Porchfest: A Very Good Idea

Good ideas . . . some people get ’em like crazy. Others, not so much. I’m near the bottom of the barrel of the latter grouping. I had a good idea about 50 years ago, when it dawned on me that grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches might be improved upon by adding a schmear of Gulden’s spicy brown mustard. Genius visited me that day, but hasn’t made an appearance since. Such, as we know, is life.

Which smoothly brings us to a remarkably good idea that some folks came up with nine years ago: a neighborhood outdoor music festival called Porchfest. When I first heard earlier this month about Porchfest’s existence I smacked myself on the forehead and said: “Yo, cowboy. This is so obvious. How come you never thought of it?” And then I remembered once again that, sadly, genius ain’t no friend of mine.

What’s a Porchfest? Well, it is a day of music played on some of the porches of a porch-heavy community. The shows are free to the public. What could be better? After all, porches, when you think about it, are small covered stages easy to get close to, making them perfect for intimate musical experiences. All that a Porchfest organizing committee need do is convince a bunch of homeowners in a neighborhood to allow musicians to play at their houses, and find a bigger bunch of musical acts to climb aboard. Then you set up a schedule so that audience members know the addresses of the porches, and encourage said listeners to roam from site to site, the better to get a big dose of vibrations.

The first Porchfest took place in 2007 in Ithaca, New York. Since then, musicians and music lovers throughout the USA, and in a few Canadian cities, have picked up on the notion and staged their own Porchfests. Each Porchchfest is independent of the others and, I’m pretty sure, is a low budget and DIY type of operation. But watch out! The power of Porchfests is undeniable and irresistible. As a few more years go by, I predict that Porchfests will cross the oceans and conquer the world!

Darlington at West Philly Porchfest.
Darlington at West Philly Porchfest.
Jon Veit at West Philly Porchfest.
Jon Veit at West Philly Porchfest.

Which even more smoothly brings us to a recent Saturday in a section of West Philadelphia (part of The City Of Brotherly Love) that contains scads of old and sturdy rowhouses and twins in possession of porches. As ideal a location for a Porchfest as any on our planet. And where, indeed, the first West Philly Porchfest took place, the baby of a group of organizers who recognized that the Porchfest idea was very worth pursuing. (Lots of info about West Philly Porchfest’s genesis and design may be discovered by clicking here and also here).

I Think Like Midnight.
I Think Like Midnight.
Emily Zeitlyn.
Emily Zeitlyn.

West Philly Porchfest’s boundaries were broad, about 12 blocks east to west and likewise north to south, encompassing much of what has come to be known as University City due to the area’s proximity to the University of Pennsylvania. Over 30 porches participated. The event began at noon on June 4 and ended at 6 PM. I was an attendee, taking in parts of six shows during a two-and-a-half-hour period. Man, I loved it. I heard an acoustic folky rock trio (Darlington); two singer-songwriters (Jon Veit and Emily Zeitlyn); a damn good jam session between, of all things, an African-drum percussionist, a fiddle player, an acoustic guitarist and a flugelhornist; a vocal-less rock band (I Think Like Midnight) that, to my ears, sounded like a cross between The Grateful Dead and Television; and a folky duo that smoked and crunched. I’m going to zero in on the duo, who go by the name Driftwood Soldier, because I liked them the best of the acts that I caught. I seemed not to be alone in that. They drew the biggest crowd, around 80 people, that I saw all day, and the loudest applause too.

Driftwood Soldier.
Driftwood Soldier.

Owen Lyman-Schmidt is Driftwood Soldier’s singer, mandolin strummer and songwriter. Bobby Szafranski is the band’s not-your-average electric bassist. Both guys pitch in to move the groove by banging on percussion instruments with their feet. I tell you, Driftwood Soldier has it. Owen sang, in a wild and wooly baritone, about underdogs, colorful characters, people who deserve better than they’ve got. He reminded me a lot of the late Dave Van Ronk. And Bobby sent the tunes aloft with bass lines that gleamed and grinned. I would not be surprised if Driftwood Soldier breaks through nationally one of these days, though to-date they are unknowns. They are that good. And they’ve got the work ethic that might lead to fame and glory, touring our fair nation with gusto. Thanks to the wondrousness of the Internet, you may watch Driftwood Soldier performing their song Rosalee by clicking right here.

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You know, I lived in University City during the 1970s and 80s on a beautiful, tree-filled block oh so close to a few of the shows I watched the other day. I liked the area mucho back then, and still do. I go back now and again. On the day of Porchfest it was fun walking the streets upon which I’ve trod so many times before. And it was equally swell strolling through Clark Park, a lovely place, a hub of peace and calm in University City. Kids were playing, food truck and farmers’ market vendors were vending, and teenagers and adults were milling around. The coolest sight I saw in the park was a little girl climbing all over the Charles Dickens statue. That’s right, Charles Dickens. It’s the only statue of him in the USA. And, apparently, one of only two in the world. The other, by the way, is in Australia, not Great Britain. A good idea would be for the Brits to commission and erect a Dickens statue too, since Dickens  — duh — was one of their own.

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