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Old Friends Return

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Keb' Mo' (Photo kebmo.com) Keb' Mo' (Photo kebmo.com)

The Festival at Sandpoint books a line-up with a lot of familiar names

AT 9:19 PM ON THE NIGHT OF MAY 13, loyal fans of the Festival at Sandpoint on Facebook got a sneak peek at the 2010 season line-up. At midnight, the Festival’s website (www.FestivalatSandpoint.org) went live with the names and on the afternoon of the 14th, Festival staff and board members handed out flyers during the Lost in the 50s parade to share the news that some old friends were returning to sing under the stars.

The first Facebook comment was from Jenni Desmond Pagano and her reaction? “Woo hoo!! Don’t want to wish summer away but CAN NOT wait! Great line up! Thanks for the sneak peek!”

This year, in a break with a 27-year tradition, the Festival has booked four acts   (or maybe five) that have been featured performers under the tent at the Festival in previous years. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (2001), Keb’ Mo’ (2002), Natalie MacMaster (2005) and three-peater The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (1999, 2002) will all be back again under the tent. The almost fifth repeat is the Turtle Duhks, opening for MacMaster; Scruj MacDuhk, a Celtic folk band described as blending “Eastern Canadian Celtic fiddling with Romanian Jewish cello pieces and French lyrics,” appeared on the Festival stage in 2001, with then-lead singer Ruth Moody (now with the Wailin’ Jennys, a 2006 Festival act) and banjoist and vocalist Leonard Podolak, who currently fills that role with the Turtle Duhks.

So why the repeated performances? It all boiled down to money. “Frankly, we thought we had a better chance of selling more tickets with known entities,” explained Curt Hagan, a past-President of the board of the Festival at Sandpoint, and a member of the Festival’s booking committee for over a decade.

Long-time residents of the community remember the Festival’s dark days—a period of years when red ink seemed to bleed out of the Festival office and paying the bills at the end of each season only came about through the financial support of some major big business donors. What grew out of that period was a fiscally conservative board of directors who, once the Festival was on a firm financial footing, faced a different, but equally difficult dilemma: how much surplus should rightfully be kept in the “rainy day fund.” With a comfortable amount socked away in CDs, the Festival directed additional profits into fulfilling its educational mission—paying to rent or buy the instruments local students use in band—and making capital improvements (the sound system) to enhance the experience of each year’s concert season.

Then two years of lower-than-anticipated ticket sales—much lower than anticipated—ate up the savings socked away and the Festival entered into planning for the 2010 season in an uncomfortably familiar place—the hole. The conservative board became even more conservative and tightened the belt on the budget to an anorexic point, leaving the booking committee with a challenge:  book a season with artists people will be clamoring to see; those same artists must have fees so affordable ticket prices can be reduced, yet still generate enough revenue to bring the budget back into the black.

“We decided to try to do two things,” said board member Dave Vermeer, who has been working on the booking committee for the last 11 years. “We wanted to bring back some of the community’s favorite artists whose tickets had sold very well and two, to do so with an overall lower booking budget, so we could make those tickets more affordable.”

It should be said that, given the small size of the venue at Memorial Field, the Festival at Sandpoint will never be funded completely by ticket sales; sponsorships from individuals and corporations, along with grants, will always be required in order to balance the budget. Yet sales from tickets are expected to produce almost 54 percent of the Festival’s $864,000 2010 budget.

Booking a fiscally and artistically successful season sounds easier to do than it is in practice. Beginning right after last year’s season ended, the booking committee began gathering information on the acts touring in 2010. “It’s a balancing act between availability, proximity and price,” explained Vermeer.

It’s not enough for an artist to be free on one of the Festival dates; any given performer is likely to be more affordable if they’re performing somewhere in the area in the same time frame as the Festival season. Finding those artists is a delicate dance that the booking committee has learned to perform with skill.

In addition to booking some returning performers in the hope of boosting the bottom line, the committee also considered who new to introduce to the Sandpoint music scene. Booking barefoot reggae performer Michael Franti & Spearhead has been a long-time dream for the Festival’s executive director Dyno Wahl, and he’s been a perennial request from Festival fans. “We lucked out with Franti,” said Vermeer. Lucked out because the Festival could still afford him. ”What most people don’t understand is we can’t get an artist at the peak of their career. We can’t afford them.”

Also new to the Festival stage this year is Brandi Carlile, a Seattle-based acoustic, folk-rock singer/songwriter whose fans include Elton John.

And the Festival, of course, still pays homage to its symphonic roots with a performance of the Spokane Youth Orchestra and “Peter and the Wolf,” along with the traditional Grand Finale concert with the Spokane Symphony, conducted by maestro Gary Sheldon and with guest piano soloist Archie Chen. This year’s performance will be an all Russian program closing with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and a fireworks show sponsored by Avista Utilities.

Will the focus on old friends work to bring the Festival back onto a firm financial footing? It’s early in the day to tell, but with two weeks of ticket sales under their belt the Festival office reports a 13 percent increase over this time period last season. Those sales, however, are predominantly for the two new acts: Franti and Carlile have accounted for 62 percent of the tickets sold.

Those numbers will obviously change as we move through the weeks remaining until the season kicks off on August 5. For example, the Grand Finale concert traditionally sells pretty close to sell-out status, yet only 16 tickets have been sold in the first two weeks for this enduring favorite. And there’s no denying that the four acts chosen to return this year are favorites with the area community. As are some of the opening acts: Crooked Still, opening for Nitty Gritty, has been a success on local radio; Ian MacFeron is an Eichardt’s favorite; and Kristina Train, opening for Keb’ Mo’, has a local following as well.

“If you’re looking for a sure-fire season, this is it,” offered Hagan. You can order tickets online at the Festival website or call 888-265-4554.

Editorial disclosure: Trish Gannon is a member of the board for the Festival at Sandpoint, though she does not volunteer on the booking committee.

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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

Sandpoint, Festival at Sandpoint, Entertainment, music, Curt Hagan, Dave Vermeer, Dyno Wahl

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