It’s approaching 11 p.m. on Saturday, and the focus of Folk Fest is quickly shifting to Franklin Street.
Performances and dances have been taking place at Centennial Hall and at the Juneau Arts and Cultural Center (the JACC) all week, but late-night Saturday is about music at downtown bars and even in the hallways of the Alaskan Hotel. The music begins around 10 p.m. and goes until long after the bars close.
Three bars in particular — The Alaskan, The Red Dog Saloon and The Rendezvous — serve as the main destinations on this night.
At 10:13, crowd favorite Collette Costa and her band, The High Costa Living, play a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” to a packed house. A woman in the upper level blows kisses to men standing at the bar awaiting a drink.
At 10:32, The Rendezvous is packed. Just 30 minutes earlier, it had been nearly empty. While Raisin Holy Hell cycles through upbeat folk songs that have people spinning and sweating on the dance floor, Marie Rose works the bar. Rose — a former Juneau bartender who prefers to go solely by that moniker instead of her first name — currently lives in Pelican but comes back to town to work at the Alaskan and Rendezvous for this one week every year.
At 10:53, The Alaskan is filling in. Matt and Naomi Davidson sit by the stage, chatting with the fiddle player in the Great Alaskan Bluegrass Band during a break in the set. The Davidsons reserved a babysitter a month in advance for the final night of Folk Fest. Naomi’s parents usually watch the kids, but Naomi knew her parents would also want to be out on this night.
The clock marches toward 11 p.m., with more and more people piling into the bars. The hallways of the Alaskan Hotel are quiet for now, but that won’t last much longer.
A musical reunion
With Folk Fest in its 43rd year, Bob Banghart is one of very few to have been at all of them. One of the original founders of the festival, Banghart plays fiddle in Raisin Holy Hell.
At 6 p.m. Saturday, a few hours before the band’s set began, Banghart stood at the bar at the Rendezvous with a Guinness and a basket of popcorn, reflecting on the history of the festival. The first one, as he remembers it, was just one night and took place at the City Museum. The motivation for it was simple.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s make some sort of statement,’” Banghart said. “It was, ‘Let’s just get people together and play.’”
More than four decades later, the festival has expanded dramatically, but the heart of it remains the same. It’s about uniting and playing music, and that’s a large part of the charm for many.
Earlier in the week, local musician C. Scott Fry deemed the event a “musician’s festival.” From his spot beside the stage at the Alaskan, Matt Davidson said it was clear that the priority during these shows is the music above all else.
“They’re not about performing,” Davidson said. “You see that on stage here, where the musicians are sharing with each other more than the audience. It’s not about a show.”
That doesn’t mean those in the audience aren’t enjoying the shows, though. From her spot just off the dance floor at Rendezvous, concertgoer Denise Wiltse said Folk Fest shows are “energizing” both for the music and because they signal that spring is here.
More than 120 bands and solo artists performed at this year’s Folk Fest. Many of the performers are veterans of the event, some playing with the same group for years and years while others bounce around.
In the case of Raisin Holy Hell, most of the performers have played together since before Folk Fest began. They met in Fairbanks in the early 1970s, and now the members are scattered throughout the state.
Though they occasionally play other festivals around the state together, this is sometimes their only show of the year. It’s always their biggest.
Banghart described the whole week as a family reunion of sorts, saying it’s just as simple as that.
“People need ceremony,” Banghart said. “They need repetition. They need attachment. They need engagement with each other. It’s not a cerebral thing, it’s an emotional thing. That’s what it fulfills.”
Even past 2:30 a.m., as Banghart and the band are finishing up their set, music is still audible from blocks away. People are still wandering the streets, many of them carrying their guitars or banjos or violins.
Many of those wanderers are headed to the Alaskan Hotel. In a yearly tradition, Folk Fest performers book rooms at the hotel and stay up until all hours of the night playing. As the night gets later, more and more doors in the hotel open up, inviting musicians in.
Shasta Myers, who just started working at the hotel a few weeks ago, holds her closed fist up to her mouth as she watches the security camera feeds in the lobby. She hardly looks away from the screens as she explains that despite the size and noise of the crowds in the hallways, there haven’t been any incidents.
“It’s a really good crowd,” she says. “The music is really awesome.”
In the rooms upstairs, furniture is rearranged to fit as many people as possible and performers cram into the small quarters, sometimes spilling out into the hall. Cases of Rainier Beer sit in the hallway, open for anyone to come by and grab one. Small plates of food are passed around. The veterans of the festival have come prepared.
Outside of one corner room on the third floor, a small carton of strawberries is passed around and someone pulls out a can of Reddi-Wip, depositing a heaping portion of whipped cream on everyone’s strawberry.
The sound of two violins, two guitars, a bass, a flute and a drum serenades the strawberry eaters in the hall. In the doorway stands a man with a silver trumpet, chatting with those in the hall.
In a lull in conversation, he casually turns toward the open door. He makes eye contact with one of the violinists in the room, who nods. The man with the trumpet plays for a few measures, seamlessly fitting into the jam. He finishes up, nods again to the violinist and turns back to the group in the hall, sliding effortlessly back into the conversation.
This scene is replicated dozens of times up and down the hallways, staircases, vending areas and back corners of the hotel. Coats and empty instrument bases occupy the corners of rooms and the ends of hallways. As the night gets later, more people pile in.
Banghart walks through the halls, making his way through the laid-back chaos of the final night of Folk Fest. The scene was reminiscent of something Banghart had said nine hours earlier when trying to describe what the Saturday night of Folk Fest was like.
“You ever been around a tornado?” he had asked. “Think about it as a sonic tornado. You get sucked up in it and it may not kill you, but if you come out on the other end, you’ll have had an experience you’ve never had before.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at email@example.com or 523-2271.
Watch: Juneau Empire Produced Videos from Folk Fest