There's something comforting knowing that every year on the second weekend in September the Sisters Folk Festival (SFF) will take place. SFF is more than a music festival for many regulars. To them, it's also a time to catch up with and spend quality time with old friends and to relax as the fall season starts to unfold.
On the hype/price value scale, SFF scores well. That’s well as in low in excessive hype and high in the value you get for your money. This is a festival tilted in favor of the audience allowing them a chance to hear a wide variety of acts, learn in numerous in workshop sessions and have unfettered access to the artists. There are always surprises at SFF. Just prior to this year's Festival Bend jazz vocalists Lori Fletcher send out an e-mail to friends urging them to attend the Festival as, "you'll be surprised at what you'll find." True, there's more to folk in the Festival these days.
That was evident from the get-go with multi-talented and dimensional Susan Werner opening the event at the Festival's Village Green main stage. Werner defies classification and in so challenges her audiences to pay attention.
Yes she can sing and play folk as she did, but she’s also very much at home in gospel and blues, both of which she played brilliantly on the electric piano. She's also well versed in Broadway show tunes and after claiming to having had fantasies of being "Cole Porter's witty little sister, " belted out a Tin-Pan Alley-esque creation of her own writing.
She also went into her jazz bag accompanying herself on a guitar with a ballad that reminded me of some of the work the late Carmen McRae did with guitarist Joe Pass. Another example of the diversity of the evening's program was the hot fiddle playing Quebe sisters from Texas who offered up a set of Texas swing a la Bob Wills. Then came the off-kilter ramblings and playing of folk artist Todd Snider. Snider carries on the Woody and Arlo, Dylan and Rambling Jack tradition of talking and playing taking it to quirky heights.
After the Village Green main stage and the Sisters Art Works stage close for the evening, a crowd gathered at Bronco Billy's Ranch Grill and saloon for a jam session that went on until 1 a.m.
Saturday morning was given over to the workshops at smaller venues within easy walk or bike ride from each other. At his workshop, bluegrass and folk legend Peter Rowan was asked what the secret was to song writing. He replied: "I don't know," adding, "I just go for a walk and if some words come to me I write them down on the right hand side of a notebook page as soon as I get home. Later I come back and try to fit the words to music which I note down on the left hand page across from the words."
Rowan headlined the Saturday night show at the Village Green main stage sandwiched between and indy band and an all-over-the map (swing to quasi rock to you name it) band. Led by Susan Werner, Sunday's traditional gospel hour featured numerous Festival artists in what is always a pleasing and uplifiting experience. A few more acts to catch on Sunday and the respite of music and relaxing in Sisters came to an end. An end with a question-should the word "folk" be stricken from the Festival's name?
A sub head to a Sisters Folk Festival newspaper headline reads: "featuring blues, bluegrass, folk and soul music." There was some blues, very little if any bluegrass, a good amount of folk and no true soul except for a couple of Susan Werner offerings. There was, in the minds of some people I spoke with, too much emphasis on "indy" bands and too much emphasis on cranking said band's music up to almost the AC/DC heavy metal ear splitting level. And then there was that one band that while billed as a soulful southern band was, in reality, a Monday through Friday bar band that plays frat gigs on weekends.
That noted, the Festival planners are trying to bring a younger demographic to the event which tends to be attended mostly by Boomers and beyond.
So maybe a name change is in order. I'd offer the Sisters Festival of Americana Music but have no idea of what Americana means. If it means folk music derived from the English, Scottish and Irish folk music roots, jazz, blues, soul, swing and even rap then it opens the doors to all sorts of musical possibilties.
Pure folk, the Festival is no longer. A music festival in transition, absolutely. A festival worth attending and supporting, by all means. That's because at SFF there will always be some transcending musical moments, moments of amazing musical grace and moments of pure musical pleasure.