First things first: Beltania is primarily a festival for people practicing Earth-centered religions -- paganism, Wicca, Native American religions, or even a very steward-centered (and non-exclusive, non-judgmental) form of Christianity. The four-day festival in the mountains included rituals for men and women, a sweat lodge, workshops on everything from using herbs in ritual to mead-making, children's workshops, a full Maypole processional, ritual and dance, and much more. But the highlights for me were the musical performances, including the all-night drumming and dancing around a fire.
There were no concerts Thursday night, but Friday kicked off with an open mic hour and an up-and-coming hour before Pandora Celtica, a dark Celtic a capella band from Denver, took the stage. They were followed by Stone Walls, a traditional Irish pub band covering old-timey and modern music, and then champion fiddler Kenny Kline.
All of the above threw down solid performances, but I was glad they kept the more traditional/less experimental music for the daytime, when kids were bound to be up and about, and saved the best for last on both days. Gypsy Nomads, a duo hailing from New York and featuring French-born British chanteuse Samantha Stephenson and punk veteran Scott Helland on guitar, drums and drum loops, took the stage at 8:30 on Friday night and immediately won the crowd over with a unique blend of gypsy cabaret punk folk rock. The closest I can come to describing their sound is gypsy jam -- I hate jam bands, but I liked Gypsy Nomads, so they must have been doing something right.
Tuatha took over at 9:30 Friday night; the Fort Collins trance/world groove group kept everyone up and dancing until late. Except me -- it was cold, and I was in my tent. Sue me. I could still hear the all-night drum circle going, though, when the sun came up on Saturday morning.
Heartbeat, a new pagan rock group, led children's songs on Saturday from noon to 12:45 p.m., followed by Skean Dubh at 1:45 and the Orpheus Choir at 4. Pandora Celtica took the stage again, followed by Kenny Kline, Lara Jai -- a singer-songwriter who explores ancient cultures -- and Mountain Trance Medicine Band, which plays a mix of old-time bluegrass and tribal beats. The band's MySpace page describes them as "hillbilly on ecstasy," which sounds about right. Personally, I prefer my bluegrass un-tranced, but the banjo player could really pick up a storm, and all of the band members were talented and played well together, so although it wasn't my cup of tea, I still could enjoy the beats.
Gypsy Nomads re-took the stage at 9:30 p.m., and they threw down another solid set of their weird, experimental tunes. I really thought that this group was going to be the highlight of my weekend, but then Lunar Fire came on, a local group comprising members of the shamanic rock band Kan'nal. They call their music "Tribal Gypsy Hop," and I don't have anything to add to that -- I'll just say that I was in my tent, ready to bed down for the night, when their tunes roused me and I hiked back down to the main stage to see what they were doing.
Lunar Fire completely blew my mind. It's almost impossible to describe the experience. Their music is reminiscent of Thievery Corporation, and they incorporate visuals into the show -- a woman came out to belly-dance with a sword, first doing a very flirtatious, teasing dance with a red veil that she removed to reveal curled rams' horns atop her black hair. There were fire-dancers all over the place, many of them using objects I didn't even know you could light on fire (hula hoop, anybody?). From chains to hand-held flames to balls on chains to regular old fire-spinning sticks, this group seriously has one of everything -- anything you can imagine -- that can be set on fire and spun around for effect. Tiffany Smyth of ArtsMyths -- to whom we awarded a Best Of in 2009 -- created their masks and even appeared on stage to dance and help out with some of the visual effects.
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Lunar Fire plays strong, tribal beats, sometimes accompanied by haunting song, sometimes by spoken-word (in a variety of languages). Some of their songs were sweet and mellow, some more like ritual chants. All of them had the crowd dancing and swaying -- they played for three hours without anybody even noticing they'd gone an hour past their set time. They blend rap, disco, trance, bass funk and tribal percussion into a seamless blend. It was a surreal, spiritual and profound experience.
Afterward, I headed to the all-night drummers' circle and fire to see what was going on. Dancers circled the fire, some of them shedding items of clothing as they felt so moved ... but it was late, and I was cold, and aiming to get up for a 9 a.m. sweat lodge, so I left the fire around 3 in the morning and turned in.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: I hate jam bands. And I mean hate. The fact that I have something nice to say about Gypsy Nomads and Lunar Fire should tell you a lot. By The Way: The Beltania festival strives to use all local vendors and companies to put together the festival, from food vendors to printing programs. Random Detail: The bands camped among the attendees, making for some truly wild around-the-fire drum sessions.