Under perfect sunny skies, Sisterfire, the annual women's music festival that took a one-year hiatus last year, returned almost as perfectly for Washington audiences this weekend.
The two-day open-air festival, sponsored by the local arts organization Roadwork, attracted close to 8,000 people to its new site, the Prince George's Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro. The former race track lent itself well to the sprawling event of four stages, 100 crafts and food booths, a large "child space" and camping. The audience, made up mostly of women, wandered from stage to stage.
Technically, all shows went smoothly, with less waiting between sets than in previous years and the sounds of everything -- from poetry to "rockappella" -- coming through clearly.
The first day was slow to get started as most festival-goers waited for something to happen. It did as soon as Tracy Chapman, a Boston singer in the style of Joan Armatrading, took the stage. Her shyness quickly gave way to a powerful voice and strong lyrics, as in the biting "Material World," about the chains of upward mobility, and the plaintive "This Time," about trying to get control of an uncontrollable relationship.
Also on Saturday, New York comic Carmelita Tropicana provided levity with her medley of favorite German and Spanish songs; the Afro-Cuban jazz of Annette Aguilar brought the crowd to its feet, as did the lusty reggae beat of the Casselberry-Dupre'e Band; and the folksy labor songs of Helen Schneyer provided some political weight. A stage organized by the deaf offered silent poetry and dance.
But the highlight of the first day was writer Alice Walker, who read some of her poems and selections from her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Color Purple." In a gentle tone, she prodded the audience to think more politically. "Follow your taxes," she advised.
The event picked up considerably yesterday. Nicaraguan folk singer Norma Helena Gadea sang angrily about her country's civil war and the United States' involvement in it. She was followed by a rousing, crowd-pleasing set by the local a cappella trio Betty.
Folk singer Odetta performed such standards as "Kumbaya"; Holly Near toned down the day with some heavy-handed political songs but took the edge off later by playing "I'm Crushed" from her new, peppier album, "Don't Hold Back."
The festival's theme of "a world of togetherness for a moment" was summed up in the final act, as the five powerful voices of Sweet Honey in the Rock rose over the crowd, which danced, clapped hands and sang in unison as the sun fell behind the clouds.