Saturday, May 25, 2024

Russell Feathers and Possum play on Adams Street near Somerville’s Magoun Square during Porchfest in 2015. (Photo: Eric Haines via Flickr)

Good weather and post-Covid excitement brought record crowds to see more than 350 musicians and bands perform in Somerville’s PorchFest on May 13 – up from more than 200 listed for 2019 – raising recurring questions about street closings and event management.

The Somerville Arts Council bills PorchFest as “not a festival per se,” but a decentralized community event “to showcase local musical talent.” Performers play on porches, driveways and front yards of homes and in other gathering spaces in three blocs traversing the city map from west to east. Performers are in charge: The PorchFest Guide recommends they coordinate times within their general two-hour slots, communicate with neighbors and find friends to monitor the crowds. Beyond that, there’s a let-the-bands-play attitude.

“Every year, we’re asked about … curating the event more. At that point, it’s not PorchFest anymore. For a more centralized experience, we have ArtBeat and SomerStreets events,” said Gregory Jenkins, director of the Somerville Arts Council. “The spirit of PorchFest is that the bands are trusted to be respectful, to communicate with their fans and to organize themselves.”

Aside from the council’s website, advertising for the day is left largely to performers. “It’s all kind of word-of-mouth,” said Bob Judge of the Judge Amps repair shop in the Brickbottom Artists Association building, where he played May 13 with his band, The New Noise.

Musicians who don’t have their own performance space are left to their own resources too. Singer Hava Horowitz of the art-punk group Sidebody “ended up knocking on doors this year and flyering,” ultimately landing a porch right next to a house where she once lived. The turnout was big. “The guys who let us use their porch had no idea what they were getting into, but were very gracious,” Horowitz said.

“There aren’t a lot of homegrown events around,” said Jon Wallis, guitarist for local indie-rock group Hereboy. “There’s no financial incentive for any of this. It’s people with a love of music, going out and enjoying themselves.”

Costs and benefits

Good attendance at Porchfest can benefit businesses too, as seen from the more than 4,400 people who visited Bow Market in Union Square on the day of the festival, according to Remnant Brewery general manager Brittany Lajoie. “I couldn’t get out from behind the bar,” Lajoie said. “I was slinging beers all day.”

The DIY spirit of the event comes with some inconveniences. Cutting through the cacophony of bands was the occasional car horn as drivers tried to navigate roads clogged with people. This year, the city closed Davis Square Plaza and eight streets – Morrison, Morgan, Beech, Greenville, Prospect Hill, Highland and Charnwood – resulting in arguments over social media. Some festivalgoers said closing more areas to car traffic during PorchFest would be safer and expand capacity, and were met with resistance by residents who needed those roads open to get to work.

The council is look at closing more streets while barring performances on others to improve traffic patterns, Jenkins said.

Trash and noise

Trash was also an issue. Record crowds meant “we had a huge uptick in trash this year,” straining crews doing as much real-time cleanup as possible, said Jill Lathan, commissioner of Somerville’s Department of Public Works.

“Crowds seemed to linger longer, and hosted other social gatherings in area parks and playgrounds,” Lathan said.

There were 25 port-a-potties set up across the city for PorchFest. The council will also ask for more of those next year, Jenkins said.

Somerville Police said they got a handful of noise complaints related to the festival, but made no arrests. Bands performing past their two-hour slots was “our biggest challenge,” Jenkins said, and Lathan agreed that getting participants more involved in announcing the end of their event would be helpful “so DPW can begin cleaning up and opening roadways.”

Music to their ears

A perennial question from festival performers and attendees is why PorchFest doesn’t take place every weekend.

Jenkins said he doesn’t foresee more PorchFest-style events in a calendar year, but that the arts council is always looking for ways to do more for the local music scene.

“The city and the arts council are cognizant of music venues that have closed, like Once and Thunder Road,” Jenkins said. “We are exploring how we can develop music rehearsal spaces to support local musicians. There are many other areas to support beyond expanding PorchFest itself.”

version of this story appeared originally on the Somerville Wire.