While the concept of PorchFests is fairly new up here on Lake Ontario — Fair Haven just had its third annual, Oswego will have its fifth in September — it’s a really wonderful addition to local calendars. It’s one of the more equitable music festivals imaginable; you not only get to hang out with your friends and neighbors, but you get to see your friends and neighbors perform. Or if you’re really lucky, you even get to perform with new friends and neighbors.
These festivals feel like an antidote to the ills of the modern world. People physically talk to and interact with each other in real life! Music plays, but not from an electronic device. What a concept. Generally if I saw a cellphone out, it was because somebody was taking pictures or a video of a performer, and the person taking it would have a large smile on their face. This wasn’t the social media “I have to get this to show how awesome I am” game; it was the “I have to get this to show how awesome these people are” game.
At Fair Haven’s PorchFest, you had everything from solo singer-songwriters to bluegrass bands to country tunesmiths to theatrical collectives to a ukulele orchestra to horns from the Alps. If you wanted just about any type of music, you could find it, or let it find you as you strolled the village’s streets. Most of the performers were from Central New York or had family in the area, with a few folks from further afield just adding to the menu.
About the only challenge is that there’s no way you can see everybody you want. Or you can see many acts by not staying for a whole set. Achieving a balance can manifest in other ways; if you were enjoying the excellent bluegrass of New Snip City on Richmond Avenue, between songs you could hear the lush high lonesome sounds of Emalee Herrington from down the road, and vice versa. But that’s unavoidable given the event’s geographic and temporal boundaries.
In terms of everything else, especially the vibe and interaction, an A+ to the organizers and players on what turned out to be a beautiful day in Fair Haven. At the south end of Platt Street, a band called Be Kind Rewind playing ‘90s rock got a pair of unexpected encores. They had to dig back to songs they hadn’t played in a while, and if their performance wasn’t perfect because of any rustiness, the crowd didn’t mind and just sang, clapped and danced along. That’s how music should be.
And nothing symbolizes this day of equitable treatment of all things musical like the closing jam. To play in it, all you do is show up with an instrument and take a chair around a circle. I brought my acoustic bass and happily joined a group of musicians that were all better than me, but I was welcomed as a friend. When one of the performers I’d seen on a porch earlier leaned over to ask me about chord progressions for an unfamiliar song, it made me feel like somebody. Like I was truly, in every way, a part of the festival.
In Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology,” a collection of epitaphs for a fictional town, “Fiddler Jones” is a rare happy poem. And why not, when it’s about playing music. It reminds me of the spirit of community, of barn dances brought out into the streets, this festival embodies. It begins:
“The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.”
One of the best descriptions of the musical itch I’ve ever read. In Fair Haven on Sunday, we all kept that vibration going, whether playing or clapping or singing along. The poem’s conclusion:
“I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.”
Listening to music, playing music and being in the moment — these are among the good things in life. If there’s a regret after going to a PorchFest, it’s that you couldn’t see all the bands you wanted to. But there’s always another PorchFest somewhere else or next year to keep the good vibrations going.