One more wave

In my world, these last days of summer have tried the soul. I lost two friends on two consecutive days last week. I wrote about Kirsten Gleb. But the week also included the passing of an East Coast friend, Danny Talpers.

He and his wife were on the Delaware shore surfing at Bethany Beach. After a beautiful day, they said to each other, “One more wave!” Evidently this one had Danny’s name on it. The wave took him for a savage ride and slammed him into the shallow sandy seafloor, breaking his neck; he was instantly paralyzed from the neck down.

The docs said Danny would never regain his abilities. He was aware of his condition; he could still speak, with effort. After three weeks of reckoning about his situation — family and close friends beside him — he asked to be taken off the ventilator that was keeping him alive. So our witty, sassy, big-hearted and streetwise New Yorker made a brave exit. Too soon, too soon.

Just one more lesson in the miraculous and often inscrutable vagaries of being human. And certainly a reminder of a couple major truisms that we seem to perpetually lose sight of: 1) don't take anything or anyone for granted, and 2) carpe diem, seize this day.

With all that in mind, a friend and I decided to squeeze in one last road trip before the leaves started turning gold in a serious way. So we loaded up an ’87 Volkswagen camper — a classic — and headed south to the Sisters Folk Festival.

23rd Annual Sisters Folk Festival

Sisters, a little central Oregon town of 2,000, about 30 minutes from Bend, more than doubles during the festival, always held the weekend after Labor Day. As they claim, “The whole town’s a stage” and that pretty much nails it.

The festival was established in 1995 by Jim Cornelius and Dick Sandvik and is hosted at 10 venues throughout the city, including a 900-seat tent at the Village Green Park downtown and another 900-seat tent at Sisters Art Works. Smaller stages are tucked around all over town at the Fir Street Park, Melvin’s Market, Sister’s Coffee Shop, The Depot Café, Angeline’s Bakery, the Sisters Saloon and others. As you walk the streets from venue to venue, you catch snippets of a rich range of musical styles coming at you from open doors, windows and back patios.

As you might imagine, it’s a mostly older congenial left-leaning crowd, lovers of folk music and the newer blend of folk, Dixie, blues, rock, funk, country, jazz, world beat and even synch-pop. But no matter what the musical mix, the heart of the festival is the amazing quality of the musicians — top notch. There’s also a range of instruments from guitars, banjos, mandolins, and fiddles, to the less common concertina (or button accordion), mouth harp, hurdy-gurdy and a wild variety of percussion.

The other obvious feature of the Sisters festival is the soulfulness of all the performers. Many are on the same folk circuit stages and know each other. They often sit-in with groups other than their own or hang around after their sets are over just to listen or dance to the music of other musicians on stage.

And just as the musicians seem part of a cohesive tribe, so to the crowd: there’s a feeling of community that develops over the weekend. Sisters’ residents don't seem too unnerved to be inundated with outsiders (who no doubt bring a lot of revenue into town). Every driver stops for pedestrians, often with a smile and a wave; they even appear to forgive bicyclists wandering the streets, sometimes haphazardly.

There are lots of dogs and families and kids everywhere and everyone helps out when needed in an easy-going good-natured way. Roving toddlers (or dogs) are grabbed and returned to their moms and dads; news about the shortest porta-potty lines are shared; and there’s always an exchange of information: “What are your favorite groups?” Here are two of mine.

Keep an ear out for…

Le Vent du Nord, a quintet of Québécois gents from Canada performing at the Village Green stage, brought down the house (https://l eventdunord.com/en/the-band/). Their musical mixture of French folk, Celtic, traditional and original tunes — delivered with outsized joie de vivre — had everyone in the tent up on their feet clapping and dancing.

The words were all a Québécois-style French so were mostly indecipherable even to this francophone, but no matter — the beat, reinforced by what’s called Québécois foot percussion or foot tapping, was deliriously infectious and set the tone. The group has two fiddlers — Andre Brunet and Olivier Demers — and both took turns foot tapping, which is almost like tap dancing while seated as the left and right foot tap against a board attached to a speaker (an example here: https://tinyurl.com/y6oa2ab6).

They simultaneously played the fiddle and sang, harmonies! (These guys would be geniuses in the walking-and-chewing-gum derby.)

The button accordion player, Réjean Brunet (Andre’s brother) was the absolute standout for me. At the end of one foot-stomping accordion piece, he opened the bellows of his button-box full out in a grand arc over his head before taking a bow.

Intricate, exuberant, tight harmonies and frenetically close instrumentation swayed the crowd — quite literally. Everyone in the whole tent, young and old alike, was on their feet hopping and jigging. After the group’s grand finale, a woman dancing next to me, right in front of the stage speakers, said, “I’ll be deaf for a week but it was worth it!”

Another stand out was Rising Appalachia, founded by leading members Chloe and Leah Smith (https://www.risingappalachia.com). These sisters grew up in Atlanta, Georgia but had a mother who hauled them off to the Appalachia mountains every summer to collect traditional fiddle tunes. They added to this early musical education by living seven years in New Orleans. To this urban/rural layering they’ve added West African rhythms and Irish lilt. Woven into their close harmonies is a political awareness and sensibility that has grown over their years of touring and performing — they provided musical support at Standing Rock, for instance, and shared a moving song about refugees on the Sisters’ stage.

Coda

I could go on, but here’s the bottom line: the Sisters Folk Festival is one of the best in the west (https://sistersfolkfestival.org/2019-festival/). What’s most heart-warming to me is all these younger folkies stirring up the caldron, remixing the sounds, and making their own vital contributions to the glorious tradition of folk.

If you just listen to mainstream music stations, you'd think rap had taken over the airwaves. But I’m here to tell you, folk music is alive and well! and, this weekend, soothed troubled souls.

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