Guy Unzicker was a nervous 12-year-old when he first performed at the Alaska Folk Festival as part of The X-Step In-Laws, a family band that included his dad — well-known local guitarist John Unzicker — his mom and other relatives.
“It was pretty scary,” Unzicker said. “A big dark room and everything you play just goes out into the darkness.” He laughed.
In spite of the fear, performing in Folk Fest got into his blood. Now 21, he’s taken part in seven of the nine festivals since, building up confidence on stage and establishing himself as a musician in his own right. He’s performed as part of Terms of Agreement with Hannah Wilson and Gunnar Parker (2010), and Slush Not Snow with JR Rosales and Eric Mountcastle (2013), among other acts, and this year, he’ll be performing as one of three members of Jake & Roxy with his girlfriend, Stacy LaMascus, and their friend Andrew Madsen. The group features Unzicker on mandolin and guitar, LaMascus on ukulele and guitar and Madsen on cajon box drum.
The trio has an eclectic set planned, one that includes their adaptations of songs by Elvis, Rush and Dry the River.
“We sort of take these anthematic, big songs and work them into smaller instrumentation with a folky sound,” Unzicker said.
The performance, the trio’s first, marks the third Folk Fest appearance for LaMascus, 27. Originally from Murrieta, Calif., she arrived in Juneau in April 2009, right before the festival. It was an unforgettable introduction to a city she now calls home.
“What I really loved was that it was so concentrated into just a few nights, with so many amazing musicians, and with such local talent. And it was all free — coming from elsewhere that was really astounding,” LaMascus said. “I was 21 or 22, working as a photo guide for Gastineau Guiding and I didn’t have the intention to stay, but then I fell in love with Juneau — and Folk Fest was part of it.”
Previously LaMascus has appeared with Your Average Amazons with Patti Harper (2011) and with Travis Reed and Friends (2012).
Jake & Roxy’s third member, Andrew Madsen, 18, recently moved to Juneau from Portland, Ore., and has not yet been to a festival.
“So we get to introduce him to Folk Fest and the great cultural experience that it is,” Unzicker said.
Madsen was folded into the group fairly recently, but Unzicker and LaMascus have been fine-tuning their vocal harmonies for months, often seeking out large-scale practice spaces with interesting acoustics.
“So if you’re ever downtown and you hear harmonies emanating from a parking garage,” Unzicker began.
“It’s probably us,” LaMascus continued.
Unzicker and LaMascus became friends through the Woosh Kinaadeiyí Poetry Slam, Juneau’s monthly poetry event organized by Christy NaMee Eriksen. Both credited Eriksen with introducing them to the joys of writing and reciting their own poetry, and said the practice has considerable overlap with writing and performing music. Both write their own songs but won’t be performing any this year.
The groundwork for the pair’s musical collaboration was laid in an unusual way, when they were living thousands of miles apart. LaMascus went to Cleveland, Ohio, for several months on a work trip, leaving behind a CD of her singing her favorite songs.
“Little did she know that I played the CD in my car and every time I drove somewhere I would try to figure out harmonies to it,” Unzicker said. “So when she finally came back and she wanted to jam, I mysteriously had all these great harmonies to all the songs. So I think we’ve been working on these songs to some degree for long before she knew we were.” He laughed.
Unzicker and LaMascus said their choice of songs for the Folk Fest set reflects in part their parents’ affinity for classic rock, among other genres. Both said they were raised in households where music of all kinds was a constant presence. Unzicker said in addition to his guitarist dad and flutist mom, he benefited from the musical knowledge of his grandfather, who introduced him to the traditions of various cultures such as India and Mongolia.
“I played instruments with him that I don’t even know the names of and couldn’t spell,” Unzicker said.
In addition to the powerful influences of family, Unzicker said growing up he was impressed by young performers at Folk Fest, such as the Alaskan band Bearfoot and Juneau’s own Zahasky family.
“Bearfoot’s a little more grown up now, probably in their late 20s, but they were the youth generation, they were 14-year-olds on stage, just rockin’ it, being awesome. And the Zahaskys too, really young musicians being amazing. I’ve always looked up to Laura, especially. That’s something I love about Folk Fest — and I hope it continues to happen.”
In addition to giving these young bands a place to share their music with a wide audience, Folk Fest also creates opportunity for young performers to come together in the first place, Unzicker said.
“Like the Alaska Travelers,” he said, referring to a group of local performers who got together in middle school. “When Folk Fest happens, people like Max Blust, Elias Antaya and Robert Newman can get together and be the Alaska Travelers. I love that.”
Besides the music, Unzicker and LaMascus said the thing they appreciate most about Folk Fest is its unifying quality.
“People have a range of motivations for being there, and I think the cool and unifying thing is that music permeates through all of it,” LaMascus said. “You can’t be there and not be exposed to the music. You might only see a couple acts, truly take in deeply a few acts throughout the week, but I feel like that’s a formative experience, just the fact that you and hundreds of other people took in that same act... It helps you be able to connect to people.”
Unzicker agreed, adding that for him the jam sessions on the lawn or in the Centennial Hall lobby exemplify that idea of a shared experience through music.
“They don’t care how old you are. They don’t even care how good you are. If you can strum along, then you’re welcome. I think that’s something that’s really beautiful.”
Jake & Roxy perform at 8:30 p.m. tonight at Centennial Hall. To see the full schedule and photos from past festivals, visit http://juneauempire.com/art/2014-04-03/2014-alaska-folk-festival-schedule.