A report from Day One of Northwest Folklife Festival 2010: Young banjo-busking bands were in full force at Seattle Center, including Satan Dance Party, Bramble and Pass the Jug!

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Breaking news from Seattle Center: As of Friday afternoon, not a single drum circle had been spotted at the Northwest Folklife Festival. Late morning rain might’ve been a factor, but perhaps the complexion of Folklife is shifting.

In its 39th year, the venerable festival seems less a magnet for aging hippies tooting pan flutes and more a destination for itinerant-punk banjo-busking bands. Once the rain let up around 1:30 p.m., they were everywhere.

Like Satan Dance Party, from San Diego, a shaggy, tattooed quartet playing bawdy drinking songs, and Bramble, from Salt Lake City, whose lofty choruses were as pretty as they were ragged. Pass the Jug! was fresh off the freight train from California, and the Blair Street Mugwumps, out of Glenwood, Ore. (near Eugene), featured a washtub bass and wisecracks between songs.

San Francisco’s Free Bananas played the Fisher Green Stage, and the Conjugal Visitors, from Eugene, played under the canopied west entrance to the Center House; both were official Folklife acts. They also played old-time string music, heavy on the upright bass, dobro and shouted vocals. Members of the former were dressed in spiffy suits and sang “San Francisco Bay Blues,” a 1950s folk standard. The latter featured a guitarist with waist-long dreadlocks and sang “Roll me up a funny cigarette/Roll me up a reefer, it’s your safest bet” while a crowd of kids and parents stood enthralled.

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“If they’re at Folklife, they’re cool parents,” mandolinist Jesse Lawton later explained.

Many of these teens and 20-somethings — pierced in very visible places, dragging dogs, smelling of wet cigarettes, wearing oily clothes held together by safety pins and patches — were extremely talented. What others lacked in refinement they compensated for with zeal.

These kids are picking at the frayed thread of acoustic roots music, breathing new life into 80-year-old standards. This is folk music — work songs, hobo songs — played with punk-rock chutzpah. That it skews so young means folk music is alive and well.

Even younger was the Giddens School Choir from Seattle’s Central Area, who were joined by a chorus from Zion Preparatory Academy in South Seattle to open the four-day festival at the Mural Amphitheatre. After the stage had been thoroughly squeegeed (“At least it stopped raining,” one optimistic parent remarked in the downpour), 35 or so elementary-school kids took the stage, led by choral director Kent Stevenson. Their theme song: “I got rhythm/I got music/I got my friends/Who could ask for anything more?”, broken up by a massive kazoo interlude.

Morning rain kept the buskers at bay; most people avoided soggy grassy areas and the central fountain. Vendors kept their booths battened with plastic as runnels of rainwater intermittently poured from their overhead tarps.

“We can come back here some other time,” a father told his young daughter as she dipped a wet sneaker toe into the turquoise pool by Vera Project.

“Maybe in the summer on a nice day,” she answered.

Across Seattle Center at the Folklife Commons, workshop booths offered mosaic-making and clay animation. Instructors from the Dusty Strings Music School in Fremont offered free lessons in acoustic guitar and banjo.

“It’s been wet and rainy but it’s been fun already,” said vocal instructor Adam Burdick. “We’ve had several lessons and people are having a good time.”

Jonathan Zwickel: 206-464-3239 or jzwickel@seattletimes.com

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