A small crowd (right) gathered Saturday at Langus Park on the Snohomish River for a short preview of the Flotsam River Circus. They are watching performers aboard the hand-built vessel that Everett musician Jason Webley plans to float on Oregon’s Willamette River, from Corvallis to Portland, presenting free shows along the way. (Photo by Michael Jepson)

A small crowd (right) gathered Saturday at Langus Park on the Snohomish River for a short preview of the Flotsam River Circus. They are watching performers aboard the hand-built vessel that Everett musician Jason Webley plans to float on Oregon’s Willamette River, from Corvallis to Portland, presenting free shows along the way. (Photo by Michael Jepson)

Artistry afloat: Jason Webley takes to the river in Oregon

On a hand-built boat, Everett troubadour and his troupe will perform free shows on the Willamette.

Troubadour Jason Webley is back to his unconventional artistry after a brush with Everett’s establishment — his 2014 concert inspired by the tragic life of Margaret Rucker. This time, Webley and collaborators plan a voyage aboard a hand-built craft on Oregon’s Willamette River, where they’ll perform free shows along the way.

“Here we go!” the Everett singer-songwriter, globetrotter and onetime street performer wrote to fans in an email last month. Describing the “floating circus project I’ve been scheming for years,” he wrote that “the boat is sitting in front of my house, growing daily. And the performers are arriving one by one to build the show.”

After months of work, Webley’s “Flotsam River Circus” has hit the road and is about to start.

“As a kid I was fascinated by Huckleberry Finn,” the 45-year-old Webley said Wednesday from Oregon. “It’s not that,” he said, referring to Mark Twain’s Mississippi River classic exploring race and moral choices. But Flotsam does hark back to an era of traveling performers and wondrous adventures.

The Flotsam vessel, which was disassembled for its trailer ride south, is nothing you’d see any yacht clubber piloting.

“It’s all secondhand materials,” Webley said of the whimsical 32-foot craft, which has a small outboard motor. A dock-like deck supports its stage, with space for drums, a rocking chair, musicians and dancers. There’s a makeshift cabin and a rope ladder rising to what looks to be a trunk for pirate treasure or the tools of a magician’s trade.

With a 12-foot beam, there’s room enough for the show’s nine performers. It’s all kept afloat by two pontoons plus 50-gallon drums.

“It’s a beautiful, mystifying object,” Webley said.

He’ll perform Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Oregon Country Fair, a free-spirited festival started 50 years ago on a farm near Eugene. This year’s fair headliner is Phil Lesh, originally with the Grateful Dead.

Webley — if you haven’t heard him, you should — plays guitar and accordion. His percussion instruments are a rattle made of pennies in a plastic bottle and his feet stomping on wood. His voice and style? He’s often called gypsy punk. I hear a bit of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” but really Webley’s sound is all his own.

In recent years, his shows based on Everett’s past have brought mainstream audiences to the Historic Everett Theatre. The 2014 “Margaret” show and CD featured original songs by Webley and collaborators based on a scrapbook found in a garbage bin in San Francisco. That scrapbook once belonged to Everett native Margaret Rucker Armstrong.

A poet born in 1907 whose life was marked by loss, she was the daughter of Bethel Rucker. In 1889, Bethel and brother Wyatt Rucker settled in Everett, acquiring land that’s now the central business district. The 30-foot granite pyramid in Everett’s Evergreen Cemetery is the final resting place of Rucker ancestors.

In 2016, Webley again set history to music. He and friends staged “100 Years Ago Tomorrow: Music and Reflection on the Centennial Eve of Everett’s Bloodiest Day.”

That concert and stage show retold the tale of the waterfront gun battle known as the Everett Massacre. On Nov. 5, 1916, at least five Industrial Workers of the World members known as Wobblies and two deputies were killed. A shingle workers strike in town had sparked the violence.

Flotsam River Circus, with a dozen free performances, will bring more than music to shore-side audiences. It will also showcase clowning, mime, magic, puppetry and physical comedy. “If they’re expecting a Jason Webley concert, they’ll be disappointed — hopefully very pleasantly disappointed,” Webley said.

The stops, mostly at Oregon riverfront parks, are scheduled for Corvallis, Albany, Independence, Salem, Newberg, Wilsonville, Willamette, Oregon City and Portland. Willamette Falls, 25 miles upstream from the Columbia River, isn’t navigable, so the raft will have to be trailered several miles.

Webley’s concept isn’t new. A similar project happened on New York’s Hudson River.

In 2008, The New York Times featured the endeavor by an artist known as Swoon called “Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea.” That voyage, in seven handmade boats, took artists and other adventurers down the Hudson, from Troy, New York, to Long Island City in Queens. New York Times writer Julie Bloom described the floating city’s crew as “hipster hillbilly chic.”

“It’s a bit of a tradition, junky punk boats,” Webley said.

On the Snohomish River Saturday, he gave locals a peek at the Flotsam boat and its talent when he launched it at Everett’s Langus Riverfront Park. Webley said about 50 people showed up after he sent word to fans that morning via email and social media.

“If all goes well, I hope to maybe do this on the Mississippi,” he said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

Jason Webley’s “Flotsam River Circus” is scheduled to start July 19 in Corvallis, Oregon, on the Willamette River, and continue with free performances on the river through Aug. 4 in Portland.

Information: www.rivercircus.com/

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