Hearth Music Guide to Northwest Folklife Festival 2013
We’re back again with our annual guide to the hugely humongous Northwest Folklife Festival, this Memorial Day Weekend, May 24-27, 2013. This is the largest community music festival in the nation, with (last I checked) 800+ bands, 25+ stages, and so much music and dance that it’s physically impossible to see even a small fraction of the things you’d like to see. Now, some people like to wander around the festival, a shawarma and a cold lemonade in their hands, but I’m the kind of type that goes looking for something or someone new and amazing to discover. So I went through the schedule looking for cool things you might otherwise miss. Here’s the:
HEARTH MUSIC GUIDE TO THE NORTHWEST FOLKLIFE FESTIVAL 2013
All of these picks and more are selected on the Hearth Music Folklife Schedule. Feel free to check it out and copy our itinerary!
American Standard Time. Sponsored by No Depression + BECU
Monday, May 27, 3:30-6:30
Fountain Lawn Stage.
This is definitely the coolest show at Folklife this year, so put this sucker on your calendars folks!! Greg Vandy is the host of The Roadhouse on KEXP and he also runs the blog American Standard Time. That’s where he premieres his beautifully shot mini-docs on roots artists like Frank Fairfield, Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton, Alela Diane, John Cohen and the upcoming one he’s doing on The Crow Quill Night Owls. Vandy does amazing work, bringing top-flight roots bands to Seattle via KEXP and his blog and his showcase at Folklife will be star studded.
The Crow Quill Night Owls. 3:30pm.
The Sumner Brothers. 4:00pm
The Slide Brothers. 5:00pm
The Sojourners. 5:40pm
In addition to mad-genius jugband The Crow Quill Night Owls and Canadian barn-rockers The Sumner Brothers (both of whom we’ve worked with and written about before), Greg’s bringing out two groups to represent African American traditions that don’t often get covered at Folklife: gospel quartets and sacred steel. The sacred steel group is The Slide Brothers, key players in the recent movement to take Southern sacred steel guitar playing out of the churches and on to concert stages. It’s a huge coup to get them at Folklife and a chance to catch a little heard tradition of American music dead-center in the festival. The second group, The Sojourners, are a trio of men living in Vancouver BC that Greg saw at Folk Alliance. Here’s some more info on The Sojourners and their new album:
The Sojourners are a traditional African-American gospel trio that bring powerful instrumentation to their rich harmony singing. They were founded in Vancouver BC after a meeting between Canadian roots country singer Jim Byrnes and Vancouver gospel singer Marcus Mosley. Byrnes asked Mosley to pull together some friends and Mosley brought Will Sanders and Ron Small together. All involved loved the sound of this new trio, and Byrnes dubbed them The Sojourners. On their latest album on Black Hen Records (Byrnes’ label too), The Sojourners dive deep into the repertoire of African-American sacred song, supplementing their powerhouse vocals with roots blues from Black Hen label founder and Canadian folk icon Steve Dawson and some lush soul influences as well. It’s a compelling sound that works because of the faith and authenticity in the vocals; all three singers were established church singers before joining up, though they each hail from different parts of the US (Chicago, Louisiana, Texas) originally. On their new self-titled album, some of the highlights include a moving cover of Rev. Gary Davis’ classic “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” a great version of Los Lobos’ “The Neighborhood,”and a hard-rolling cover of the popular spiritual “Brother Moses Smote the Water.” This is classic gospel music done very very right. They’re gonna be great onstage at Folklife!
The Sojourners: Brother Moses Smote the Water
Friday, May 24, 7:30-10:00pm
The crusties and folk punk kids have been a big part of Folklife for about the past decade, I’d say. There are some killer musicians in their ranks, and some remarkably creative ideas on how to bend folk traditions to a new generation focused on digital grassroots resistance like the Occupy movement. Rogue Folk is a showcase of the best of these groups, some traveling up from California to participate (and to spend time street performing!). Blackbird Raum is the king daddy of the scene and a totally compelling group to watch live. They’re all hardcore trad music fans as well, and contra dancers too. I’m looking forward especially to Matador. This darkfolk trio out of Santa Cruz has a mesmerizing sound, half clashing-strings and ominous fiddle lines from Dorota and half eerie spacial vocals from Dorota and guitarist Matthew. Their music would fit well with the unsettling writing of Polish author Jerzy Kosinski. Their last album, The Taking, sounds like a cross between an acoustic black metal band and a street performing folk singer. Great combo and they’ll surely be very interesting on stage!
Matador: The Dispossessed
The Gembrokers. 8:10pm
Blackbird Raum. 9:30pm
Fisher Poets on the Road
Saturday, May 25, 6:30pm
SIFF Cinema Narrative Stage
The Northwest’s tradition of fisher poetry is sadly underreported, though it’s a rich and vibrant living tradition that anyone can experience at the annual Fisher Poet’s Gathering in Astoria, OR. Fishermen (both men and women) gather during this festival both on stage and in impromptu pub sessions to tell stories of their lives of commercial fishing and to recite beautiful, hard-bitten poetry from the Northwest seas. Fisher poetry is one of the American occupational poetry traditions, along with cowboy poetry, logging poets, trucker poets, and probably others. Any profession that requires long periods of time spent in silence is perfect for creatig poetry, and this is the story I heard about the formation of Northwest fisher poetry is that the long journey from Washington and Oregon ports to the Alaskan fishing grounds is the root cause. As fishermen trundled along burning diesel to get North, they wrote poems and read poems over the CBs. Of course, today’s fisher’s poets aren’t just constrained to writing about the sea; Oregon poet Clem Starck writes poems about chainsaws and carpentry, even laying concrete. But what he shares with other fisher poets (and occupational poets) is a gift for transforming the hard machinery and cold work into something beautiful.
At Folklife, fisher poet Pat Dixon has organized a panel on Commercial Fishing Work as part of Folklife’s 2013 cultural focus on labor and labor traditions. He’s bringing Clem Starck, maritime singer Mary Garvey, and the wonderful fisher poet Sierra Golden, an Alaska fisherwoman. Golden’s a deft and powerful poet and I really hope she gets a chance to tell some of her poems. Check out a few samples HERE.
Check out Pat Dixon’s excellent site that features the best fisher poets with sound and video samples:
In the Tote
Giddy Up: Country Roots (sponsored by BECU)
Sunday, May 26, 6-9pm.
Fountain Lawn Stage.
There’s quite the movement today in Seattle of what’s being called “Ballard Ave Country Music.” This means young, sometimes hipster-ish bands that play traditional and roots country or indie music inspired by country roots and perform along the bars of Seattle’s heavily gentrified Ballard neighborhood. Places like The Tractor Tavern, Conor Byrnes Pub, and even The Sunset can be hopping over the weekends, full of folks with PBRs and a need for a serious dose of twang. And there’s some pretty great music coming out of this scene, of course. Top of the heap, in my eyes, is the Annie Ford Band. We’ve written about Annie before, and I definitely think she’s one of the best roots musicians in Seattle. New to us were The Ganges River Band and Country Lips.
Country Lips. 6:15pm
Annie Ford Band. 7:00pm
The Ganges River Band. 7:45pm
Ole Tinder. 8:30pm
The Ganges River Band sure kicks off their new single, “I Am Your Man,” right. They pour on the buckets of pedal steel twang, and lay back into a classic country kind of song about holding on to fleeting love. They don’t seem retro for the point of being retro, just honestly enamored by the sound and feel of old-school country music. Their Bandcamp page labels them “a rowdy Texas country band currently living in Seattle,” but it looks like the band is the brainchild of Ballard resident A.P. Dugas, who’s been turning out intriguing alt-country songs in Seattle for a little while now. The Ganges River Band have just released their first self-titled album, and with songs like “I Am Your Man” and the absolutely excellent “Six Bottles of Wine” leading it off (Stuck out here in Houston/day dreamin’ about leaving/But I’m doing fine…/On six bottles of wine) this is a great signifier of the deep county roots along Ballard Ave these days.
Country Lips are the perfect kind of band to see at Folklife. I didn’t immediately gel with their Bandcamp music, but I totally fell in step when I saw their live KEXP videos. They’re a raucous crew, a seeming pastiche of Ballard Ave types tied together with a lot of alcohol and a love for hardcore twang. The vocals are engaging, the instruments are picked hard, and the band seems to be having a load of fun. It’s gonna be a helluva great time hanging out with these bands on the Fountain Lawn. You should try your hand at a country two-step!
Wide Open Spaces, sponsored by BECU.
Monday, May 27
Fisher Green Stage, 1-3:30pm
I have no idea what this show is supposed to be about or why the name, but sometimes these are the best shows at Folklife. And as I ran down my list of awesome Hidden Gems and New Discoveries at Folklife, I realized three bands on that list were in this show. So dang, this is the place to be Monday afternoon before you head to the American Standard Time show!
Pepper Proud. 1:00pm.
Tara Stonecipher. 1:40pm.
Br’er Rabbit. 2:20pm.
Blvd Park. 3:00pm.
NEW DISCOVERIES & HIDDEN GEMS
part of the Wide Open Spaces show.
Monday, May 27, 1pm
Fisher Green Stage.
Folk singer Pepper Proud has been indeed making Seattle proud recently, mainly off the force of her powerful acoustic performances and her gorgeous debut album, Riddles and Rhymes. And I do mean gorgeous. Pepper’s voice has the gentlest bit of twang, a remnant of her West Virginia homeland, and the subtlest sense of fragility. It’s a voice that pulls you in instantly. The kind of voice that makes you lean in a little closer to catch every word, to enjoy every moment. She’s a great songwriter too, which is no small feat. “Fishing Blues” was the first song I heard from her via the beautiful YouTube Ballard Sessions of Seattle filmmaker Eratosthenes Fackenthall. It’s a beautiful folk song, indebted perhaps to the old fishing blues songs, or maybe just connected to that old sepia-tinged country image in my head. It’s a song about fishing for treasure in everyday life, a song whose first verse could almost be taken from an innocent children’s book, but there’s also a twinge of the sadness of growing up in the song. It’s part of her larger tropes in this album that blend the sweet and whimsical with the sad and slightly bitter. There’s a hard edge riding just underneath Proud’s music and that’s what makes it so interesting. Everything sounds like fragile gossamer, driven by Proud’s crystalline voice, but it’s like washing your best wine glass by hand. It’s a beautiful object to be sure, but there’s an underlying level of fear in knowing that one wrong move can cause it to shatter, cutting open your hand. That tension between beauty and danger is the core of Pepper Proud’s music and one reason she’s so compelling.
Tara Stonecipher & The Tall Grass.
part of the Wide Open Spaces show.
Monday, May 27, 1:40pm
Fisher Green Stage.
Eugene songwriter Tara Stonecipher rides that perfect line between singer-songwriter lyricism and country twang. It’s always a sweet combination, since it balances out the weaknesses in both genres. If you get tired of the freer-form melodies of singer-songwriting, the delicious country harmonies pull you back. And if the snare-driven backbeat and thump-a-thump bass of country begins to wear, the more expressive lyrics will bring you around. Stonecipher sounds remarkably mature and confident for releasing a debut EP with her band The Tall Grass (as in Tara Stonecipher and The Tall Grass), and that’s part of what makes her worthy of attention. Really it seems like she’s beginning to master two different worlds, a pretty mighty task. Her song “Dogs” is a perfect example. She’s got the cresting vocal break that defines country singing, but the song as a whole is an affectingly emotional journey through a break up. Not sure how the dogs factor in, but I’d definitely like to listen to it a few times more just to find out. That’s the sign of a good song and a good songwriter. You get a little lost in their songs.
Tara Stonecipher & The Tall Grass: Dogs
Br’er Rabbit bill themselves as “Folk-Stomp Americana” and that’s just about right. 30 seconds into the first song, “Roller,” on their new EP, and I defy you to keep from stomping along. There’s an infectious joy to their music, certainly helped by the liberal use of ukulele and tambourine, but also by the sunny vocals of singer Miranda Zickler. These are just the kind of sunny vocals we need in the midst of a rainy Northwestern summer. Formed by brothers Nathan and Zach Hamer, Br’er Rabbit has a definite Lumineers vibe going on musically, which I like a lot, but seem to have a stronger folk foundation than the Lumineers. They’ve also got the taste for a singalong, a fine key point in any roots band, and the songs on their EP are all delightfully singable. Nathan, Zach, and Miranda are all excellent singers, and there’s nothing better really than finding such a fun folk band amongst folks so young. There’s an underpinning of traditional music, but I love the fact that they’re clearly in this to have a great time. This kind of abandon is at the heart of true folk music and it’s at the heart of Br’er Rabbit’s music as well.
Br’er Rabbit: Roller
part of the Team Up for Nonprofits Show
Saturday, May 25, 1:00pm.
Fountain Lawn Stage.
Bradford Loomis came as a surprise for me. I thought I knew the Seattle roots music scene pretty well. And it’s not like he’s unknown here; in fact, he’s quite well known from his many performances at Seattle roots shows. It was, again, the video from Eratosthenes Fackenthall’s Ballard Sessions that converted me to his dark Americana music. This was the video:
It starts off nice and simple, with a beautiful, heartfelt folk song, but by the end he’s practically wailing! I got ahold of his new album, Into the Great Unknown, and it’s in a similar vein to this video but with a full backing band and some gorgeous harmony singing. This is what Americana should sound like today, and too often does not. These are expertly crafted songs that owe a huge debt to the historic roots of American music but refuse to be bound by any stuffy idea of tradition. They can flip over into a killer mainstream country sound that would put plenty of wannabes in Nashville to shame, but they can also flip back to an old-school tent revival shout. And best of all, these songs are singable and hummable and just plain fun to listen to. Pay attention folks, this guy’s going places!
Bradford Loomis: See You On the Other Side
FOLKLIFE HOT TIPS
Folklife’s an insane event, but these hot tips will guarantee you have the best possible time.
-Volunteer for a shift. Folklife runs on about a thousand volunteers, so they need help. Go to the second floor of the Center House to sign up. Usually you get cool jobs. But the real thing you get is a participant button. Which leads me to:
-The Participant’s Lounge is the best part of Folklife. Located just next to the new skatepark, the participant’s lounge is where all the performers go to hang out all weekend and jam up a storm. It’s a magical place with free drinks, cheap beer, good conversations and fascinating musical encounters. It’s everything that’s great about Folklife and you can only get in with a participant button.
-Get Inside if it’s hot and you’re tired. Folklife’s exhausting on hot days and the crowds are insane. Get inside for an indoor theater show and you can sit down and feel a million times better. I recommend Center House Theater. It’s the best listening space at Folklife and when I worked there we’d always throw the coolest and strangest bands in there. Also try the Folklife Cafe.
-Get your beer at the Northwest Court. The crowds are mellower up there and you can singalong to sea chanties.
-Give Folklife your damn money. Folklife runs off a few hardy, overworked souls and it doesn’t charge at the gate. That means anyone in Seattle can experience not only some great music and dance, but the cultures of the folks who live around them. That’s an amazing mission that deserves some of your bucks.
-Enjoy the street performers. This is actually like a second festival wrapped up in the first one. Street performers range from crusty jugbands to little kids with violins to dudes who staple dollar bills to their chest. It’s awesome.