Yakima Folklife Festival music booker Navid Eliot had a good problem at the end of April: too many applicants to play the free three-day festival.
He knew he could book about 40.
“And I had probably six times that many applications,” Eliot said. “This year, even more than others, I was buried in applications. And I actually do listen to every application.”
The result, aside from a lot of late nights for Eliot, is a festival with a huge range of musical styles, several up-and-coming Northwest acts, some top local acts and a bill that’s solid top to bottom. There really aren’t many holes in this lineup.
That quality is a function of the large applicant pool. But the diversity of styles is always a priority, according to Eliot and festival board President Nicol Sloon. The festival, now in its 37th year, was struggling a decade ago because it adhered too strongly to the idea of “folk” as traditional music, they said. The shift toward a more big-tent view of “folk” has revived the festival, getting it in line with a larger trend toward inclusiveness in the folk-music world.
“I’m not sure why the regional folk festivals took a while to take the lead of the giant, national ones,” Eliot said, pointing to the Newport Folk Festival, at which Bob Dylan famously went electric back in 1965, shocking folk purists.
“Now, half the acts there are electric,” Eliot said.
And so it is at Yakima Folklife, which will feature plenty of electric guitars played by folk, rock and folk-rock acts. Of course, there will be plenty of more traditional acoustic singer-songwriters, too. Here are the sets we think you should try hardest to see:
• Ezra Bell
Franklin Park main stage, 7:45 p.m. Friday
A band with the name of a man, Ezra Bell does what Eliot calls “pop songs but the instrumentation leans kind of old-timey and vaudevillian.” That doesn’t make them a novelty act, though. Singer-guitarist-songwriter Benjamin Wuamett uses that structure to create songs of real emotional impact. It’s easy to see why Ezra Bell is having a bit of a moment on the Portland scene. They’ve done a couple of national support tours and just signed with the management company Madison House. This might be your last chance to see them for free.
• MAITA, Bodies on the Beach, A View of Earth from the Moon, Pastel Motel
The Seasons Performance Hall, 8 p.m.-midnight Friday
We’re recommending this entire lineup, which was moved to The Seasons because The Yakima Sports Center hasn’t reopened yet following renovations. MAITA, a Portland singer-songwriter with an ear for pop songcraft filtered through a 1990s indie sensibility, writes smart songs that only grow on you the more you hear them. Bodies on the Beach is Eliot’s own new rock project and a pretty big departure from his work with his former band, Yakima folk duo Planes on Paper. The songs of theirs I’ve heard still have his sharp lyricism, though. A View of Earth from the Moon is a Seattle power-pop band that does pairs infectious melody with aching lyrics. And Pastel Motel, a longtime Yakima favorite, is in the process of reinventing itself as a three-piece after about a decade of wild, experimental recording as a four-piece. So that’ll be interesting.
• The Resolectrics
Franklin Park main stage, 3:45 p.m. Saturday; Kana Winery, 9 p.m. Saturday
This Portland band, which Eliot said is really starting to generate buzz in Portland and Seattle, plays a style of rock heavily and directly influenced by classic R&B. It’s also got elements of the 21st century Northwest indie sound. But you can hear as much Muscle Shoals in their songs as you can Portland. In that way, they’re very much of the new genre-resistant brand of rock that draws from country, blues, soul and pop. And they put it together with solid hooks and clever writing.
• All the Real Girls
Franklin Park main stage, 6:15 p.m. Saturday
This Seattle band, which features exactly zero literal girls, did an entire album, “Elk City,” based on wild tales an old barfly woman in Bakersfield, Calif., told band member Peter Donovan during a break in the shooting of the 2013 independent movie “Lost on Purpose.” (Donovan’s castmates on the film included Jane Kaczmarek, C. Thomas Howell and Octavia Spencer.) Those songs, rich with detail and plot, are like a Southern Gothic novel but with cool guitars.
• Jason McCue
Single Hill Brewing Company, 7 p.m. Saturday
People who saw McCue play last year at the festival’s annual Saturday night songwriter showcase still talk about it. (I know, because I’m one of them and I still talk about it.) Like his Seattle-scene colleague Dean Johnson (a Folklife regular who couldn’t make it this year), McCue has become one of those low-profile guys who nevertheless has the respect of everyone else on that scene. He’s understated and carries himself with an aw-shucks affability, but when he takes the stage his presence is commanding and his songs speak for themselves.
• Bart Budwig
Franklin Park songwriter stage, 4:30 p.m. Saturday
I buy too many records at local shows. I get swept up in the excitement, and I want to support touring musicians. But most of them get listened to once or twice and then filed alphabetically, never to be spun again. I have two Bart Budwig records, and I listen to them a lot. That’s a testament to the Oregon-based singer-songwriter’s depth. He’s not only a charismatic performer; his songs have enough to them that I still play his records.
• Songwriter showcase
Gilbert Cellars, 7 p.m. Saturday
This little mini-festival within the festival used to be almost a secret. If you were in the know, you didn’t miss it. But now it’s a lot of Folklife-goers’ favorite part of the whole festival. The way it works is top songwriters from the festival bill do two or three songs each in a much more intimate setting, the Gilbert Cellars basement. It’s quiet to the point of reverence, with each performer getting a chance to be the entire focus of the room. This year’s version is curated by Jen Borst, formerly of Planes on Paper and currently of Wiredove, and Bart Budwig.
Franklin Park songwriter stage, 3:15 p.m. Sunday
Just as Eliot has turned to other projects since Planes on Paper last played in December, the duo’s other half, Jen Borst, has been popping up on stages around the Northwest herself. This is her project with Mike Gervais, the “Mikey” in beloved Seattle duo Mikey and Matty (which is pretty much on hiatus since Matty Gervais joined The Head and The Heart). Both Borst and Gervais can melt you with their voices, so this combination represents an almost dangerous level of beautiful singing power.