News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Festival’s return hits triumphant note

They came from a dozen or more states as far away as New York, artists and attendees both.

They came in all ages including 4-year-old Ava Jade Niesen-Hamblin from Bothell, Washington, who stole Saturday night’s closing act at Village Green when the band leader of CJ Chenier & The Red Hot Louisiana Band invited her onstage. He spotted her among the 100 singing, dancing fans. Ava and a dozen others directly in front of the stage were emblematic of the entire Sisters Folk Festival (SFF) – wildly enthusiastic.

Ava led the audience with the energetic innocence of a child. Inhibitions were nowhere to be found throughout the Festival.

“Audience engagement is part of the magic,” singer-songwriter Max Gomez told The Nugget.

He had the audience eating out of his hand at all three of his appearances. Gomez was among a collection of top story-telling artists favored by Marji Westwood of Goodyear, Arizona, taking in her fourth Festival.

As always, concert-goers were busy exchanging notes on who was a must-see. Lists were swapped, maps and schedules reworked, strategies formed by ticket holders wanting to get as much out of the jam-packed weekend as possible. Locals were suddenly tour guides, restaurant critics, and music impresarios.

Festival organizers limited ticket sales to 75-percent capacity as a COVID-mitigation measure. There were fewer acts and fewer venues, which made for a relaxed atmosphere.

“This is so tame this year,” said Stu and Fran Baldwin of Geyserville, California. “This is our sixth Festival and the first time parking wasn’t a problem or getting a table.”

Dancing and singing along was spontaneous, usual at the Festival. Performers instigated all sorts of fan involvement and the fans didn’t disappoint. No band did more to get fans on their feet than Hogslop String Band. Their unbridled energy was matched only by the foot-stomping, arm-waving audience who reciprocated. Hoglsop, an adult-material show, started out by providing tequila shots for those in the front row, already on their feet feasting on the sound check.

A group of 30-somethings from Florida and Montana couldn’t get enough of Nashville-based Hogslop, Changui Majadero, an Afro-Cuban-influenced band from L.A., or the North Bay Area’s darlings of California bluegrass, AJ Lee and Blue Summit. All Bend transplants, AJ Lee and Blue Summit come back often for Sisters Folk Festival because of its reputation. Their spokesman was impressed by the other venues this year’s lineup have played. Festival artists on hand this year have performed in the UK, France, Ireland, Australia, Asia, and Latin America.

Their recognitions include Grammys, Austin Music Awards, Film Critic Award, plus a long list of foreign awards. Milo Jerome of Kellogg, Idaho, asked The Nugget: “Do you guys really know how much talent is here in your little town, kind of near nowhere?”

The list is impressive. Artists who performed over the three-day Festival worked in their careers with names like Ringo Starr, Paul Simon, Pay Parker, Jr., John Prine, Hall & Oates, Robert Plant, Stevie Wonder, and Josh Groban, among others.

When The Nugget caught up with Eileen Ivers, who flew from New York with her group on Thursday, she had just returned from a drive out McKenzie Highway to the Dee Wright Observatory. The band, all from the boroughs of New York, doesn’t often see what locals take for granted.

“We were just blown away,” Ivers said. “I’m a space freak, so seeing that lava and knowing this area played a part in the moon-landing preparations knocked me out. What incredible beauty surrounds you.”

The Nugget asked how she maintains her authenticity.

“You can’t fake it,” she said. “And people here – they’re too musically sophisticated. They’d know right away.” She added: “It’s so easy to be here. We can’t get over how warmly and kindly we’ve been welcomed.”

Her band left Sunday morning early for a gig in Lincoln City before heading back to New York. On October 23, they share the stage with the Portland (Maine) Symphony Orchestra. Ivers and her bandmates blew the roof off their two appearances, which ended with her descending the stage and fiddling up and down the aisles to the sheer delight and roar of the crowd.

The Nugget encountered Crystal Damore and her husband, Pete, as they were strolling Hood Avenue. The Austin duo comprise Ordinary Elephant.

“We are humbled to be at your Festival with all this talent. And the way we have been treated, the kindness, is beyond any expectation,” they shared, touching their hearts. This is their first time in Sisters and their first public appearance since the onset of COVID-19.

Artist after artist related the same experience, repeatedly congratulating Festival staff and volunteers. Nick Lear of Blue Sky City Lights said that the SFF was “oozing joy.”

Musicality was a constant topic of discussion as fans like Mollie McDonough of St. Paul, Minnesota observed the 15 instruments played by the five-member Ivers band.

“The range of all Festival performers is truly impressive,” McDonough said.

Just as often as audiences marveled at the raw musical talent exhibited, the conversation centered on the palpable freedom attendees experienced of being reunited with the live music world. The words most frequently used to describe the tone of the Festival were “sweetness,” “joy,” and the oft-overused word “community.”

In this case, however, “community” was the way artists and audiences alike described the deeper, more spiritual connection that permeated the Festival.

“There is this intimacy that I haven’t experienced at other festivals,” Portlander Judy Ericson noted, marking her 20th Festival.

Artists revealed the hardships of saving their musical careers when COVID ravaged their livelihoods. Wild Ponies evoked tears of laughter telling how they opened a food truck to make ends meet.

We asked audience members if they got their money’s worth.

“You can’t put a price on this,” said Ward Gleason, who traveled 11 hours by car from Utah to attend. “This is about much more than the music.”

Crista Munro, SFF executive director, summarized the Festival this way: “It was wonderful to see people so happy to be at the Festival once again, and everyone was so good about mask compliance. Our biggest problem was that we sold out of tickets before the event so we had to turn away a lot of disappointed people. The variety of music was amazing, and the staff is inspired and excited to begin planning for 2022!”


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