Portland is known for its experimental and indie-rock music scenes, but a singer-songwriter with Clark County roots has launched a music festival with a quieter, more traditional sound. Sort of.
Portland’s Folk Festival is headed for McMenamins Crystal Ballroom in Portland this weekend. The three-day event is brimming with local talent, as well as some national acts that are sure to test the definition of “folk music.”
People will argue over what folk music means and what its boundaries really are, said Sarah Vitort, who grew up in Vancouver and is now a co-founder and co-director of the festival, along with Scott Gilmore, her musical partner. Vitort and Gilmore are the retro-folk duo Fox and Bones.
Electric guitars, rocking rhythms and brand-new songs are all welcome at Portland’s Folk Festival, Vitort said. On Acoustic Sunday, the three winners of festival songwriting contests (best overall, most creative and best under 18) will take the stage.
Folk music is a big umbrella that includes everything from timeless traditional songs, through the swampy rock of a classic band like Creedence Clearwater Revival, to today’s clever acoustic pop, Vitort said. If its roots are in traditional American music, as far as Portland’s Folk Festival is concerned, it fits.
“It’s music that tells stories and brings community together,” she said. “Our artists come from all these different genres.”
Tables and chairs will transform the normally standing-only Crystal Ballroom into a more relaxed, comfy space, Vitort said. On Acoustic Sunday, the whole venue will be seated and there will even be a “cozy corner” with rugs and beanbags, perfect for sprawling. Vendors and crafters will add to the folksy feel.
Vitort and Gilmore met while leading rock bands in Portland, but when they tried a gentler, acoustic-duo approach, it really took off, Vitort said. Launched in 2016, Fox and Bones stayed busy for years touring the country and Europe, she said.
Because success kept them working so hard, Fox and Bones never had much chance to stay home and enjoy the local folk music scene they knew was here, Vitort said. That’s why she and Gilmore launched Portland’s Folk Festival in 2018.
“We lived a life on the road and we saw folk festivals happening in other cities,” Vitort said. “We never got to see our favorite bands. We never got to hang out with our Portland friends. This was an excuse to get our favorite bands together on one bill in Portland.”
The first Portland’s Folk Festival was held in McMenamins’ very tight White Eagle Saloon. The next one moved up to the Mission Theater. Then, in 2020, McMenamins bumped the festival up to its Crystal Ballroom with an audience capacity of 1,000.
Vitort said she’s still a little shocked that the duo’s local side project wound up at such an iconic — and big — venue so quickly.
“The Crystal Ballroom was in our 10-year plan, not our three-year plan,” she said with a laugh.
The thanks is due to McMenamins, she said, which believes in the project (and always has dates to fill in slow January).
But 2020’s festival was barely over when the coronavirus pandemic arrived. No fest was held for the next two years and the always-busy Fox and Bones found their own career interrupted. They took shelter in Vitort’s parents’ home in Camas, where their socially distanced driveway concert in April 2020 was featured in this newspaper.
“We did manage to get a lot done,” Vitort said. Fox and Bones performed driveway concerts through the summer and fall, released an album on vinyl and even wrote a few songs-for-hire for individual fans.
“We definitely stayed busy, but are very grateful to feel back to normal now,” she said.
The hunger for another Portland’s Folk Festival — and support for expanding the event into a three-day weekend that takes over the Crystal Ballroom — is proof of a thriving folk scene in this region, Vitort said.
“This is lifting up a community that deserves to play on a bigger stage like the Crystal,” she said. “There are so many impressive bands in Portland that don’t get enough exposure. We can showcase local talent alongside our big headliners.”
Along with Fox and Bones, the lineup includes locals Eddie Burman, Redray Frazier, Hillstomp and Haley Johnsen alongside national acts like Rayland Baxter, David Ramirez and the brothers Ron and Thunderstorm Artiz. View the whole lineup at portlandsfolkfestival.com.