Just a couple songs into his first set at the Sisters Folk Festival on Sept. 11, Peter Rowan leaned into his microphone and posed a rhetorical question.
“Where have I been all my life?” he asked a standing-room-only audience. “I should’ve been here a lot sooner.”
Funny. I was thinking the same thing. Not about him, but about me.
This year was my fourth opportunity to attend Sisters’ annual celebration of all things folk, but the first in which I actually made the drive down U.S. Highway 20 to check it out. I’m sure I could come up with a variety of excuses, but none of them would be good enough, so why bother?
Let’s just say I won’t make the mistake again, even if I can only go for one day, as was the case last weekend.
After finally experiencing it, I’ll admit: The Sisters Folk Festival is a bigger, better, cooler and more fun gathering of folk singers and folk listeners than I even expected, and my expectations were high.
I drove over right after work on Friday, found a parking space within feet of the event’s epicenter, and stepped out into a gorgeous evening and a town buzzing with electricity (despite the preponderance of acoustic instruments).
Folks with festival badges lazily criss-crossed the town’s uncluttered streets. Lights strung up around the venues made for a very festive dusk. Several deer skittishly wandered by the main stage just as kick-off act Susan Werner stepped to the mic.
The city boy in me just had to take pictures of that.
But the music fan in me had to hurry across town to catch Kelly Joe Phelps at the Sisters Art Works stage.
In a tent filled with eager onlookers, Phelps kept things super low-key. He wore a workman’s hat and shirt, used his boots for percussion and barely spoke a word when he wasn’t singing. When he did speak, it was with what my mom, a kindergarten teacher, would call his “inside voice.”
He told us not to take it personally because he’d rather play his songs than talk about them.
That was OK. Phelps’ circular guitar lines and warm-butter baritone were wondrous, but his most distinctive feature is the way he throws his entire body into a performance. His legs and back involuntarily lurched as he played. He softly grunted between lyrics like he was trying to loosen a bolt tightened years ago. And his face — I don’t know what to say except that he often looked like he’d just been hit with a Taser.
The crowd stayed silent during the songs, but roared in approval when Phelps stood, waved and headed off stage.
I ducked out for a couple enchiladas at Rancho Viejo and returned to Sisters Art Works just in time to watch the festival’s big-font name, Peter Rowan, walk on stage with a large hat on his head and a guitar in each hand. Everything about the 67-year-old bluegrass legend was gentle, from his picking and silk-smooth voice to his banter in between songs.
Again, you could hear a pin drop as Rowan ran through “Tumbleweed” and “Wings of Horses,” but the crowd hooted and hollered at the first notes of his best-known song, “Panama Red.” I listened to it fade, though, as I joined a small exodus across town to catch Todd Snider at the main stage.
Snider was preceded by a sort of verbal parental advisory sticker, and he was a revelation. The native Oregonian (but longtime Tennessee resident) is a master craftsman, seemingly able to put any story on any topic to a folk-blues tune. “America’s Favorite Pastime” is about a pitcher who threw a drug-addled no-hitter in the 1970s. “Unorganized Crime” is about an old Portland tough who was murdered. “D.B. Cooper” is about D.B. Cooper.
All Snider’s songs are tiny, exquisitely written showcases for a man who can be hilarious, devastatingly sad and cleverly insightful within the same verse. Using his guitar, voice and harmonica, he delivered a set that touched on drug laws, religion, media, politics and a host of other issues on which he most certainly has opinions, though he urged us not to be offended.
“I don’t share (my opinions) with you because I think they’re smart or because I think you need to know them,” he said. “I share them with you because they rhyme.”
The bare-footed Snider drew dozens of big, hearty laughs from the crowd, and no jeers, even when he played “Conservative Christian, Right Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males” in the middle of rural Oregon. Granted, it’s an artsy town in rural Oregon, but still.
But that’s the way to do it, you know? Tell a joke. Make ’em laugh. Sing a fun song about a baseball player tripping during a game. Then, when they’re on your side, make ’em think.
Wonder aloud why we teach our kids all week that only the strong survive, only to tell them on Sundays that the meek will inherit the Earth. Describe gay marriage as “what worries people that don’t have s--t-all to worry about.” Wrap up your set — a set heavy with the world’s burdens — by leading a singalong version of “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.”
“You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum,” Snider sang as people started heading for Bronco Billy’s to catch The Belleville Outfit. I wanted to see them too, and reliable sources tell me they were one of the stars of the festival.
But I headed the opposite direction to my car, needing to get back to Bend and promising myself that next year, I’ll be sure to clear more space on my calendar for the Sisters Folk Festival.