Irish-American band Solas got the Sisters Folk Festival crowd revved up and dancing Saturday night. photo by Jay Mather
Irish-American band Solas got the Sisters Folk Festival crowd revved up and dancing Saturday night. photo by Jay Mather

Marking its 15th anniversary season, the Sisters Folk Festival has ripened into a mature yet never predictable celebration of true American roots music.

With 28 diverse acts over three days, encompassing six venues, this year's stellar lineup wove a lyrical spell all around town and left festivalgoers breathless and satisfied - just the way Executive Director Brad Tisdel likes it.

"The music and its presentation is first and foremost, with excellence in every detail," said a fatigued but elated Tisdel, hustling to grab some lunch. "So many key elements come together to make that magic. That is our goal and our job."

For Friday's opening night show, an eager, sun-dappled crowd marched past banners from previous festivals decorating the tent at the Village Green Main Stage, golden micro-brews and Korean barbecue in hand. In minutes, seats were filled to capacity and choice standing-room-only spots remained a hot commodity.

Emcee Dennis McGregor, festival poster artist and featured musician, mounted the stage and declared that "the coolest people around are in this tent right now," then introduced last year's encore performer, Ellis.

"I was thinking today... gatherings like this and how important they are, where we come to replenish," said the singer/songwriter from Minneapolis, easing into a sad, sweet ballad.

Her pure voice and innocent, evocative songs warmed hearts and set a powerful tone to christen the festival.

Texan Slaid Cleaves, no stranger to Sisters, having played the 2001 and 2002 fests, delivered a raw series of working-class roadhouse tunes about prison cells, horses and divorces. "Seems like I was just here, stepping off the stage. Time sure flies," he said.

Heavyweight bluesman John Hammond wasted no time after cradling his guitar. "I came to play for you so I'm just going to go for it," he announced, launching into a blistering guitar riff injected with heartache and harmonica.

Hot Club of Cowtown rounded out opening night by ingratiating themselves forever with some old-fashioned Western swing that elicited many a "yee-haw" from the audience.

"It's good to be amongst friends," said lead singer and guitarist Whit Smith, after a riotous round of applause.

"We love being here," said Elana James, the trio's nimble-fingered fiddler. "We drove in over the pass from Portland and it smelled so good."

All weekend long, wherever you turned or sat, that same infectious folk festival stare was returned by happy strangers and new friends: Equal parts inspiration, awe and admiration for the generous offerings, blessings of the phenomenal music and its effects.

Deb Gasster and Rich Steronko of Portland were here for their first time.

"It's great. We love all the venues and how you get to experience the town," said Steronko. "We saw Hot Club of Cowtown. What energy. And John Hammond, he's the real deal, master of the rack harmonica."

The new Sisters Coffee Company Community Stage proved popular, providing that sense of intimacy with the artists the festival is known for.

The Ashland band One Horse Shy, played an easy-going country set on the lawn under the trees. Band members thanked Brad Tisdel, festival cofounder Jim Cornelius and the City of Sisters for their hospitality.

"This is how life should be everyday," said singer Bob Evoniuk.

Jay Howlett hosted a Friday night "Circle the Wagons" tribute at Sisters Art Works to honor his friend Chuck McCabe, a songwriter, recording artist and friend of the festival who passed away this year.

"Lots of songwriters came, all the important people," said Howlett. "I still feel him; he spent a lot of years here at the folk festival."

Grizzled outlaw troubadour Ray Wylie Hubbard stuffed the Village Green tent Saturday afternoon with avid fans, some traveling as far as three states away to hear the renegade blues performer and absorb nuggets of priceless life lessons from his library of lurid tales.

"You can probably tell by now, I'm an acquired taste," he growled, diving into a rowdy sing-along called "Snake Farm."

Across town, the line waiting to see Po' Girl at Angeline's Bakery Stage stretched around the block to Cork Cellars, where weary music lovers took a moment to sample some fine Oregon wines and scan their event programs.

Saturday night headliners, the Celtic group Solas, had people dancing jigs in the aisles with their mystic brand of Irish folk music. Their name translates into the word "light," and illuminate the evening they did.

"This is our maiden voyage to Sisters and we want to come back," shouted banjo-picker and flutist, Seamus Egan.

The five-piece band was formed 15 years ago in 1995, sharing that birthday with the Sisters Folk Festival.

Slaid Cleaves played a final song on Sunday afternoon before heading to the airport for the next gig.

"We love this festival," he said. "Everything is so easy here; its easy to get around, it's easy to grab a bite to eat. The staff treats us like kings. We don't want to leave."