What's a folk festival without different strokes?

Posted: Thursday, April 11, 2002

Welcome to the I May Be a Writer But Words Fail Me edition of Thinking Out Loud. I struggle to do justice to the talent on stage last night at the Alaska Folk Festival. You hear "folk music" and you think, what - Peter, Paul and Mary? Down home tranquility with a toe-tappin' but not quite rockin' beat? Simple, honest music?

Steve Reed is managing editor of the Empire. He can be reached at streed@juneauempire.com.

Elusive, huh?

I think I first heard the term "different strokes for different folks" in a funky Sly Stone song in the mid-1960s. In Hollywood they can (and did) build an entire situation comedy on half as much material as that catchy phrase. In Juneau, our festival offers, you guessed it, different strokes. You get a panoply of folk genres.

You never know what to expect next during the succession of 15-minute sets on the Centennial Hall stage. Last year I was blown away by a big group (looked like dozens) of young people from Fairbanks who came on stage with their violins and reminded the audience that at a folk festival, violins are fiddles and the music should flow from and speak to our roots.

In truth, our roots have grown in different soils. But it's hard not to find common ground when the fiddlers start fiddling. Tetrafiddles returns to the Centennial Hall stage tomorrow night at 7. The program lists 25 members. You don't want to miss them.

The Tetrafiddles would be worth the price of admission - if there was a price of admission. The Alaska Folk Festival is still free. Hundreds of people attend each night of the week-long festival. But if there are 30,000 of us here, many more hundreds are missing the talent and cheap-date possibilities.

The Folk Festival is waaaaay better than pizza and a rented movie or anything on cable. Got kids? Bring 'em. There's an informal Kids Interaction Zone left of center stage. The kids get "shushhhhed" from time to time and everybody keeps their sense of humor.

If I had to pinpoint my inspiration for today's column, it was last night's 9:15 entry on the performance roster: Madame Borka's Bohunk Review.

In so many words, but not these exactly, Collette Costa addressed the nature of "folk" music during the couple of minutes it took her band and chorus to get set up. Folk is another word for people, she explained. And her people like the kind of music she and the Bohunks were about to offer. On those terms, Aretha Franklin's "Do Right Woman" and "Think" fit right in. The Bohunk review included about a dozen musicians and singers in orbit around the sun of Costa's voice. She was belting out Aretha's best amid the choreographed performance of the Bohunks. You read "choreographed performance" and wonder what that means. OK, try to imagine that the Marx Brothers have great-granddaughters.

The Bohunk Review segment ran long. The red light was flashing, but there might have been a riot if anyone had cut the power to Costa's microphone. She and the Hunks had the place rocking.

Imagine the poor group that had to follow that.

Out strolls Bradley Riggins, a solo act freshly arrived from Oklahoma and dressed in a cowboy hat, boots and jeans that signaled his "folk" music surely was going to include some C&W. Riggins may have followed the act that brought the house down, but he was stellar, singing four songs, including one recorded by his mother about 35 years ago. He accompanied himself first on guitar, then piano, then fiddle and back to guitar. His voice is a gift that he shared with friends and strangers. As with the Hunks, his 15 minutes ended too quickly.

I'd have a guilty conscience if I didn't mention Teri Tibbett, Haley Nelson and Emily Waste. They serenaded the audience in Spanish, humored us with a song about what goes on in the refrigerator when the leftovers decide to party and gave us a few goosebumps with their rendition of "America the Beautiful." Eclectic? Yeah, different strokes.

You've got tonight, Friday, Saturday and Sunday to catch the folk festival before it goes into hibernation for another year. Don't start next week regretting that you didn't quite make it to Centennial Hall.

Steve Reed is managing editor of the Empire. Contact him at streed@juneauempire.com.

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