Despite downpour, folk festival let the sun shine in

Margaret Smith

A spate of storms Sunday brought the second annual Nashua River Valley Folk Festival to an abrupt and soggy end, drenching revelers and delaying and then cutting short the day’s final set by headliner Richie Havens.

But it wasn’t only the weather that made a splash, although it remains to be seen if the event took in enough revenue to cover costs, or to justify a third such marathon folk event next year, as organizers hope.

As Havens got ready to take the stage, the first of a spate of storms moved in, with crackling thunder, streaks of lighting and pounding rain that forced audience members to wait it out about a half-hour.

Once given the all clear by festival organizers, Havens came on, with an easy-going banter and a stream of classic favorites.

Introducing Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” he observed playfully, “The younger generation always wants to hear the older songs.”

Despite the soaking, there was laughter in the rain, as audience members joked along with Havens and cheered for every song.

Someone requested that Havens play “Here Comes the Sun,” because it couldn’t hurt to try.

Enraptured audience members huddled under tarps or in blankets and makeshift coverings, although a few, in true Woodstock tradition, danced with barefoot abandon in the mud.

But when lightning flashed and rain fell heavily once more, Havens — who had intended to stay to sign autographs and meet with fans — ended the set with a raging guitar solo before handlers bundled him off the stage and into a waiting van.

Long after the last carload of sodden audience members trundled away, organizers and volunteer staff slogged in the muck to clean up, and went back Monday to unenviable tasks that included dislodging from the mud a truck carrying portable toilets.

But lovers of folk music enjoyed an otherwise sunny day on the sprawling yard of Pierce Homestead in Lancaster, with a lineup that included locals such as The Rafters of Ayer, and headliners Lori McKenna and Havens.

Official attendance numbers and revenue take were unavailable by deadline because organizers had to review their records, and estimates were too varied to be reliable.

“The venue was great. I thought it had a cozy feeling to it,” said Jean Syria, who organizes the event with Denise Hurley on behalf of the Lancaster Coffeehouse, which Syria and Hurley also run.

Syria said, “I drove around in a golf cart. People were happy with the line of sight, and happy with the sound. There were no complaints that it was too loud, or too soft.”

Days of future folk

Syria said organizers plan to review records and to discuss revenue intake, as well as assess how well operations went overall.

“Last year, we did not meet our costs,” said Syria, recalling the inaugural folk festival, held last year at the Lancaster Fairgrounds, and which featured another giant of folk, Arlo Guthrie. “This was a make-it-or-break-it year.”

Syria said she’d have liked a larger turnout for the folk festival, sponsored in part by Community Newspaper Company, but said weather forecasts that have plagued many an event this summer may have discouraged some would-be attendees.

However, Syria remains hopeful that a third folk festival will be in the offing and said she has already been approached about potential headliners for next year.

Throughout the day, humid air mixed with the sweet scent of lawn grass, and those willing to chance the possibility of rain spread out with lawn chairs, beach chairs, blankets and towels.

Many basked in the music, but many also played Frisbee or enjoyed an impromptu game of baseball.

Some drifted toward the tables set up with information about volunteer groups in the area, and to the handful of vendors, such as Katrina Clinton of Attleboro, who offered eye-catching, billowy scarves.

Clinton, who also makes liturgical vestments, normally sets up shop at church gatherings, but said the folk festival turned out to be a worthwhile visit.

“They’ve done an excellent job, and the venue is perfect,” she said.

Is the price right?

Brenda and Terry Weichman, of Bolton, relaxed in lawn chairs as they listened to the music, and expressed mixed reactions.

“[The festival] is getting better,” Brenda said, but added, “The price [$40] was high.” The couple goes to New Orleans each year and said a prominent jazz festival there is only $18, and noted that the city of Lowell hosts a free ethnic folk festival each year.

They also wished for more arts and crafts tables and other activities.

But Jeff Himmelberger of West Boylston, who struck up an instant camaraderie with musician Dave Fitzgibbons of Ayer, had only praise for the folk festival.

“Forty dollars is not bad at all. You’d pay that just to see Lori McKenna alone,” said Himmelberger, who chatted with Fitzgibbons, who with Miki Bryan is The Rafters, who performed earlier in the day.

Bouncing his daughter, Tilly, 1, in his arms, Fitzgibbons said he liked the homey feel of the venue. “I think it’s great they put us in someone’s backyard.”

Syria defended the ticket cost, noting that the headlining performers could command somewhere in that range by themselves at some concerts.

Although organizers worked to reduce the budget for this year’s folk festival, she said some expenses can’t be cut.

“Sound alone is $5,000,” she said, adding that those who purchased tickets early received discounts.

As for adding more vendors, Syria said that’s for consideration, but said there is a balance to be struck in order to keep the spirit and integrity of the folk festival.

Margaret Smith is Arts and Calendar editor of Community Newspaper Company’s Northwest Unit. E-mail her at