25 Minutes of Fame

The renowned--and still free--Tucson Folk Festival keeps growing

When Andy Warhol famously proclaimed we would all get our 15 minutes of fame ... well, let's just say he never had a chance to attend the Tucson Folk Festival. At this unique Tucson event, a 25-minute set of music can transform even the most part-time and anonymous musician into a performer of headliner proportions--for 25 minutes.

Realistically, 25 minutes is barely enough time to get off five or six tunes, and from that point of view, it hardly seems worth the bother. This is especially so when you consider that in addition to nobody getting paid (headliners excluded), there is a $10 performers' fee that must accompany a demo and application, simply to be considered.

Musicians paying to play. How can this possibly be a good idea?

Yet a strong case can be made that there is no folk music event in the country that generates more interest and excitement among more performers (120 acts this year) than our little homegrown Folk Festival. Now in its 22nd year, the Folk Fest will draw close to 10,000 fans and hundreds of musicians this weekend to the five stages that will grace downtown's El Presidio Park, Old Town Artisans Courtyard and the Tucson Museum of Art.

"For some people, this may be their only performance of the year," says Shanti Foster, a multi-instrumentalist who often plays with several ensembles during the festival and who is involved with the Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association (TKMA), the primary sponsor of the event. "And if not their only performance of the year, certainly for such a high profile event, it can be one of the most important."

Even for those who perform often and are used to a certain amount of notoriety, there is a thrill to this event that cannot be replicated at a paying gig with a longer set. "I like that everyone--players, audience, sound crew, volunteers, vendors--all come fully charged, ready, willing and wanting to complete the circuit," says local singer/songwriter Kevin Pakulis. "It's hard not to feel that kind of energy rolling across the grounds. It's powerful stuff."

Tucson's Folk Fest is a performer- and music-driven event, quite different from a big concert setting. And while this festival has had some great headliners , they make up only a fraction of the musical output of a weekend that is indeed a celebration of acoustic music in so many of its varied forms.

As a result, this year's Folk Fest program is populated by acts such as the Artichoke Sisters, The Jones Gang and Friends, The Woolley Way, Hot Club of Sierra Vista, Dambe Drum Ensemble and Los Hombres--hardly household names, though their 25 minutes may still be no less compelling than the sets turned in by local icons such as Stefan George, John Coinman, Ice-9 and Pakulis. Some of the weekend's greatest delights, in fact, will come when the casual festivarian stumbles across a stage or an act he or she had no intention of seeing, and is blown away by a performer he or she may or may not ever see again.

In the beginning, there were two stages. The Plaza Stage, laid out by the City Hall plaza in El Presidio Park, has always borne the burden of being known as the "main stage." It is also the stage from which KXCI FM 91.3, as it has from the beginning, conducts its live broadcast.

The truth, however, is the Courtyard Stage--at the other end of the plaza, bordering Church Avenue to the east, and always packed with people on the grass--provides an intimacy and a listening experience many musicians actually prefer. To its credit, TKMA usually does a good job rotating musicians from one stage to the next, one year to the next.

In the mid-1990s, TKMA began to realize it was getting more applications (and nonrefundable fees) than it had performance spots available. There was only one thing to do: expand. Thus began the ill-fated Library Stage experiment. It's hard to say why the masses could not bring themselves to cross Church to support this stage, but they couldn't. Still, it was clear the festival was growing, and more slots needed to be created. Enter Old Town Artisans. Apparently, people had no trouble crossing Alameda Street if there was alcohol on the other side. OTA thus provided an entirely new environment to the festival, and also hosts the official festival kickoff party on Friday night.

Last year, as TKMA added a stage at the Tucson Museum of Art, complete with a Nimbus Beer Garden, the Library Stage was quietly put out of its misery. On Sunday this year, the festival will also debut a New Artists Stage for high school talent.

This festival is now a huge undertaking and has evolved into a year-round project. There are spring and fall benefits, an annual Christmas dinner and show, and a singer/songwriter tribute show, all in support of the festival. There are also a couple dozen Music in the Schools performances leading up to the festival, which allow festival songwriters, many of whom are out-of-towners, to receive a small stipend to help with their travel expenses.

This year's headliners will be Tucson-bred Sisters Morales and their five-piece band on Saturday, and Trout Fishing in America on Sunday. Sunday will also include a 1 p.m. children's performance with Trout Fishing in America on the Courtyard Stage.

As always, the festival remains absolutely free.

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