Bedecked in page boy caps, button downs and vintage trousers, the Steel City Jug Slammers brought a dose of steampunk culture to the Great River Folk Festival on Saturday morning, mixing a little kazoo, tub bass and of course, jug, with the traditional strings that define the folk sound.
Composed of Ramblin’ Ricky Tate, Washtub Jay and Maxwell Honeycup, the Birmingham, Ala., trio was one of three musical acts to kick off the day’s entertainment at Riverside Park, performing round-robin style with rootsy folk duo Annie and Rod Capps and soulful country artist Natalie Gelman. Given the theme “fun and witty,” each act took a turn performing an original tune, peppered with a bit of witty banter.
“We’ve been wondering, ‘What in the world does ‘Diddle-da-diddle’ mean?’” Ramblin’ Ricky asked the crowd before breaking into a jaunty ditty about the whimsical phrase. “If anyone figures it out before the end of the year, please email Ms. Merriam Webster ... just a credit in the dictionary, that’s all I want.”
Founded in 2012, the group is well-known in the Midwest, having appeared on “A Prairie Home Companion” and winning the 2015 Minneapolis Battle of the Jug Bands. However, this was their first appearance at the festival, now in its 42nd year and chaired by Dave Schipper.
“We’re always trying to get new blood, young up-and-comers,” Schipper said. “When I look down the lineup, Bill Miller and Barefoot Movement are some of the only repeats.”
This year, the three-day festival boasts 16 musical acts, both local and national, as well as storytellers, poetry, food trucks, a stunt show and 18 craft vendors. Around 1,500 people are expected to attend over the course of the weekend, and Wesley White of La Crosse has attended on and off for the past two decades.
“I call it kind of my yearly spiritual retreat — it salves the soul,” White said. “The music and the people keep me coming back.”
“It’s kind of like a family reunion,” agreed friend Tom Walter of La Crosse, a former fest committee member. “Folks come here because they know they’re going to hear good music ... it’s sort of a type B festival, very laid back.”
Kim Lyons, daughter Kohleen and granddaughter Adeline, 7 months, were enjoying the “comfortable” atmosphere despite the drizzle and unseasonably cool weather. Looking forward to Chicago Farmer and Barefoot Movement, the family stopped to browse the craft selection before the latter took the stage.
“It’s overwhelming how many good artists are here,” Kim said of the performers. “(And) I appreciate the crafts are handmade.”
Christian Ptacek and parents Don and Sue Ptacek of Little Bird Studio were selling their wares for the fourth year at the festival as they enjoyed the background music. Christian specializes in glass beads, stained glass kaleidoscopes and marbles, which he makes on site by melting sticks of glass with a torch and rolling them in a mold.
“I get a lot of ‘oohs and ahs,’” Christian said. “I’m known as the marble man now.”
Sue uses Navajo weaving techniques to create purses and rugs, while Don creates curious wood sculptures and lamps with carved mushroom appendages. The family is based in Arcadia and loves the riverside setting and authentic folk vibe of the event.
“So many of the shows you do are commercial. This is really craft by hand. These objects are sort of timeless,” Don said. “I’m really enjoying a nice laid-back weekend in a really nice location.”
The Great River Folk Fest returns today from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closing with a concert by Bill Miller and the Pigtown Fling String Band at 4 p.m.