennys
Heather Masse, Nicky Mehta and Ruth Moody. AKA The Wailin’ Jennys
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

To know the Jennys is to love the Jennys. Close harmonies for days. P.S. Heather Masse is FROM MAINE. If you aren’t hip to the Jennys, get hip. Trust me! A fellow festival goer shot this clip of them playing Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” and it’s brutally great.

Again, the festival could have ended and I would been entirely fulfilled. But nope, it wasn’t over yet. Not only was it not over, the next act was one of my favorites of the past couple of years. Three words: LAKE STREET DIVE!!!!!

Lake Street Dive
Lake Street Dive photos by Aimsel Ponti

I think this was my third time seeing them and I’ll keep coming back because Mike Calabrese, Rachael Price, Bridget Kearney and Mike “McDuck” Olson are absolutely electrifying. They’ve cornered the market on a throwback sound that’s also, somehow, 100% modern. “Side Pony” is their latest record. Jump into Lake Street Dive pronto! One last thing, Dear Lake Street Dive, please record that “Jameson” song. I love it so much. Thanks. Love, Aim.

All good things must come to an end, even the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. But boy did it end on an indelible note. I had seen Gillian Welch several years ago so already knew how great she was, but this was the first time seeing Dave Rawlings Machine. The lineup, and I *think* I’ve got this right, is Rawlings, Gillian Welch, Willie Watson, Paul Kowert and Brittany Haas.

Rawlings Machine group
Dave Rawlings Machine
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

I almost lost it several times during their set. I didn’t really recognize the songs but it didn’t matter AT ALL. Take this one for example. I sat there dying inside.


It was just after ten when Dave Rawlings Machine closed out the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival on the best note possible: Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

Final thoughts:

Thank you to Brian Eyster from Planet Bluegrass to responding when this writer gal from Maine reached out with an “So I’m thinkin’ ’bout comin’ to Colorado” email.

Thank you to my friend Lal for welcoming me with chilled Prosecco and a place to lay my head at night.  Up for a guest in 2018?

Thank you to all of the festival staff and volunteers who worked tirelessly.

And perhaps most of all,  THANK YOU to all of the musicians who poured your hearts and souls into your performances. I’ll never forget it.

To my fellow music fans, if you’ve never been to the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival,  let it be known that the 2018 dates are August 19 – 19. Keep your eye HERE for details.  Oh and if you’re a camper, that’s a HUGE dealio at this festival.

I left a little bit of my heart in that river, on that grass and on the side of the stage in Lyons, Colorado. That’s the highest praise I know how to give this festival. Thinking about it now,  my heart swells, my eyes get misty and I know I’ll often think back to those three days.

I’ll leave you with this very special montage. Thanks, Shamus Alley, for having the mad video editing skills that maybe someday I’ll learn.

Ponti out.

4 thoughts on “Review: 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival

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