Robert Blake—the folksinger, not the In Cold Blood star—is one of the most warm, welcoming performers around. Whether he's entertaining patrons at Conor Byrne with his anecdotes and songs rendered in a gruff but honeyed brogue, or touring through Ireland, this Bellingham-based troubadour exudes charisma. Which makes him a natural party host. And so it is that, in addition to playing out, and running his own label (Same Room Records), Blake now finds himself in his sixth year as festival director for the annual Subdued Stringband Jamboree.
"The festival got started not because I wanted to be a festival organizer, but simply because there were so many great bands around town, and I thought, 'Let's have a day of music,'" recalls Blake. The Jamboree, held Friday, August 11, and Saturday, August 12, at Deming Log Show Fairgrounds outside Bellingham, expanded to two days last year, but the evolution has been strictly organic; Blake and his cohorts are too busy with other projects for it to grow any other way.
"The whole vision is a little loose," he admits, apropos of the governing aesthetic that shapes the bill, which this year includes headlining spots by Jesse Sykes and Portland ensemble the Juanita Family, as well as appearances from Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the Tall Boys, Kasey Anderson, Kristin Allen-Zito (of the Trucks), and many more. "The formula is one part local music, one part roots, one part acoustic. As long as an act fulfills two out of those three, they fall within our parameters—which are pretty wide.
"More philosophically, I believe in putting old music and new music together. It's nice to mix it up a bit. But you won't see a proper rock or punk band at this event." Yet although there's no mosh pit, you will find a traditional square dance come 6:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Blake, who hopes to release his next studio album later this year, plays Friday night. It's one of the fringe benefits of his involvement. But it's also the reason he expanded the Jamboree to two days. "If I'm going to play a nice evening slot—and if I'm organizing the festival, I'm going to want to do that—let's do it Friday. Friday we can do whatever we want. There are no trappings that it has to be a hoedown, because that happens Saturday."
If the Jamboree sounds a bit informal... well, it is. There is no beer garden, no vendors shilling fried meat on a stick. Attendees are encouraged to camp out, and play music together even after the stages shut down. "The official policy is follow the law; we don't endorse anything illegal," concludes Blake. "On the other hand, it is a very comfortable scene. It is on a campground, and people are allowed to drink—and not be jerks. Thus far, there have never been any problems. Luckily, folk music isn't that cool, so I'm not concerned about some bunch of 15-year-olds on acid."
Tickets and more info at www.stringbandjamboree.com