We tried to leave early, but we’re musicians. Thus, we didn’t make it to the Forty First Annual Northwest Folklife Festival until about four on Friday. Max had class, so he had to join us later. We were all set to busk basslessly, but–wouldn’t you know it–the same forces that always seem to bless us at Folklife came through, and Ben Fox of the Warren G Hardings was able to sit in on upright for our first busking session of the festival.
Folklife is all about the busking, so I’ll offer a brief definition for those too lazy to google it. Busking is basically one rung up the ladder from begging on the street. Instead of a clever phrase scrawled on a sign, you’re offering classic forms of ear stimulation in return for people’s contributions. I’ve also heard buskers called “tip canaries.”
Busking at Folklife is ever so slightly insane. This is because, like wandering around and people watching, ever’body’s doin it. This means that, at any given moment on any given plot of real estate there at the Seattle Center, you can hear at least three and a half different musicianers pickin, singin, or just downright squallin out into the streets. So your ears are crowded. It’s hard to break through, much less draw a crowd.
Better folksters than I have no doubt written illuminating tomes detailing the various considerations and strategery that goes into choosing and utilizing a busking spot. No doubt some overzealous grad student has had a field day exploring the social psychology of the thing–and if you know of such a grad student who does the topic justice, please send me their work, it would be fascinating and deeply useful to many a hand-to-mouth banjo picker.
What I set out to say was that our spot during day one was no good–too much foot traffic too close. It was like a big herd of salmon pressing in on the little crowd that gathered round us. Them salmon practically were dragging people away with their ponderous energy. It wasn’t until Saturday that we found The Spot.
Now I can’t disclose the exact location, because if all goes well Renegade Stringband will post up there again next year (even if Lady Gaga takes us on tour as her opening act we’re still gonna be busking at folklife). What I can tell you is this: our spot was a busker’s nirvana. There was a wall across from us and other sympathetic architecture to make playin outdoors easier. Everywhere at folklife is so loud that it’s often a strain to hear a musician standin right next to you–nevermind one on the other end of a half circle of Renegades. There was foot traffic near, but not too hear… and, hell, there was even places to sit down! Absolutely first rate spot.
The other thing about busking is your presentation: do you ever bother to look at the people you’re trying to play for? (Probably not enough.) Do you ever tell them who you are? Do you have a legible sign? (Finally, thanks to Erik Sandgren, Kathryn Cotnoir, and Scott Schuff!) Do you give them reason to stick around, or do you debate which song to play next while your crowd quickly vanishes? (Definitely too much.) These are just some of the presentation issues you’ll find in the imaginary grad student’s busking research.
For us, Friday was really just all about getting it together. Looking for The Spot, saying howdy to old friends, trying not to gawk at all the beautiful women and cartoon-come-to-life Folks just a’ramblin round. Also, one must check out the snacks and beverages on offer at the performer’s Hospitality Tent. Folklife hooks it up with Dave’s Bread and free coffee, among other snacks and beverages, from 10am til 10pm, Friday through Monday. Clutch.
So after a few warmup busking sets, we went and checked out some deeply funky music up at the Mural Ampitheater Stage. It was hot and tasty, we were inspired.
Day Two – We Find The Spot & the Gypsy Cafe
Once again, we shot for getting there as early as possible on Saturday. And, Lo, most of us made it there before noon! We were busking in the sunshine before they ran out of Sin Dawg bread at Hospitality. We found a better spot, between the giant fountain and the Fisher Green, but it still weren’t ideal. Playing bluegrass acoustically in the middle of a thousand-person noise bath is hot and sweaty even in the shade. Direct sunlight just won’t do.
So, we tried going under some trees but the salmon run of gawkers was too much to combat. And then, at last, we found The Spot! We must’ve played over two solid hours straight once we found it, and a purty consistent little crowd was gathered–some folks could even hear us well enough to do some dancing! Like this lady:
We durn near wore ourselves out the spot was so good. Playing two hours straight is fine if you have amplification–but even at The Spot you have to sing, pick, pluck and frail just about as loud as you can all of the time to be audible above the fray. But the crowds was kind, the tips rolled and trickled in steadily, and we kept at it with gusto.
So day two wound down at the Festival and we took off for the Gypsy Cafe, where we were slated to share the bill with the splendid musicians and lovely couple, Paisley and Todd of Pickled Okra. It was a fun gig at a sweet little venue. The crowd was attentive, the sound system was purty decent, and we played just fine considering we had already been serving up fresh live bluegrass for about 4 hours already that day.
Afterwards, we went back to Okra headquarters, where the Warren G Hardings joined us for medium-tipsy jams in the living room. By the time we went outside, the mailman was making his rounds, it was already tomorrow.
Day Three – We play on an Honest to God Stage at Folklife and it goes Shockingly Well
We got to the festival with enough time to busk another 2+ hours before our Official Performance on the Alki Stage round about 5:50 in the PM on this fine Sunday. The weather continued to be glorious, and as we wandered between musicians and families, we looked at various kinds of awesome, here’s a taste:
We have performed in tents of various descriptions on prior occasions, and perhaps the only consistent thing inside of those tents has been that the amplification of sound is always weird and difficult to navigate as an acoustic musician. So, we were surprised and delighted to find that either this was a special tent or else our soundman was a genius. The sound was great on the Alki stage inside the Alki tent! We soundchecked in about fifteen minutes, and by the time we were on about song three, roughly two hundred people had gathered. It was wild, because usually at outdoor festival gigs you are either famous and the crowd has been waiting to hear you all day, or else you’re unknown and have about half the people giving you one third of their attention three quarters of the time. Again, Lo, the spirits of Folklife blessed us, and it seemed like the whole durn crowd was listening for the whole of our allotted 35 minute set.
So there we were, playin like our lives depended on it and feeling the joy and release that every performer hopes to feel when he or she steps on the stage. It was the perfect capstone to an amazing weekend.
Afterwards, we listened to all kinds of sweet jams in the hospitality tent–gypsy jazz jams between strangers, Spanish Opera sung off the cuff, old timey fiddle tunes bowed by a dozen fiddlers at once, and the great Francis Brennan picking Irish tunes on the banjo, making it ring like a cross between a harp and a sitar. So much music, so much inspiration.
The unbelievable thing for us is that this is just the beginning–next month we’re going to drive to Kentucky and perform at the ROMP Festival there. It’s a whole other kind of festival, and it will, no doubt, be wild and amazing. But there’s no festival and no life like NW Folklife.
- Joe Seamons, May 31st, 2012
All photos by Northwest Outlook.