Thanks to another obligation, I was unable to make it to the Sisters Folk Festival's first two days last weekend. Bummer.
The beautiful thing about Sisters' long-running, three-day folkstravaganza, though, is the depth and strength of its lineup. You can show up any day, wander into one of the event's signature white tents, and catch something worth catching.
It's that commitment to quality that makes SFF unquestionably one of the cornerstones of Central Oregon's music scene.
And it's a commitment to diversity that will ensure it remains that way. In recent years, SFF's organizers have strayed a bit from the folk genre, but stayed generally within the broader umbrella of American roots music. In 2010, that meant booking the Western swing band Hot Club of Cowtown, Irish-American veterans Solas, and up-and-coming indie-pop throwbacks Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside.
Some of the fest's hardcore fans have grumbled, but if they stop and look around, they'll see that the majority of people at the festival are in their 40s, 50s or beyond. They're admirable, avid music fans, but if SFF wants to be healthy for the long run, it will have to widen its scope to include acts that may hold more appeal for a younger generation.
Take Po' Girl, for example. The gender-split, multi-racial quartet makes dusky, cosmopolitan roots music built with just about anything that'll make noise; when I walked into the Sisters Art Works stage, the band was playing clarinet, accordion, guitar and keys to a standing room-only crowd that clearly had fallen in love with them the day before and returned for more. It was easy to see why, after watching Awna Teixeira skillfully handle the accordion and sing in her distinctive voice, and Allison Russell introduce a Leonard Cohen cover in French, and the band basically invent Balkan banjo-funk on “One Little City.”
By the time that song's final note faded, I was halfway to Angeline's Bakery to check out Chris Kokesh, best known for her work in Misty River, but playing SFF with a bluegrass outfit called Brokentop.
I arrived to find Angeline's quirky little backyard half full; the audience had gathered all on one side under the shade, leaving half the seats empty and exposed to the bright, warm sun.
Kokesh and Brokentop sounded terrific. The band's music was simple and sublime, with each of the three vocalists in perfect form, and all four pickers working in harmony. They did a few originals (Eugene folkie Beth Wood joined in for Kokesh's “Planting a Garden in October”) and a bunch of covers of artists like Jonathan Byrd, Mississippi John Hurt and Dock Boggs, the latter two led by guitarist Dale Adkins, a goateed fellow with a fine voice who plays Dan Tyminski to Kokesh's Alison Krauss.
With my bluegrass jones sated, I made my way across town to the Village Green main stage to catch The Makepeace Brothers and then one of my favorite artists at this year's fest, Slaid Cleaves.
To paraphrase SFF artistic guru Brad Tisdel, who introduced the band, most of the Makepeaces really are brothers, and their name really is Makepeace. Four of the five members of the band are clearly related by blood, if their facial features and consistent bedhead are any indication (Conor Gaffney, bass player, is unrelated). They've been through the region a couple times recently, thanks in part to their connection with Breedlove Guitar Co., which sponsors the band.
The Makepeaces are engaging performers, without question. They're funny in a smirky, I'm-pretty-adorable-aren't-I? sort of way, which is OK with me and was really OK for a row of young ladies dancing near the back of the tent. As for their music, it's hip-shaking, breathy acoustic pop, something like Jason Mraz and Jack Johnson meets The Eagles and Paul Simon, played with a slew of acoustic guitars and some interesting percussion, including a double-sided cajon, or box drum. (Note: They even made a dirty joke about the cajon. And it's not the one you're thinking of.)
All that said, the brothers' music got a tad same-y and earnest for me after about 45 minutes, so I didn't boo when they began to tear down and make way for Cleaves, one of the best among Texas' bounty of acclaimed songwriters. He wore a purple button-down shirt and dark slacks that I thought looked like church clothes, so I smiled when he knowingly began his Sunday set with a couple of gospel tunes, one by Woody Guthrie (“This Morning I Am Born Again”) and one original that covered the world of religions and sounded quite Hank Sr.-ish, a fact Cleaves acknowledged up front.
That one is so new, Cleaves flubbed several lines at the end, a mistake he blew off with characteristic wit. From there, though, it was smooth sailing as he played a set of frequently requested “workplace disaster songs,” including the devastatingly gorgeous “Lydia” (about coalminers' deaths) and “Breakfast in Hell,” an epic, true story with a brawny audience-participation part.
Along the way, Cleaves worked in some yodeling, his best-known song (“Broke Down”), and a relatively poppy tune called “Cry” from his latest album “Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away.”
The set was wonderful, if too short because Cleaves' accompanist and straight man Michael O'Connor had a plane to catch. To their credit, the duo took the stage very quickly after The Makepeace Brothers, and wasted no time in between songs. Still, I wish we could've heard more. But I probably would've felt that way even if they'd played 90 minutes.
Instead, I scooped up my wife and daughter, who were wandering around town, and we headed back to the car, swimming against the sea of smiling faces that seemed to fill every sidewalk.
I'm not the first to say it, nor will I be the last, but: Sisters is a magical place during the folk festival.