For many folk around Puget Sound (and further afield), Memorial Weekend means one thing: the Northwest Folklife Festival. The free festival, now in its 42nd year, celebrates all things folk: music, dancing, poetry and art from as many cultures as you can think of. But it’s not just a draw for the crowds who come to listen and watch – it attracts plenty of local performers who want to be part of one of the biggest folk festivals in the country. Among them are Olympia bands Sunshine and Irony, The Shivas, Grizzle Grazzle, plus a couple of Oly fisherman poets and more – and what they like best about Folklife is the chance to meet and share with other performers.
“It’s exciting, it’s fun,” explains Julie Bennett, a percussionist with no less than four Oly-based bands playing this year’s Folklife: Celtic band Loch Dhu, the Contra Quartet and Olympia Volunteer String Band (both contradance bands) and a pick-up brass marching band. “It’s an opportunity to meet other musicians and share music we know, whether it’s common tunes or new ones.”
And the way that happens is behind the scenes at jam sessions. Before, after and between the many, many scheduled stage performances at Folklife are the jam sessions, where musicians – who all volunteer their time to perform – just play together and have fun.
“You’re building connections, no matter what genre,” says Bennett, who says most of the sessions happen in the musicians’ lounge by the Fischer Pavilion. “It could be anything from bluegrass to Celtic to jazz to Quebecois – you just don’t know what you’ll hear, and that’s the beauty of it.”
Dixon Patrick, an Olympian who’s into his third year performing fisherman poetry at Folklife as part of “Fisher Poets on the Road,” also likes the chance to meet other performers.
“I love the performances,” he says, “but a lot of my enjoyment of it comes from meeting up with friends I don’t get to see much, and telling stories to each other.”
Another thing Bennett likes about Folklife is that all shows are recorded and posted on the website for later listening back – useful also for audience members who don’t quite make it around the Seattle Center to hear all their favorite acts.
The Northwest Folklife Festival runs 11 a.m.-11 p.m. May 24-27 at the Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St., Seattle. Admission by donation. See nwfolklife.org/festival for complete schedule (available as a mobile app).
Parking is difficult and expensive around the Seattle Center. You can take public transport, or park at the South Renton Park and Ride (South Grady Way and Shattuck Avenue South) and take a King County Metro shuttle for $2.50 right to the festival.