Anchorage band headlines “sweet” musical weekend at Folk Fest
For this year’s premier summer musical gathering in the City of Golden Beaches, the Nome Arts Council found a harmonious confection from Anchorage with a name as sweet as the festival moniker. For three days The Super Saturated Sugar Strings - the guest band for the 2016 Salmonberry Jam Folk Festival - entertained crowds of children and adults, conducted musical workshops and were present for a great deal of fine playing from Nome’s homegrown musical talent.
The salmonberry, with its sweet, yet contrastive berry taste, might be the perfect metaphor for the Sugar Strings, who say they have created a rich, mesmerizing, gypsy-country vibe. They describe their music as “powerful, funky and alt-folky, with a contemporary sound, rich with vocal harmonies, string melodies, and an element of carnival sideshow.” Their resulting sound - which might make one conjure up images of fervent music being played at a dimly-lit nomadic camp - has had many accolades bestowed upon them in Anchorage, including winning the annual Press Pick contest. They have been voted one of Anchorage’s favorite bands every year since 2012.
In an interview with the Nome Nugget, lead singer Kat Moore said the group formed six years ago when she and violinist and jam partner Miriah Phelps joined forces with the musical duo of Carlyle Watt, who specializes in vocals, guitar, and percussion, and Theresa Watt, who plays cello. As the band progressed, they added a trumpet sound by recruiting Logan Bean, and then bass energy by pulling in Kevin Worrell.
Moore said a Nome Arts Council member attended a concert where the Sugar Strings had opened for the nationally renowned band called The Head and the Heart. This led to an invite for them to be headliners at this year’s Folk Fest.
“We bring in an Alaskan band every few years to try to help build links with musicians around the state,” said Nome Arts Council member Carol Gales, who has been affiliated with the Folk Fest since its beginning. “Now everybody in Nome has met these people, and they just live in Anchorage. So its another good connection.”
The weekend’s musical smorgasbord kicked off Friday with the Sugar Strings providing the impetus for Nome’s youngest musical fans to get up and dance in the Nome Elementary School Commons during the Rhythm and Dance for Kids performance. Later that night the band delivered a full concert for the community. They performed at a local watering hole on Saturday night and again at a community cookout and jam session on Sunday.
Gales says that around 2006 the Folk Fest moved from the Rec Center to the Elementary School. “This allowed a quiet listening space for music, and there’s a separate place where people can get food and do craft sales,” she said. This year’s coinciding arts and craft fair in the elementary school gym featured about 20 vendors.
Gales said that a staple of the festival has always been the Saturday morning workshops conducted by the guest band. These workshops start out with individual band members taking small groups of interested community members into classrooms for instruction and guidance. Gales was so pleased this year to find around 20 members of the community forming an impromptu jam session with the Sugar Strings on the commons stage at the end of the session.
“It’s a most remarkable thing,” said Moore when asked about the status of music in Nome during the Salmonberry Jam Main Stage performances on Saturday afternoon. “It’s much bigger than I expected. I was totally surprised at what a wild and thriving art scene there is here. There is a really strong priority for music.”
“Nome's got some talent here, huh?” said Salmonberry Jam Main Stage announcer Jill Peters to a packed elementary commons. She and fellow emcee Andrea Irrigoo introduced nearly 25 acts that performed during a rolling string of Main Stage performances, lasting five hours.
The 10-minute community acts ranged from ensembles like the five-member Landbridge Tollbooth, who has performed at each Folk Fest since its inception, to duets like the sister act of Sophia and Elsa Hobbs. Groups from King Island and Nome/St. Lawrence Island danced and drummed. The latter presented an intriguing cross-cultural song called Rock and Roll.
The eleven individuals who took the stage provided a variety of musical sounds, ranging from acoustic guitar playing Wilfred Anowlic, dubbed the King Island Elvis Presley, to Darrel Harrison who jammed on an electric guitar. They spanned generations too, with sets from Nome music scene regulars like Jim Abbott, who has performed at all but one of the Folk Fests, to 12-year-old Andrew Hafner, who generated the biggest applause of the day with his rendition of 99 Luftballoons.
“We have definitely succeeded in our goal,” said Gales when asked about the reasons for starting the Folk Fest in 2001. “A lot more people are playing music and they are getting to meet other people in town who play music because they see them at these events. Some are getting inspired to pick up and learn a new instrument.”
A case in point would be co-emcee Irrigoo, who talked about an experience 10 years ago that changed her life. “When I came to Nome and went to the Folk Fest for the first time I was eleven-years-old. I listened to Landbridge Tollbooth and Bear Back Mountain play and I was just astonished by what they could do with the guitar, and the banjo, and all this stuff. I was like, ‘I can't believe this kind of music exists’ because I was never exposed to folk music.”
“I was excited to learn it,” Irrigoo continued. “It made me want to learn all those instruments. So now, 10 years later, I've accomplished learning to play most of them. I play banjo, mandolin, ukulele, and guitar, and I hope to learn more. All because of Folk Fest.” The experience has been so positive in Irrigoo’s life that she is currently studying music in college.
Alyssa Heers, Jill Nederhood, Vivienne Heers and Jessica Oleson treated the audience to their beautiful harmonies, and were playing under the name Just For Today. They were one of the last acts as Saturday’s Main Stage was winding down. “It’s a comfortable venue,” they said about the Folk Fest after the show. “It's comfortable, it's inviting, and it's fitting to how we do our music. You feel like your playing in front of all your buddies.”