You can see a lot of music on the Saturday of Sisters Folk Festival.
That's the middle day of Central Oregon's longstanding music-lover's mecca, the day that seven stages run generally from noon till midnight (and an eighth for four evening hours), all within a brisk five-minute (or lazy 10-minute) walk of each other.
You can bounce from the massive main stage to the tiny, artsy backyard of Angeline's Bakery, or from the large, often packed white tent behind Sisters Art Works to the kitschy corner of Slick's, a barbecue joint. And each bounce takes you through a living, breathing town full of restaurants and retail shops with their doors wide open, ready for folkies and their business.
That's the beauty of the Sisters Folk Festival, which I have long maintained is the best all-around music event in our region. It provides the opportunities of a music festival — seeing a bunch of good artists in one spot — without forcing you to hang out in a sun-baked field all day.
And then there's the laid-back Sisters vibe, which seemingly permeates everything that happens in the town. That'll be a crucial quality to maintain going forward as the festival continues to grow.
I had a great Saturday at the folk fest last weekend, for all the reasons outlined above and more.
My afternoon was spent doing the aforementioned bounce:
• I caught a few songs and words by gypsy-jazz guitar virtuoso John Jorgenson on the new Melvin's Market stage. The man's fingers flew mind-bogglingly around his fretboard, but it was violinist Jason Anick's melodies that stood out most to me.
• At Angeline's, I heard a couple of beautifully rustic folk songs by Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband Johnny Irions, as well as some of local poet/rapper Mosley Wotta's spoken-word performance. I was struck by the smiles on the faces of folks leaving the latter, and also by the experience at Angeline's, which continues to be the coolest venue at the festival. (And the hardest to get into. I was shut out twice.)
• I shimmied away the late night like lots of folks did: At Melvin's with Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three, and at Slick's with Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys. Each offers an authentic, but different take on retro. LaFarge is old-time ragtime and blues, and his set turned into a dance party for a crowd dominated by young folks. Big Sandy is Western swing and rockabilly; his set was a dance party for a crowd dominated by older folks. Both were great.
But what I really want to talk about in this space is the programming at peak time on the festival's main stage, where Saturday wrapped up with the glowing folk-pop of Gregory Alan Isakov, banjo maverick Abigail Washburn and the unconventional soul and blues of Brian Blade's Mama Rosa band.
Taken together, they were a bracing example of what Sisters Folk Festival is doing exactly right, and why its future is bright.
Isakov was tremendous as always; he settled in with an understated trio and played a bunch of songs from his outstanding 2009 album, “This Empty Northern Hemisphere." Highlights included the simmer and soar of “Evelyn" and two tunes not from that album: a devastatingly gorgeous song called “The Universe" and the downcast working-class waltz “In Tall Buildings," originally penned by John Hartford in the 1970s.
An hour later, Blade could not have been more different. A top-shelf jazz drummer, he set up with a quintet and played songs from his “Mama Rosa" album, a musical meditation on love, family and spirituality.
The album is mellow, but Blade came out of the gates in a smolder, building his first song (sorry, I don't know which one it was) into a frenzy highlighted by a noisy electric guitar solo that straightened my spine. Literally. Upon hearing it, I sat up and looked around, figuring I'd see an exodus for the exits.
I was right. A gang of folks headed for other stages right then, followed by more at the end of the song, and more at the end of the song after that. By the fourth or fifth song of the set — when Mama Rosa really found its deep, Southern-soul groove, in my opinion — there were giant swaths of empty white chairs surrounding a core group of people front and center who were eating the performance up, including the festival's artistic director, Brad Tisdel.
“Heavy groove, huh?" he said to me with a grin on his face.
Indeed. To be sure, Blade's band was too loud, and they caused minor fuzzy/buzzy problems with the sound system. But they were great, and they represented what I loved most about this year's folk festival.
To expand on that, let's turn to Washburn, a clawhammer banjo player with an adventurous spirit. Because she embodied what I'm getting at in a more traditionally palatable way.
Washburn took the stage with her touring partner Kai Welch, who created a staticky, ambient sound on his keyboard. As she sang “Bright Morning Stars," otherwise unaccompanied, Welch twiddled knobs and pressed buttons, then pulled out a trumpet and blared a solo while the noise droned on.
It gave me chills.
The duo went on to play a number of songs from Washburn's “City of Refuge" album, veering from pop to string-band funk to roots music, traipsing across stylistic lines with no regard for anyone's notion of folk music.
But the centerpiece of the set drew from Washburn's well-established investment in Chinese culture. It was a song called “Sala," taught to her, she said, by a young girl whose mother would sing it before she died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. I don't know what the words mean (and Washburn said they don't really translate anyway) but it was a heart-pounding, life-affirming, singalong moment that, for me, epitomized our ever-shrinking world.
You see, in 2012, our boundaries have been blurred, if not erased, by the Internet, and the walls between our cultures have begun to crumble. Ours is an interconnected existence, where a frizzy-haired banjo picker can learn a Chinese folk song and use it to put a lump in the throat of people in Sisters, Oregon.
Folk music is not immune to this new way. If anything, true folk music adapts to the lives of the people who create it and the environment they live in. True folk music will evolve just like anything else.
The Sisters Folk Festival still brings in dozens of artists who fit our traditional definition of folk: a man or a woman, an acoustic guitar and some stories set to song. And it should continue to do so.
But Saturday night's lineup on the main stage showed that Tisdel and the rest of the festival team not only recognize that the world is changing — and folk music is, too — but they also are responding to those changes by booking interesting artists that stretch the way we think of the genre. That's not an easy thing to do, much less to stick by when you see people heading for the exits.
But it's an important thing to do, and they deserve kudos and respect for doing it. And as a fan, it's good to know the folk festival is in the hands of people that get it.