NW Folklife heads back to its roots

Indie roots rock has attracted a new generation to annual weekend gathering in recent years; now there’s a film element

rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.comMay 23, 2014 

The annual Northwest Folklife Festival, which is this weekend in Seattle, calls itself the nation’s largest community-powered festival. The festival attracts around 250,000 people each year.


Tacoma-Seattle band Cloud Person — gigging at Northwest Folklife for the first time this weekend — defines its sound as a blend of roots folk, psychedelia, spaghetti western and indie rock. And it’s that kind of mingling that defines Folklife itself.

The annual Seattle festival of everything folksy has grown over its 43 years to include a huge range of culture — a smorgasbord of pretty much every musical genre except classical and heavy metal.

This year, though, it’s given special focus to indie roots rock, a programming section begun three years ago and expanded this year into film through partnerships with Light in the Attic Records, 50 Feet of Song, and the Seattle International Film Festival Center.

Billed as America’s largest community-driven arts festival, Folklife doesn’t need to work hard for an audience. It attracts about 250,000 visitors each year who fight traffic, limited parking — and often wet weather — to mill around the multitude of indoor and outdoor stages scattered around Seattle Center.

But indie roots has brought a whole new audience to Folklife.

“It’s been wonderful,” says Kelli Faryar, Folklife’s lead programmer. “It looks at popular Americana music that’s happening around town and invites that audience to the festival, giving them a context that this music has its roots in traditional folk.”

Faryar adds that indie roots has also enabled Folklife — which already had a strong audience of families and older folks — to bring in a new audience from the 25-to-40 age range.

“Indie roots appeals to that new generation,” she says.

It’s all good news for Cloud Person. The six-member band half-based in Tacoma (the other three live in Seattle) began as a folk trio in 2012, but it has been expanding its sound style ever since to become an example of the eclecticism of Folklife’s indie roots.

“We started off just bass, guitar and violin,” says bassist Cameron Arneson. “Then we added drums and a keyboard, and it kind of took off. We started using new sounds, some delay. Then we got a second guitarist who really did some different things.”

The band still plays music written mostly by founder and guitarist/singer Pete Jordan, and they “still do harmonies,” says Arneson, “but it’s a little less folky.”

The other thing thrown into the mix is the sheer diversity of Cloud Person’s musicians. Jordan’s influences have been folk-rock bands such as Bob Dylan and Neutral Milk Hotel, while Arneson has a mostly jazz background, violinist Betsy Johnson is classically trained, and “we all like the Beatles,” says Arneson.

After a couple of years of attending Folklife and playing local venues including Tacoma’s New Frontier, Arneson says he’s excited to be playing the festival for the first time.

“We’ll be playing stuff from our new album, ‘Lonesome Shack,’ and a handful of new songs in a more psychedelic direction,” he says. “And then some older tunes that our longtime supporters will know.”

The other big thing for Folklife’s indie roots this year is a three-way collaboration to bring film to the roots stage. Light in the Attic Records will present “Wheedle’s Grove,” a documentary about Seattle’s little-known soul and funk scene in the 1960s and ’70s (4-6 p.m. Friday), while the SIFF Film Center will lend its screen to the work of folklorist Alan Lomax, who’ll be roaming Folklife creating super-8 film field recordings of the live indie roots bands, screening them in the project “50 Feet of Song” (4-5 p.m. Sunday, 2-3 p.m. Monday).

“People are responding more to film and video,” Faryar explains. “It’s just another way to expand what indie roots is.”

Among the highlights of indie roots are multi-band showcases including “Hearth Honky Tonk” (6-9 p.m. Friday), “Folk Redefined” (12:30-2:30 p.m. Saturday, including Cloud Person), “Spaghetti Northwestern” (6:40-9:55 p.m. Saturday) and the Seattle Living Room Showcase (1-4 p.m. Sunday).

Other Folklife events range from Bollywood dance workshops to drumming circles, square dances to Filipino dancers, capoeira to Pete Seeger sing-alongs, Celtic to blues to marimba ensembles, plus plenty of jam sessions in case you bring your own instrument. Buskers dot the pathways, and there are plenty of concession stands as well as the gourmet food court inside the Armory.

Northwest Folklife Festival

When: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday through Monday

Where: Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St., Seattle

Cost: Admission by suggested donation of $10 for individuals, $20 for family or group

Also: Cloud Person plays 11:45 a.m.-12:15 p.m. Saturday at the Vera Project

Information and complete schedule: nwfolklife.org/festival

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

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