Back in 2015, this then-bright-eyed and bushy-tailed music reporter, fresh on the job at The Bulletin, attended his first Sisters Folk Festival.
I spent a day roaming across the festival’s 10 venues (since increased to 11), taking in as many performances as I could. Sometimes that meant hearing a single song; other times it meant getting sucked into an artist’s whole set. Overall, it meant running back and forth across Sisters like a headless chicken, plotting out set times and routes on increasingly mangled printouts and nearly succumbing to exhaustion on more than one occasion.
Fast-forward to Saturday, when this far less bright-eyed music reporter attended his second Sisters Folk Festival. As usual, the full festival ran Friday through Sunday, with roughly 4,500 people taking in the 50-plus artists’ performances, according to festival Creative Director Brad Tisdel.
(An aside: I never intended this year to be just my second Folk Festival. After 2015, I was excited to come back every year. But then I went back East in 2016. Smoky conditions caused the festival to cancel in 2017. And pesky deadlines left me with no time to return last year. But enough kvetching.)
Initially, the plan was similar to 2015 — see as much as possible and try to capture an overall picture of the day. But it didn’t pan out that way.
The switch in approaches came before the two-hour dinner break from 4 to 6 p.m., during which most venues other than the free offerings at Fir Street Park shut down. While standing in a long line to get into The Belfry to see Peter Rowan’s solo set at 3 p.m., I realized that, one, everything I’d seen while frantically running and stopping over the past couple of hours was slowly turning to mush in my brain; and two, what’s the point in waiting in this line if I’m not going to enjoy Rowan’s entire set? So I did.
This show paid tribute to Sisters-based luthier Preston Thompson, who died in April. Rowan was a longtime supporter of Thompson, ever since Thompson built the folksinger a guitar in the ’80s. Not only was the guitar Rowan played throughout a brand-new Thompson guitar (the business is headquartered right next to The Belfry, allowing for easy access), he dedicated at least one song specifically to Thompson: a mesmerizing performance of “Land of the Navajo,” a paean for Native American rights that sounds more timely every day.
“Mesmerizing” is a good word to describe Rowan’s entire hourlong set, which piled on favorites such as “Panama Red” (combined with “Freight Train”) and new songs addressing the recent shooting in El Paso, Texas, and the darker corners of spirituality and human nature (choice lyric: “Even those who dwell below will sometimes dream of heaven”). Even in his 70s, his voice still rang out clarion-clear and his fingerpicking remained as deft as ever.
After the dinner break, I caught only three more performances: Carrie Rodriguez at Angeline’s Bakery (an artist I’ve wanted to see live for years); Quebecois band Le Vent Du Nord at Village Green; and headliner Bruce Cockburn at Sisters Art Works. I was not disappointed.
Rodriguez, with help from guitarist Luke Jacobs, tore through a rousing, bilingual set that touched on fiddle-driven ragers (opening number “Absence,” “Lake Harriet”), sweet love songs (“Get Back in Love”) and some traditional Mexican numbers. She introduced “La Última Vez,” a fierce statement of identity, by calling it a Spanglish number, then revealed her preferred genre descriptor for her own music: “Americhicana.”
Best here was the instrumental interplay between Rodriguez, who switched back and forth on fiddle and tenor guitar, and Jacobs, whose electric leads added some much-appreciated grit throughout the set. The set culminated with the emotional “Seven Angels on a Bicycle,” the title track from Rodriguez’s 2006 debut album and a tribute to her best friend, Andy Morgan, who died in an accident during the making of the album.
Next up, Le Vent Du Nord brought my Folk Festival experience from one end of North America to another. The group added its own spin to traditional Québécois music (which as the name suggests originates in the band’s native Quebec), giving the packed audience a glimpse of the form’s Irish and Scottish roots. All five members shared harmonies, adding to the full sound created by the fiddles and stomping feet.
Unfortunately, as the Village Green is perhaps the farthest venue from Sisters Art Works, except for FivePine, I had to skip the last half of the group’s set. I’m not glad I missed that, but I am glad I got there when I did, as the line to get into Cockburn’s set ended up stretching — well, I don’t know how far back; it was dark. On the plus side, I got to hear some of The East Pointers’ energetic fiddle tunes while waiting.
Cockburn, in his Folk Festival debut, delivered a fine overview of his lengthy career (five decades, 34 albums including the upcoming “Crowing Ignites”) starting with some of his most well-known numbers. He opened strong with “Silver Wheels” — so strong, in fact, that it was hard to believe when he complained of catching a cold that same day. Immediately after that confession, he launched into “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” with maybe a little strain on the high notes that would have been unnoticeable if not for the mention.
The high points showcased Cockburn’s wry wit alongside his social consciousness: “Cafe Society,” from 2017’s Juno-winning “Bone on Bone,” tackled the navel-gazing of social media, while “3 Al Purdy’s,” recorded for a film about the Canadian poet, took on the point of view of a homeless man obsessed with Purdy, who offers people on the street “three Al Purdy’s for a $20 bill.”
I can’t say I was any less exhausted when I finally made it home Saturday night. But while I may not have gotten as big a picture of the festival as I did in 2015, I left more musically satisfied. Sometimes it pays to ignore the fear of missing out and just listen.
— Reporter: 541-617-7814, email@example.com