Planet Bluegrass is nothing if not durable. That durability became a widely-disseminated story as the ranch and music festival operation in Lyons rebuilt when a historic flood utterly wrecked it last September
But this weekend's Rocky Mountain Folks Festival proved another kind of resilience, one that relates not to backhoes but to a line of people standing at the box office at midnight, swapping stories of Folks Festivals past.
Planet Bluegrass, like many similarly minded organizations and bands, has earned enough loyalty to have developed a culture rich with specific traditions. Of its three major events (it also operates Telluride Bluegrass and RockyGrass), Folks is the youngest (this was its 24th installment) and least demonstrative of those traditions. Still, there were plenty of oddities for a first time Festivarian:
So established is the Planet Bluegrass culture that it has its own all-purpose, one-word description. A Festivarian is someone who goes to these festivals -- that's how it was used when it first appeared in an adaptation of the poem Ithaca in a 1994 Telluride Bluegrass program. It caught on, and today the people are Festivarians and the things they do are Festivation. Both usages are common in conversation, signage and widespread, straight-faced documentation of Planet Bluegrass. I'm not sure if you can Festivate or if it's only acceptable as a noun.
The Tarp Run
People line up for music festivals. They also line up for carnival rides, sandwiches and the DMV. Lining up for stuff isn't remarkable. It is so unremarkable that we, as a society, try and avoid lines whenever possible and certainly don't think of them as anything other than a means to an end.
But at Planet Bluegrass, getting in first is a spectacle that begins at 10:30 p.m., eleven and a half hours before the gates open. Each night, people gather outside the box office, and at some time after midnight, a staffer randomly distributes numbers that determine your place in line the next day. That's a long time, long enough that people make a show of it, bringing instruments to play and getting to know the people around them. The next day, another line forms, comprising people who didn't get lottery numbers the night before. At Folks (the tame one, remember), it starts around 6:30 a.m. Festivation fills the hours.
Planet Bluegrass is a beautiful setting, an assessment so unassailable that every single artist who got on Folks Festival's stage made some mention of it. There are no bad seats on that ranch, especially now that they've given the lawn a gentle slope toward in the post-flood reconstruction. Sure, some people probably really want a particular patch of shade or want to reserve a huge area for all their friends, and they wait for the same reasons anyone waits in any line. But the magnitude of the tradition is such that some people definitely do it for no reason other than to participate -- because they enjoy the line.
At ten, the gates open, and an accordion and banjo duet ("the two most hated instruments" says a smiling Planet Bluegrass staffer) play a special arrangement of the William Tell Overture, and people sprint onto the ranch to lay their tarps. Spectators, some of whom definitely aren't watching their own tarps speed toward the front in the hands of their friends, line up along the fence outside the festival's boundaries and cheer them on. Everyone Gets a Standing Ovation
You can infer a great deal about the way a festival is run if people show up for fourteen straight years, wearing the old t-shirts and lining up for hours.
The Planet Bluegrass ranch has a capacity around 5,000, or half the size of Red Rocks. Music festivals and music festival organizations are cropping up constantly these days, and by and large their aspiration is to get bigger and then get bigger. They add second days, second weekends, cruise editions, (more) carnival rides. Planet Bluegrass, like many other niche operations that will outlive their power-and-profit hungry counterparts, seems to aspire to little more than doing stuff that makes the organizers happy on the grounds that it will make the specific audience they attract happy, too. If Coachella is the Monstars, then Planet Bluegrass is the San Antonio Spurs.
Folks Fest is mostly a sitting down thing. The clearest, simplest demonstration of the commitment of the organizers and faith of the attendees is that every single artist all weekend long got a standing ovation.
Rocky Mountain Folks Festival is designed to showcase great songwriting -- there is a week-long Song School that precedes the actual fest -- and this year's lineup featured a colossal array of talent, from underappreciated legends of the form like Greg Brown to flashy up-and-comers like Lake Street Dive to Randy Newman, who is possessed of such rare songwriting acumen that he's routinely described as a treasure. But the unsigned songwriter playing at 11 a.m., when most music festivals are getting their marketing campaign trade agreement battle of the bands winner out of the way, also earned a long, adoring applause.
Maybe that level of enthusiasm and respect for the lineups says something about the quality of the music or maybe it says something about the earnestness of the crowd, but probably it's both.
Rock Towers in the River
The St. Vrain creek runs adjacent to Planet Bluegrass. People set up lawn chairs in it and float down it on inner-tubes and, for reasons I am not enough of a Festivarian to pinpoint, build in it elaborate towers made of rocks. The creek is full of bright red Lyons Sandstone, which breaks in flat, sturdy pieces. You can build your tower high, and the water won't knock it down.