Centennial Hall is alive again with the sounds of fiddles and banjos — not just on the main stage, but in the entrances and hallways, where musicians pull out folding chairs for impromptu jam sessions.
Most nights at the Alaska Folk Festival, Greg McLaughlin camped out in the corner with his accordion. He says his fingers are a little clumsy in finding the tunes his friends like to play. Since the pandemic, he no longer practices playing with other people.
“Good to see friends again,” McLaughlin said. “That’s the most magical thing about a folk festival, getting together and playing music with friends.”
Some, like Cordova’s Sam O’Toole, are experiencing culture shock. He says he hasn’t mingled with a large crowd since the festival’s in-person concerts were halted two years ago. And it’s a bit overwhelming.
“It’s going to take a week, and more,” said O’Toole, who started attending the festival in small doses on Monday.
For others, it’s like a long drought is over.
“I think COVID has made us realize how important we are to each other – the ability to come together, how important that is to our lives,” said Laura Lucas, who has been coming to the festival since started nearly half a century ago. .
Although the folk festival isn’t quite the same as it was before the pandemic, Lucas says she’s glad organizers are requiring masks and proof of vaccination.
As the city dropped its mask mandate in late February, a recent COVID outbreak on Capitol Hill has served as a reminder that gatherings in Juneau still carry some risk. But thanks to the volunteers who stepped up to help with the COVID screening, entry to the festival, a free event, is done quickly.
For one family, the pandemic has been an opportunity to learn to play their instruments.
The Koski family made their festival debut on Monday night, with Travis on guitar, son Warren on banjo and fiddle, eldest daughter Ruby singing the lead role and youngest Gracie strumming a ukulele with her tiny hands.
Their performance at the festival was a goal the family set for themselves five years ago, when they started taking group music lessons. Although they worked hard for the moment, they were nervous about stepping onto the big stage and visibly relieved when their set of traditional gospel songs drew warm applause from the crowd.
“It’s very welcoming to everyone,” Travis Koski said. “Everyone is invited to play. And it’s a friendly crowd, a really supportive community.
And it’s Folk Festival audiences over the years that have helped cultivate performers like Taylor Vidic, a singer-songwriter from Juneau, who thinks she was 12 when her music teacher encouraged her to join d other musicians on stage.
On Tuesday night, she performed her first solo act as if she’d known the stage her whole life — well, at least more than half of her life.
On stage, she berated Mark Ridgeway – Tuesday night’s emcee – about her age.
“Mark, I heard you say earlier that your first folk festival was in 1993,” she said, “And I just realized that if you ever forget, you can just ask me when I was born. “
The crowd warmly applauded the joke and its music.
Vidic had planned to make his solo debut two years ago but the pandemic got in the way. It also sidelined her in the midst of launching a career as a professional musician and performer at Skagway.
Yet during this time she wrote three new songs.
“I’m grateful that I’ve learned to be a bit more still over the past few years,” Vidic said, “and hopefully I can continue that.”
Many artists, like Craig Smith and Kathy Petraborg-Ensor of Juneau, are happy to see this period of enforced isolation coming to an end. In their duet, Heartstrings, they sing sweet harmonies, which they shared before the pandemic with many friends who gathered in their living room to listen to music. But since the pandemic, Smith says, it’s down to just two. And now it’s hard to get used to the idea of playing in front of a large audience.
“There is a big difference between this room and our living room. Because with COVID, it’s the only place we’ve played,” Smith said.
But Smith says it’s good to see musicians back on the main stage at the folk festival at Centennial Hall, which he calls “Juneau’s living room” — a place to share music, laughter and friendship with the whole community.
And that includes two third graders, Georgia McGuire and Molly Heidemann, who say they missed being part of the festival.
“It makes me happy and makes me feel like people have worked hard to make it happen,” Georgia said. Her friend Molly added: “So I’m going to dance in my chair, get up and dance.”
The 47th Annual Alaska Folk Festival continues at Centennial Hall through April 10. Evening and weekend concerts will be broadcast on KRNN 102.7 and 103.1 and online.
Disclaimer: KTOO is partnering with the Alaska Folk Festival to broadcast the KRNN festival and live web stream at ktoo.org/folkfest. Additionally, one of KTOO’s arts, culture and music producers sits on the board of the Alaska Folk Festival.