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Navigating the Folk Fest 

A veteran attendee provides tips on how to approach a packed weekend of RFF performers.

click to enlarge folkfile.jpeg

Scott Elmquist

This year’s Folk Festival features the traditional embarrassment of riches: eighty-eight performances on six stages, featuring multiple styles both familiar and unfamiliar.

More than half of the 35 artists appear multiple times, which means that nearly half appear only once. In addition to the focused sets, there are several mashup sessions providing a bit of insight across multiple styles culminating in cross-cultural jam sessions that, while brief and unpredictable, are often among the brightest moments in the weekend.

What is the best way to navigate this bewildering array of choices?

No worries, there is not one. Unless you are there to mostly dance, in which case just plant yourself at the Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion for a rotating roster of the ten most kinetically inspirational acts. But every year, sadly, there are acts from some remote tradition that you hear people raving about after they have given their last performance. If this is a problem, there is always the option of countering with a now-departed act of your own.

One factor to consider is the layout. Basically, the festival is in two sections, separated by the canal and the Virginia Civil War Museum complex. The northwest section, anchored by the large Altria Stage sprawls on the hillside between Tredegar and Second Street, contains all but two venues. The Costar Stage and Dominion Dance Pavilion are southeast on Brown’s Island. Running the gauntlet of beer trucks, funnel cakes, traditional crafts, and the choke points of the canal bridges takes time. Especially if you factor in the inevitable encounters with friends, coworkers, and random talkative people you have not seen for years. [Editors’ note: This year the Virginia Folklife Area has a new sponsor, the nonprofit Center for Cultural Vibrancy run by former state folklorist Jon Lohman, and that with the crafts area has moved to a new location on the upper canal, bordering Fifth Street. Read our interview with Katy Clune, the new state folklorist and director of the Virginia Folklife Program here].

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Don’t forget to bring cash for the ubiquitous, orange donation buckets. A donation gets you a sticker, which will protect you from further entreaties and shield you from the disapproving gaze of those who have already donated. Sure, it is a free event, and the crowd is full of friendly, non-judgmental people who will totally forgive a freeloader. But do you want to be that person?

It is best to have a plan. (Not that I have any experience with doing this.) In the early days of the festival, it was possible to move easily from one stage to another, taking advantage of the staggered start times to see as many acts as possible, often from well-placed seats. But over the years, the crowds have grown to the level that, especially in the smaller tents-covered stages, showing up late usually means viewing from the side. And you will have only one shot at half the acts - including Richmond favorites Kenneka Cook and Reagan Sprenkle, and Carnatic violinist Kamalakiran Vinjamuri. Others, like Sephardic traditionalist Nani Noam Vazana, zydeco wizard Andre Thierry, and honky-tonk storyteller Jesse Daniel are playing every day.

The last set on Sunday is always memorable. This year it may be mariachi at the Altria hillside, sacred harp at the CarMax stage, or gospel at The Center for Cultural Vibrancy. If the past is any indication, I will end up at the Dominion Dance Stage for whatever colorful feathery hip hop New Orleans Mardi Gras madness the 79s Gang have in store.

It is impossible to do everything, whether you come for one day or all three. Missing something amazing is part of the experience. So are the happy surprises.

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