Lowell Folk Festival #29: Progress Report

Murk failed to dampen the spirits of the festival faithful on the second day of the annual cultural extravaganza uttered on the downtown streets of Lowell late every July. The morning sky was murky for sure. It did not look like a promising day for an outdoor party. But the forecast, despite the overcast, did not call for rain. And the weather gods were right because the day brightened up, showed some sun by 3 pm, and even graced the crowd with a cooling breeze—an altogether good day for a celebration.

The audience came early and came in big numbers. I was working the UMass Lowell booth at Boarding House Park by 11 a.m, setting up for business—and no sooner did I have the tables covered with logo’d cloths and “merch” spread out for taking than dozens of people materialized. We gave away 400 big blue cloth UMass Lowell bags in about an hour. The flashlight keychains flew off the table. Stacks of the “College Town” cover-story issue of the university magazine disappeared. The coveted campus brand-blue chip clips went into pockets and bags. The action was steady. As busy as I’ve ever seen it at the booth. This was a Folk Festival surge if I’ve ever seen one. In the background, Music in the Glen (Irish) and the John Berberian Ensemble (Armenian) provided the early afternoon soundtrack. The women at the Lao food booth across from our university booth were so happy with their free samples that they brought over a big plate of food and ice cold water. By that time the first contingent from our women’s basketball team was on duty, joining the first-shift volunteers in the booth, talking up the school and greeting the many well-wishers. Through the day we had three sets of volunteers each from the women’s team and the men’s ice hockey team. The student-athletes are a big hit with the festival audience. At 2 pm, we had a shift change with volunteers and I was released to graze around the festival zone.

After a break, Rosemary and I returned downtown and blended in with the even larger crowd. There were pedestrian waves through the Destination Lowell section of Merrimack Street, down Lucy Larcom Park, and into the block from Kirk and French to the John Street parking garage. We said what the hell and got into the huge line at the Filipino food booth, which wound up moving quickly, getting us to the counter where we ordered the combo plates with grilled chicken. This is a case where reality met reputation. It was good food.

From there we swung back through the crafts area in Lucy Larcom Park along the Merrimack Canal. There was a lot of interest in the presenters, from head-wraps to lace-making. We missed the pickling demonsrations, unfortunately.

The musical highlight of the day for us was at the Dutton Street Dance Pavilion where the (mostly) women of The Original Pinettes Brass Band from New Orleans made a sonic boom. There had to be 500 or more people crammed into the huge tent, shaking and twisting and waving arms on the dance floor and hooting from the packed rows of chairs. And another several hundred crushing in around three sides of the tent trying to get a look at the powerful music-makers in their tie-dyed outfits. The whole transformed national park parking lot is like its own folk planet in the festival solar system. You walk through the west-facing arches at Market Mills and step into a cultural precinct suffused with the merged aromas of soul food, Asian spices, and sumptuous noodles. And there’s beer on this planet, just like the Kennedy Center planet on the other side of downtown. The Pinettes Brass Band had followed Alicia Svigals’ Klezmer Fiddle Express, which we had heard coming through the aforementioned arches.

The brass was blasting when we stepped away to see what else was cooking over at the Market Street Stage. There, the Kingfisher Singers & Dancers were giving their best with Wampanoag dance and music, inspiring a capacity crowd in Market Mills Park or “Flying Girls Park,” as some people have begun calling that downtown green, alluding to Mico Kaufman’s prominently placed “Homage to Women” sculpture. In a capsule, in about 90 minutes, we had seen and heard and tasted the best the Lowell Folk Festival has to offer—and enjoyed very much a first-rate sampler of the culture of the United States, which is what the festival is meant to do as it recognizes and honors the social pluralism that is the essence of the American experience and which Lowell represents so well.

And there is still tonight and tomorrow for anyone who has not been able to get downtown.