PORT ANGELES — The Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco — hallowed hall of Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Santana, Aretha Franklin, Elton John and Miles Davis — was sold out last Nov. 29. On this night: the city’s own Sam Chase and the Untraditional, featuring Port Angeles-bred violinist-vocalist Chandra Johnson, was having the time of their lives.
“There was this two-minute cadenza where it was just me,” recalled Johnson, thinking back to the musical passage that brought her to the stage’s edge.
“I remember taking a deep breath,” she said, “and going for it.”
That concert was one of many high points in Johnson’s musical journey. Another was to be the Juan de Fuca Festival this Memorial Day weekend: She would appear on the main stage with the Sam Chase band, with her local duo Crushwater and in an experimental performance with Devin Bews at the Port Angeles Fine Arts Center.
Instead Johnson, who’s played violin since elementary school here, and who then learned to sing after a car wreck left her with multiple injuries, is taking her deep breaths at home.
For the first time in 27 years, the Juan de Fuca Festival won’t bring scores of musicians together in Port Angeles.
There was nothing Kayla Oakes, executive director of the Juan de Fuca Foundation for the Arts, could do about the pandemic that wiped the festival away. But in late March, as she was calling performers to tell them of its cancellation, she realized she could do something in the interest of live music’s future.
Oakes created the 2020 Festival Artist Support Fund, a pool with a goal of $20,000. She’s inviting music lovers and would-be festival-goers to donate at JFFA.org — via the “Read more” link on the home page — in hopes of helping performers get through this summer.
“Hopefully,” Oakes added, “we can bring them back next year,” to the festival.
The four-day event showcases rock, jazz, folk and world music alongside dance, comedy and the street fair full of food and artisan wares.
Performers work all year on their skills, their songwriting, their cohesion and their choreography — and come the summer season, Oakes said, they head out to festivals such as Juan de Fuca.
This weekend, the Vern Burton Community Center, the adjacent Chamber Stage and the Naval Elks Lodge ballroom will be quiet.
And Oakes, along with the foundation board of directors, has sought to promote festival artists’ online shows, found on Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites.
Elsewhere in the world, whole festivals are going online. Oakes and crew aren’t taking that route. The mission of the Juan de Fuca Foundation, she said, is to bring people together — not virtually, but actually.
Losing the 2020 festival “shows us how important we are to each other, how dependent we are on each other,” she said.
That includes the local economy: downtown restaurants and shops, festival sponsors and partners.
It was painful telling artists there would be no festival this year. But many acknowledged it was the right thing, and Oakes let them know she hoped they’d be here in May 2021.
Depending on what happens with sponsors and grants in the coming months, “my festival budget might be much smaller,” so all of the performers may not be restored to the lineup.
You want to give them reassurance, Oakes said; “the truth is you can’t.”
This weekend also would have brought the unveiling of the Juan de Fuca Foundation’s Season Concerts series. There will be a slate of shows, Oakes said. She’s in the midst of figuring out the possible fall, winter and spring dates and protocols.
The 2020 Festival Artist Support Fund, meantime, aims to keep performers afloat so they can keep making music in anticipation of future performances. Every donation makes a difference, Oakes emphasized.
Hot House West, a band with members hailing from Utah and New Orleans, would have brought its old-school gypsy jazz to Port Angeles this weekend. Guitarists Nathan Royal and James Martak were looking forward to seeing Port Townsend’s Jack Dwyer, with whom Royal has toured in the past. Dwyer is one of the festival’s local acts also including the Backwoods Hucksters, the Hot Llamas and chamber ensembles from the Port Angeles Symphony.
Martak, in an interview from his home in Salt Lake City, wondered aloud about the future of festivals.
“It’s not just ‘when things will go back to normal,’ but how much things will change,” he said.
“We’ve had two gig offers here locally,” he added, “where they wanted us to play restaurants. They wanted all of the musicians to play six feet apart. These are small restaurants.
“It’s a weird time to be alive … it’s going to be weird for a while.”
“Hopefully people will come out of this,” he added, “hungry for live music.”
Oakes and Martak both hope for a day when artists, listeners, dancers and festival organizers meet again.
“We’re all doing what we can to try to stay positive,” Oakes said.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.