Northwest Denver Folk Festival – April 21st – The Oriental Theater

Photos by Ty Hyten

The Scene: The Oriental Theatre was home to the inaugural Northwest Denver Folk Festival this past Saturday.  The spacious theater was divided to three “stages” thanks to some creative planning.  There was a band in the lobby, a band on the main stage, and a band at the back of the seating area across from the stage.  The crowd was every bit as diverse as the acts they came to see.  There were elderly folks seated at tables, little kids running around, and the flannel clad folks you’d expect.  The beer was flowing and everyone was interacting with smiles on their faces.  The 700 seat theater was never more than a third full, but the people that were there seemed to stick around until the night concluded around 1am.

The Festival: I arrived a bit later than expected, but was pleased to enter to the sounds of the sultry folk and blues of Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore.  O’Brien and Moore’s music ranged from whimsical, theatric sounding narratives, to traditional blues.  Moore’s strong voice held the audience captive despite the fact that she was a bit older than bulk of the crowd.

Following Mollie and Rich’s set, the crowd did a180 to face the stage at the back of the house for another male and female duo, Porlolo. While much of the crowd talked in small groups the two played a melancholy, wandering brand of folk accompanied by two electric guitars. The electric guitars didn’t seem to fit the sad distant timbre of singer Erin Roberts’ voice, at least not in this setting, but I’m definitely open to seeing them play again.

Turning around I saw that the seven piece The Legendary River Drifters had gathered on the main stage and I was happy to see the good old folk and bluegrass instruments I love so much. I quickly realized this wasn’t exactly the good old folk and bluegrass I was expecting once I heard lead singer Suzanne Magnuson’s voice.  Magnuson looked and sounded like the singer of a punk rock band had that taken the mic away from an Appalachian Bluegrass outfit.  While her voice was very good, it just sounded far removed from the pure Americana sound behind her. The mandolin and banjo were picked like a good screen porch jam session on a hot August night and I was also thrilled to see the Dobro get broken out on a few songs. Sadly it was completely inaudible.  That said, the band as whole had great energy and the audience moved around with a moderate level of excitement.

After the Drifters left the stage I made my way out to the lobby where folk band Two Tone Wolf Pack was gettin’ rowdy.  These guys were raw and they sounded great.  The main singer’s voice was gritty, ragged, and was joined by the shouted singing of his bandmates.  They played unplugged and unmic’d and they thoroughly clogged the small lobby as they caught those en route to the bar off guard.

I walked back into the theater to find a thick crowd gathered around the rough Reverend Deadeye, a clear standout of the evening.  The holy Reverend sat in a mess of a one-man-band contraption made of instruments seemingly resurrected from a junkyard.  His voice sounded like a bit like Howlin’ Wolf which was right at home with his resonator guitar tuned to open D.  Reverend Deadeye had all eyes on him as he pounded his kick drum made of a pedal and an old suitcase, and didn’t stop playing as he swigged from his longneck beer.

By the time Deadeye had stopped preaching his gritty gospel, I was shocked to see it was nearly midnight.  Paper Bird took the stage and the three lovely ladies broke into the beautiful three part harmonies that make the band so outstanding.  The sound in the theater was a bit harsh but the talented musicians still managed to sound just about as good as ever.  I’ve seen these guys no less than fifteen times and they are at their best when they are feeding off a rowdy crowd in front of them, dancing and singing.  Though the crowd was simply too small, and the room too big, to fix up that recipe, the whole band played and sang with the passion that’s boosted them to local stardom.  They played songs from all of their albums, including 2011’s “Carry On” which was written for Ballet Nouveau Colorado.  We were also lucky enough to hear a new song that was stylistically similar to their previous work and sounded promising.  The girls and guys played a little over an hour and brought the same level of fun, talent, and new takes on tradition that I promised the friends I brought that hadn’t heard them.  Being the great performers they are, they ended the night by coming down off the stage and playing unplugged for the intimate group. It was the perfect end to a great sampling of Denver folk music.

Energy: A-
Sound: B
Musicianship: A
Stage Presence: A
Set/Light Show: B-

Overall: B+