Anchorage Folk Festival, opening Thursday, marks 25th year

Chris Bieri

Before Jason Norris became a stalwart of the local folk scene, he was a rambunctious kid playing in the aisles of the Wendy Williamson Auditorium during the Anchorage Folk Festival.

Norris, 30, went on to record five studio albums with the seminal Alaskan string band Bearfoot. He was quite literally raised on the festival, which will celebrate its 25th year with two weekends of music, dancing and workshops starting January 16.

"As long as I can recall, I've been going to it. Even before I learned how to play, I was just running around enjoying the other kids of musicians that were there," Norris said.

The AFF brings up acclaimed national acts, but organizers say it's the way the festival has nurtured and showcased local musicians like Norris that's kept it vibrant.

"He was one of those kids running up and down the stairs and people were complaining, 'why can't we do something about these kids?'" said Mary Schallert, who established many of the festival's youth programs. "I think for this particular event, you want to have the kids be kids as much as possible."

The AFF was born out of the early success of the Alaska Folk Fest, held annually in Juneau. One of the traditions borrowed from that festival was the opportunity for any performer to sign up for a 15-minute time slot.

"It's intended to be a community celebration," said longtime festival board member Kenny Powers. "We refer to it as 'the 15 minutes of fame.' The theory is to give as many people as possible an opportunity to perform. It has played a huge role in the development of musicians and music for Anchorage over its 25 years. People who are otherwise not getting out of their living rooms, and maybe not practicing that much, spend a whole year getting ready to put their set on."

Norris said these early opportunities helped him get excited about music. At some festivals during his teenage years he played with as many as eight different groups.

"We might have only known three chords, but the Folk Fest was gracious enough to let a group of nervous 8- or 9-year-olds get on their stage for 15 minutes," he said. "That was pretty inspiring and pretty rad for a group of youngsters to get to enjoy and experience and it gave us encouragement."

While most of the artists are American folk music devotees, there are also marimba, Celtic, barbershop, gospel and other kinds of performances, as well as a handful of large community dances.

In recent years, "Folk Week" has been established between the two festival weekends, with performances at venues in and around Anchorage. For those looking to learn new skills or teach others, there are free workshops on everything from finger picking and gypsy jazz to juggling and different dances.

Schallert said it's all in the folk tradition.

"Taking lessons is what you do classically," she said. "The way you really learn, you're hanging out in the kitchen while grandpa is playing and suddenly you are playing and people are showing you stuff... It's really unique that way. It's a multi-age endeavor. You'll see people in their 60s working side-by-side with someone who is 16, and they're peers."

Grammy-nominated Della Mae is the first weekend's national guest artist, with Mr. Sun (featuring Darol Anger and Tony Trischka) headlining the second weekend. Both groups will be hosting workshops as well as giving performances.

"Part of what we go for in choosing the bands to come up here is not just the quality of their performance, but how willing they are to participate in a community festival," Powers said. "Artists willing to share their knowledge with the community, not to stay locked up in their hotel room, but to actually mingle and teach. It's an opportunity every year for our musicians of all levels to rub shoulders and swap tunes with the best."

By Chris Bieri