Centennial Hall is ‘Juneau’s living room’ again as the Folk Festival returns in-person

Some of the best entertainment at the Alaska Folk Festival can be found in the hallways, where old friends meet and new friends are made (Photo by Rhonda McBride).

Centennial Hall is once again alive with the sounds of fiddles and banjos — not just on the main stage, but in the entryways and hallways, where musicians pull up folding chairs for impromptu jam sessions.

On most evenings of the Alaska Folk Festival, Greg McLaughlin camps out in a corner with his concertina. He says his fingers are a little clumsy at finding the tunes his friends like to play. Since the pandemic, he’s out of practice playing with other people.

“It’s good to see the friends again,” McLaughlin said. “That’s the most magical thing about folk festival, getting together and playing tunes with friends.”

Some, like Sam O’Toole from Cordova, are experiencing culture shock. He says he hasn’t mingled in a large crowd since the festival’s in-person concerts went on hiatus two years ago. And it’s a little overwhelming.

“It’s going to take a week, and then some,” said O’Toole, who started taking in the festival in small doses on Monday.

Concert-goers get wrist bands after giving proof of vaccination. (Photo by Rhonda McBride).

For others, it feels like a long drought is over.

“I think COVID has made us realize how important we are to each other — the ability to gather, how important that is to our lives,” said Laura Lucas, who has been coming to the festival since it started almost a half-century ago.

Although the folk festival is not quite the same as it was pre-pandemic, Lucas says she’s glad organizers are requiring masks and proof of vaccination.

While the city dropped its mask mandate at the end of February, a recent COVID outbreak at the Capitol was a reminder that gatherings in Juneau still come with some risk. But thanks to volunteers who stepped up to help with the COVID screening, entry into the festival, a free event, is going quickly.

For one family, the pandemic was an opportunity to learn to play their instruments.

The Koski family made its first festival debut Monday night, with Travis on guitar, his son Warren on banjo and fiddle, his oldest daughter Ruby singing the lead and Gracie, the youngest, strumming a ukulele with her small hands.

Their performance at the festival was a goal the family set five years ago, when they began taking music lessons together as a group. Although they had worked hard for this moment, they were nervous going on the big stage and visibly relieved when their set of traditional gospel songs drew warm applause from the crowd.

“It’s very welcoming to everybody,” said Travis Koski. “Everybody’s invited to play. And it’s a friendly crowd, really supportive community.”

The Koski Family Band performed old time favorites Monday night like, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” (Photo by Rhonda McBride)

And it’s the Folk Festival audiences over the years that have helped to cultivate performers like Taylor Vidic, a Juneau singer-songwriter, who believes she was 12 when her music teacher encouraged her to join other musicians on stage.

On Tuesday night, she performed her first solo act as if she had known the stage all her life — well, at least more than half of her life.

On stage, she chided Mark Ridgeway — the emcee for Tuesday night — about his age.

“Mark, I heard you say earlier that your first folk festival was 1993,” she said, “And I just realized, if you ever forget, you can just ask me when I was born.”

The crowd heartily applauded the joke and her music.

Vidic had planned to make her 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 a performer in Skagway.

Yet during that time, she wrote three new songs.

“I am thankful to have been taught how to be a little more still over the last few years,” Vidic said, “and I hope I can carry that forward.”

Kathy Petraborg-Ensor and Craig Smith, warming up back stage. Although they were minutes away from their performance, they were still trying to figure out their set list (Photo by Rhonda McBride).

Many performers, like Craig Smith and Kathy Petraborg-Ensor of Juneau, are glad to see this time of enforced isolation come to an end. In their duo, Heartstrings, they sing gentle harmonies, which before the pandemic they shared with many friends who would gather in their living room to enjoy music. But since the pandemic, Smith says, it’s only been the two of them. And now it’s hard getting used to the idea of playing before a big crowd.

“There’s a big difference between that hall and our living room. Because with COVID, that’s the only place we’ve been playing,” Smith said.

But Smith says it feels great to see musicians back on the Folk Festival’s main stage at Centennial Hall, which he calls “Juneau’s living room” — a place to share music, laughter and friendship with the whole community.

Although Molly Heidemann and Georgia McGuire are only in the third grade, they’re happy to see the return of in-person concerts, because they’ve missed the music and the fun (Photo by Rhonda McBride).

And that includes two third-graders, Georgia McGuire and Molly Heidemann, who say they missed being a part of the festival.

“It makes me feel happy and makes me feel like people worked hard to do it,” Georgia said. Her friend Molly chimed in, “So, I’ll 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 & 103.1 and online.

Disclaimer: KTOO partners with the Alaska Folk Festival to broadcast the festival on KRNN and a live webstream on ktoo.org/folkfest. Additionally, one of KTOO’s Arts, Culture and Music producers is on the Alaska Folk Festival’s board of directors.

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