The Providence Folk Festival returns Sunday August 27th to the Roger Williams National Memorial in downtown Providence. That’s right, a folk festival in Providence, not Newport, and it’s free. This year’s event includes well-known folk artists like Chris and Meredith Thompson, Chris Trapper and the Pamela Means Band.
The Festival is the brainchild of John Fuzek, longtime RI singer-songwriter, Motif magazine columnist, concert promoter and more. In an interview with WhatsUpRI, Fuzek explained the origins of the festival.
“Back in 2010, it was the 375th anniversary of Providence and the Roger Williams National Memorial offered grants to projects that were about Providence. I came up with a project where songwriters would write songs about Providence and then there would be a concert and a CD. We were awarded a grant, produced two concerts, (including one at PPAC), and released a CD called Singing About Providence. Soon after that, the rangers at the RWNM liked the project and the music and invited me to produce some concerts there. The first year we did one show and called it the Downtown Sundown Concert. It went over well and turned it into a five-show series the following year and it became the Downtown Sundown Series. After a few years of doing that, Ranger John McNiff said that we should do a festival, and the Providence Folk Festival was born.”
Sunday is the 4th annual festival which has grown a bit each year and recently received the 2017 Motif award for “Best RI Americana Festival.” There’s the main stage and a smaller stage which focuses on the singer-songwriter. Fuzek noted,
“This year I wrangled Allysen Callery to host the Song Crafter Stage and she in turn asked Bob Kendall to co-host with her. I love that! She was very happy with the line-up and even booked a couple of the performers. On the main stage, I have Steve Allain and Tracie Potochnik who make up the duo Cardboard Ox, they MC and also play a set. They do a phenomenal job and have done it every year! I also have a small core of devoted volunteers who love to work the festival and a couple that have no choice – my girlfriend, Lori Mars, and my mother! I stay as far behind the scenes as possible with this.”
If there’s one thing Fuzek knows, it’s how to do a festival right.
“I’m a festival veteran having started and produced the “Hear In Rhode Island” festival from 1994-2001, and have worked the Newport Folk/Jazz Festivals, Rhythm and Roots Festival, Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival among others. We started the Providence Folk Festival in 2014 and it has been going strong since,” explained Fuzek.
He also knows the local music scene as well as anyone. Festivals can be challenging to produce, and artists must approach them differently from a solo gig.
“When you play at a festival you have a set amount of time and you need to be able to work within the limitations without going over. You need to express yourself well during that set and make the best impact you can, but you also have to be conscious that it is a festival and folks will play before and after you. You would be surprised how many artists are either not aware or don’t care about this. If everyone plays five minutes too long then the whole day will be off schedule and run beyond the amount of time that the festival is allowed.”
Fuzek continued, “I try to get as many different types of folk represented as possible. These days “folk” is a bastardized term and it is used for music that isn’t folk. I get performers who contact me and claim that they are folk but they are anything but. True folk purists would even question my choices I am sure. I want to put together something that EVERYONE can enjoy and be entertained by. I always move from traditional folk to Americana folk and fill it up in between.
The Festival is sponsored by the National Park Service and RISCA, as well as some crowd funding and product donations from businesses. Fuzek would like to see the Festival grow in future years.
“Hopefully as the years pass we will be able to expand it to three stages and possibly a Saturday evening performance on the festival eve. That all takes $$$ and finding that is always a challenge. I pay performers, but it is a pittance compared to what they are worth. I have a list of national headliners that hopefully we will be able to afford in the future but of course, local performers will always be a large part and the core of the festival.”