Singer-songwriter Willy Porter returns

Sisters Folk Festival regular plays Winter Concert Series

By David Jasper / The Bulletin

If you go

What: Willy Porter

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Sisters High School, 1700 W. McKinney Butte Road

Cost: $20 plus fees in advance, $25 at the door, $10 students. Visit website below for tickets and ticket-outlet info.

Contact: www.sistersfolk festival.org or 541-549-4979

What is it about the name Willy/Willie that lends itself to storytelling in song?

Right here in Oregon, Willie Carmichael is Bend’s own award-winning folk songwriter. Willy Vlautin, who lives near Portland, also fits the bill with his alt-country band, Richmond Fontaine, and novels about the down-but-not-quite out. (By the way, Vlautin be in Bend on March 12 and Sunriver on March 15 to promote his new novel, “The Free.”)

And then there’s Willy Porter. The masterful, 49-year-old singer-songwriter from Milwaukee has become something of a beloved regular at the annual Sisters Folk Festival.

On Saturday, he’ll be back in Sisters, serving as the second act in the festival’s Winter Concert Series (see “If you go”).

Over the past quarter century of writing, recording and touring, Porter has played solo acoustic sets, rocked out with his band, collaborated with string quartets, covered Peter Gabriel (“Digging in the Dirt”), all the while honing his live show into a must-see, replete with humorous, between-song stories rivaling his songs in entertainment value.

Last week, Porter was in the U.K. playing a string of dates with Martyn Joseph, “my dear friend … who I first met at Sisters in 2010,” Porter said in an email interview. The Welsh songman Joseph is, incidentally, the next artist in the Winter Concert Series, playing March 18.

Since his acclaimed, seven-song EP “Cheeseburgers & Gasoline” dropped in 2012, Porter has kept busy touring, recording a soon-to-be-released album and scoring an original Nancy Drew play for a children’s theater in Milwaukee, Wisc.

Saturday’s show will be with Carmen Nickerson , who joined his band four years ago and with whom he’s been writing and performing the last couple of years as a duo. The two have also been writing tunes with an eye on releasing a duo album down the line.

Though Porter has been a steadily touring musician since the release of his first album in 1990, his approach remains much the same.

“I’m still driven to reach for the next tune, and the next performance is still the most important one to me. I enjoy the performances, and I love to see the towns and the people,” he said.

But with kids and a wife back home, he doesn’t get to spend too much time sightseeing in the towns he visits, Porter said.

“The difference is that I am constantly aware of missing a basketball game, an opening night of a play. The trade I have made and continue to make to do what I love to do has grown larger in some ways. I couldn’t do this without my wife. She has sacrificed an immense amount through the years so that I could do this,” he said.

A couple of weeks ago, Porter lost a friend and colleague when his longtime bass player, Steve Klieber, was killed in a fire.

As a tribute to Klieber, “I have been playing a couple of the songs that Steve and I wrote together,” Porter said. “The tunes are my prayers — my way of reaching out to him. He was a giant in my life; he changed how I hear music, and how I play the guitar in profound ways. Some days I can stand straight and some days I wobble when I think of him.”

Porter and his other bandmates are starting a scholarship fund in Klieber’s name “to further his vision and memory.”

Moving on to happier subjects, we asked Porter about his cover of “Digging in the Dirt” on “Cheeseburgers & Gasoline.”

“I’ve always been a big Peter Gabriel fan going back to the formative days of Genesis,” Porter said. “His longtime bass player, Tony Levin, played on an album of mine a few miles back, and I really enjoyed how he approached the tunes. His bass line on ‘Digging’ makes the tune for me, and it is a signature Levin part.

“When I got my nine-string Baritone guitar, I realized I could arrange that tune for that guitar, and here we are. Carmen and I tracked it live in my home studio. Originally, I thought we’d add a couple more tracks of percussion or something, but then decided to leave it one guitar and two voices.”

Speaking of two voices, the Sisters High auditorium is a large hall for a folk duo to play. Porter likes the challenge of fine-tuning his show.

“I look at each venue as an opportunity that presents challenges and puzzles. My friend Mark, who tour manages various artists around the world, says, ‘Champions adjust.’ He’s right,” Porter said.

“It’s so easy to ruin the dynamic intimacy in a larger venue if you’re not musically careful. Musicians tend to want to overplay and over-sing on a bigger stage; that’s a mistake in my view, most of the time,” he added. “In the end I just try to trust the tune, the audience and the crew.”

And if something should go wrong, Porter takes it lightly.

“I like to laugh at the ‘mistakes’ as well — whatever those are,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0349, djasper@bendbulletin.com

(Editor’s note: This article has been corrected. The original version contained the wrong last name for Martyn Joseph. The Bulletin regrets the error.)