By John Christensen
For more than 30 years now, musicians and music fans from across the state, across the country, and even across the world have made their way to Anchorage for two weeks in the dead of winter to brighten our community and our lives with the Anchorage Folk Festival. This year, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, that is obviously going to have to look a little different. But, as the saying goes, the show must go on.
Following in the recent footsteps of other Alaskan festivals including the Spenard Jazz Fest, SalmonFest, the Alaska World Arts Festival, and others and in accordance with the recent additions to the municipality’s ‘Proclamation of Additional Emergency Order EO-17’, the AFF board came to the decision to hold this year’s Folk Fest entirely online. “The Board weighed heavily (the option of) pausing for a year due to COVID-19, but ultimately decided that we could produce a festival that still gave something unique back to our community,” said Johnse Ostman, AFF Board Secretary. “Our discussions always circled back to how important this festival is for our members and the community celebrating folk arts in Anchorage.”
It was a tall order, but they were committed to finding a way to make it happen.
“In some ways it’s just the same,” noted long-time Anchorage Folk Festival sound engineer, Lucy Peckham. “I get to see and hear all the performers doing their best while I’m working on their audio, doing what I do best to make sure everyone is heard and clearly as possible.”
But it is a little different this year — no live shows, no dances, and a limited number of virtual workshops. Plus, now Peckham isn’t just mixing the sound on the spot for a live-performance, she is going through all the recorded sets and using software dampening background noise and leveling audio to again make sure everyone is heard as clearly as possible.
“I guess it is not exactly the same but, to me, it is still the festival. For some, playing onstage at the Wendy (Williamson Auditorium) is a scary unfamiliar world. So, this year, is video and streaming. Yet the spirit, the opportunity, and the community that is the Anchorage Folk Festival is still alive and thriving,” she said.
Jamie Whiteman and Ava Earl are no strangers to that spirit. Both have grown up performing at — and more recently working with — the festival. For Earl, the chance to be a part of this year’s virtual festival, “just made sense.
“It was definitely a different experience, but overall a really great one,” Earl said.
For Whiteman, the new format came with a different kind of significance.
“There’s nothing like staying up late with your friends, boisterously swinging around loud dance floors, or watching kids run up and down the stairs at ‘the Wendy’ while the music plays, or seeing friends come together, some for their once-a-year gathering,” Whiteman said. “But, like most people, this longer-than-we-anticipated ‘hunker down’ life has been tougher than expected, and being a part of the festival, even in this virtual form, has helped me again feel connected to and rooted in my community.”
For years, the Anchorage Folk Festival has been a rendezvous point for musicians of all kinds, from all places both local and Outside, usually capped off with one or more larger-name musicians who have traveled to be part of this renowned event. This year, the focus has shifted closer to home.
Every one of the main stage acts are currently based in Alaska, but that’s not all that has had to change this year. Usually held for two weekends full of music, as well as through many of the nights in between, AFF 2021 is only three days long, starting Friday Jan. 29 and ending Sunday the 31st.
On Friday and Saturday, tune in at 7 p.m. for sets from the Virtual Main Stage, including performances by Ava Earl, The Forest That Never Sleeps, and more. All main stage sets were professionally filmed, mastered, and edited by local volunteers in the Anchorage area. Then on Sunday, tune back in for what is being called a ‘Virtual Open Mic’ for hours worth of pre-recorded clips from other usual local Folk Festival performers. All Main Stage sets are also set to rebroadcast in the afternoon on the day after their premiere. There are even a limited number of workshops to be held online, beginning on Tuesday the 26th. Any pickup jam circles, square-dances, and street-cart food however are up to you to figure out.
Like Folk Festivals in the past, this year’s event is free to the public, though now more than ever they are encouraging people to become a Member with the festival, and help support not only the event itself, but all the incredible people who make it happen. Additionally, the festival’s annual raffle is also going to be virtual this year. With prizes like Alaska Airlines tickets, SalmonFest passes, and more, you can tell that they are just as geared up as the rest of us to see the bulk of this pandemic in our rear-view.
For more information on the event or on how you can help support the festival, visit anchoragefolkfestival.org, and click on the 2021 Folk Festival tab. To keep up with all things Anchorage Folk Festival, find them on Facebook and Instagram. Check out this year’s virtual raffle and get your raffle tickets by going to myalaskatix.com/events/anchorage-folk-festival-2021-1-29-2021.