Feeling thankful for the Fall Folk Festival

It’s not just a ‘Spokane thing’

By Ed Ohlweiler
Reader Contributor

My wife Pam and I have been attending the Fall Folk Festival for 15-20 years now (let’s just say “umpteen” years for argument’s sake); and, once again, the festival has brought so much beauty, grace and gratitude into our lives. 

In those umpteen years, my brain has compiled a montage of magical moments, stunning performances and feelings of community-mindedness that all came flooding back in the middle of the night between the most recent performances in November.

While technically it is in Spokane, the influence of the festival comes to North Idaho and North Idaho comes to it. You’ll see friends from home among the volunteers and audience. Local favorite musicians like Bridges Home, Truck Mills, Patrice Webb, Folk Remedy, Leon Atkinson, Doug Bond and others have all graced the stages there.

Not to mention that it is a family-friendly event and shows on all of the six to eight stages are completely free. It operates on a budget of goodwill. Volunteers pull the whole thing off — including the musicians, who don’t get paid to play. 

While this seems a little tough, considering folk musicians can expect to make hundreds of dollars in their lifetimes, as the joke goes, it does make me treasure the performances even more — their song is their gift, and they send it out to the universe with an open heart.

You can be walking around and run into Sandpointians like Susan Bates-Harbuck, sporting her volunteer lanyard, or Emily Faulkner calling out the contra dances. The Powell brothers, Anthony and David, have had the distinction of both playing on stage and manning a booth featuring their famous Tonedevil harp guitars. 

I mention all this to dispel the myth that the Fall Folk Festival is just a Spokane thing. You’ll find crafts from throughout the Northwest — and the world — as well as makers of fine instruments, gem collectors and booths full of information.

Pam and I actually have a strategy for the festival, something akin to “no friends on a powder day”: We travel in our separate little circles (I sometimes work a stage) and meet up at the shows neither of us would miss in 100 years, like Floating Crowbar, 2 Bit Jug Band or Free Whiskey. The place is big enough to be pleasantly surprised when you run into your wife or friends, but small enough that we can always find each other when we’re going to the same show. Though sometimes you have to hustle to see two acts you’ve been hoping to see on different stages.

Musically, you can expect folk, Celtic, bluegrass, world fusion, klezmer, marimba, taiko drumming and Chinese zither — and songs of peace by The Raging Grannies. Or you can just hang out in the lobby all day and join the jam sessions. There are also dance performances and workshops for dance or music.

Watching Bridges Home this weekend brought back a highlight memory of the time they played about eight years ago. Dave Gunter sang a song he wrote for wife and musical partner Tami Belzer-Gunter for their wedding night, and there were a lot of moist eyes in the audience. Later they received a standing ovation.

This reminded me of how the festival personally touched my own wedding. At our very first festival, umpteen years ago, a band member was introducing a song and I whispered to Pam, “I know that voice — that’s Kevin Brown [from the Front Porch Bluegrass radio show].” The woman on the other side of me proclaimed, “That’s my husband!” proud as all get out and giddy as a teenager. I swear her dimples were showing. Cut to several years later and that same band, Big Red Barn, was playing our wedding and Pam and I were dancing our first slow dance to a love song that Kevin wrote for his wife, Joan.

Since then, we’ve even been invited over to their place for a house concert — the generosity of the folk crowd knows no bounds. 

For instance, I’d always wanted to see the folk legend Bill Staines, who didn’t get out West much. I discovered that although we couldn’t get him in Sandpoint, he was going to play a house concert in Spokane and there was a phone number. I called up the house, found out the couple were members of the Spokane Folklore Society and we bonded over stories of past festivals. Next thing I knew, we were watching the now late-Bill Staines in someone’s living room with 35 other people.

This year saw the return of Dan Maher, the debut of Brittany Jean and those lucky enough to be there for Heat Speak were treated to another beautiful festival highlight. Then there was that year the world fusion band had both a hang drum and a tabla. 

The montage rolls on in my head, but I really just wanted to express my sincere thanks for the Fall Folk Festival, all the performers and volunteers and all they bring to our lives.

Ed Ohlweiler is an occasional Reader contributor and longtime folk lover.

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