Monday, September 13, 2010

Folk Fest 2010: back in the groove in Sisters

Posted By on Mon, Sep 13, 2010 at 2:39 AM

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A year ago the annual Sisters Folk Festival (SFF) appeared to veer off mission in its pursuit of a younger audience (the current audience average age has to be in the late fifties) booking indie music bands and one group that sounded like they'd be more at home playing a frat party at OSU than at a folk festival.

Of course, there were some great folk singing staples mixed in and plenty of not overly amped music, but the trend to new music grated and didn't bode well for the venerable festival.

What a difference a year makes. Brad Tisdel and company at the SFF went back to basics and delivered generally superb music this past weekend augmented by spectacular weather and enthusiastic crowds.

One of the most interesting nuances of the weekend had to be the continued influence of Texas players and groups at the festival and the increased presence of solid blues playing along with traditional folk fare.

Friday night's main stage show opened with Minnesota-based folk singer Ellis. Part of Ellis' appeal is her songs which are very personal in nature but not oppressively so, and her genuinely loopy persona. She's "aw shucks" and then some and as a result has developed a strong following with SFF goers.

Following Ellis was New England native gone Texan Slaid Cleaves ( Cleaves and his trio delivered a solid set of mostly original material.

Best part of the set was Cleave's superb guitarist Rick Richards who looks much like a young Jerry Garcia and delivered some transcendent solos and runs.

At one point in the set after a particularly brilliant solo, Cleaves looked at Richards and noted to the audience: "He's just showing off because John Hammond is in the house."

Sure enough blues legend Hammond was in the house and delivered a formidable set of delta blues. Hammond walked on stage and without a word went into a blistering number and kept the blues coming for the next hour.

Like most great artists in any musical genre, Hammons relies on his music not idle patter to tell his story. But when he talks, it's like listening to an oracle. An oracle who, as a kid in Ohio, decided to pursue the blues. His stories of his early days, the golden era of the Chicago blues scene etc are priceless and insightful.

Topping off the evening was this year's SFF big surprise-Hot Club of Cowtown ( This Texas-based trio was impressive in their ability to move eeffortlessly from Texas swing to pop evergreens to Euro folk and their own material. Variety is the spice of life when it comes to the Hot Club.

Backed by a hyper-energetic (slap that bass) bassist (Jake Erwin)), guitarist Whit Smith showed his considerable chops from flashy licks to subtle touches. His solo vocal rendition of "Pennies From Heaven" done at ultra-slow tempo with his own sparse accompaniment was riveting and one of the festival's highlights.

However, when it came to super chops, the trio's fiddler, Elana James is a mega talent. She can play and threw in so many classical and traditional music touches that I referred to her mentally as a "violinist" not a fiddler. Then I recalled that the great classical violinists Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern always referred to themselves as "fiddlers". So a fiddler she is.

James is not only an exceptional musician, she can sing. She milked the lyrics of every song making the most mundane words seem special, memorable. Her delivery is sly and witty, singing in front, on and behind the beat to keep you attentive.

After Hot Club of Cowtown burned down the house (tent in this case) Friday night, Ray Wylie Hubbard did the same Saturday afternoon.

What's not to like about Hubbard, He 's a true troubadour, a guy who plays a mean guitar, tells great stories and delivers a set that seems like you're listening to him in his living room not on a stage. He's personal, approachable and best of all-the real deal.

That evening's concert's opening set was given over to the annual song contest winner. And the winner, chosen from a handful of talent from far and wide, was Bend singer/songwriter Willie Carmichael who delivered three fresh originals full of insightful humor.

Next came the Boston-based Eilen Jewell Band, which, while rocking because of the lead guitarist, was more of a cute-girl in simple black dress with decent vocal chops and group grinding out a loud set that was more show than well crafted music.

Fear not, relief was at hand in the form of two folk legends- Geoff Muldaur and Jim Kweskin. These two aging jug band and blues adherents came through with a relaxed set dotted with great musical moments and anecdotal stories plump with roots music history.

They drew on a broad repertoire of material from seldom-heard blues to an easy swinging version of Rogers and Hart's "You Took Advantage of Me."

Again, as with Hubbard, one got the feeling that Muldar and Kweskin were sitting in your living room playing for you. And in this is the secret to SFF, it provides a comfortable atmosphere for musicians and tears down most barriers between them and the audience.

Following Muldaur and Kweskin, the Celtic group Solas proved that if you take a group of talented young Irish musicians let them loose on old and original material in what one might call neo-Celtic, that you're going to have a powerhouse set.

Rocking the tent doesn't do justice to Solas. They reeled the tent and punctuated the evening with electricity.

It was fitting crescendo to a festival that again proved it is very special and pays attention to what people want to hear and then delivers it.

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