Do you despise the annual Northwest Folklife Festival? Of course you do. Or rather, you think you do. Over the last decade, I've noticed that many colleagues who rag on the four-day, free-admission institution have only rarely, if ever, attended. Until very recently, I ranked among them. But (as immortalized in my very first Slog post) on Memorial Day weekend 2005, I swung through Seattle Center one afternoon to check it out, and—shudder—enjoyed myself.
This year, the Folklife promoters forwarded us a list of confirmed acts they felt would appeal to this column's demographic. Sure enough, it features plenty of names Border Radio readers will recognize, including Korby Lenker, Jo Miller & Her Burly Roughnecks, Kitchen Syncopators, Baby Gramps, Ruby Dee & the Snake Handlers, Anna Coogan, and Evangeline.
Parsing through the itinerary for each of the four days is not effortless. (For one thing, the schedule up at www.nwfolklife.org is not interactive—you have to download each day's activities as a separate Acrobat file. Ugh.) My recommendation is simply to find one artist you're excited about, go that afternoon, and allow extra time during your visit for people watching and "happy accidents." Do not be frightened by the old women in traditional Ukrainian costumes; if you're allergic to Eastern European dancing, just keep moving. Inevitably, you'll find something more to your liking: perhaps Sunday afternoon's Hana Hou: The Ukulele Show, or the daily performances by the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts.
Speaking of evil clowns... if you hit the festival Saturday evening, seek out locals the Bad Things. As an avid fan of the novel Geek Love and all things reeking of Coney Island, I find that their demented carnival tunes—as featured on their new album Vaudeville Show—resonate vividly in my addled brain. How can you not love a band whose instrumentation includes glockenspiel, concertina, melodica, toy piano, musical saw, and sousaphone? If you opt for Monday instead, stick around long enough to hear hard-edged Emerald City folk duo Pelusa. Their fresh-off-the-presses CD, Every Indication, is another heavy-rotation favorite at Border Radio HQ this week.
But man does not live by steel guitar alone. Especially noteworthy among the other offerings is a Monday afternoon screening of the documentary Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt. Kulthum was and still is one of the best-loved singers in the Arab world—I was initially tipped off to her by my girl Diamanda Galás, so you know she's out there—renowned for concerts wherein she extended single songs for literally hours, and her Callas-like mystique.
No, Folklife isn't Coachella. You won't spot Santino Rice from Project Runway at the Jug Band workshop. (Although he might be scoping out those Ukrainian ladies for lingerie ideas.) But you might be surprised at how much fun—in moderation—Folklife can be. And if it turns out you really do hate it? No great loss. It was free. And at least you weren't stuck having a lousy time in the California desert.