Upfront: Miles of Smiles

Categories:      News & Politics
Wednesday, August 8th, 2012 at 8:30 AM
Upfront: Miles of Smiles by Cory Vaillancourt
Contributed photo

So here it is 9 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 6, 2012, and my face hurts so damn much from smiling that I’m thinking about slamming my fingers in a car door just to even things out. You see, I, like thousands of you, spent the entire weekend at the Erie Art Museum’s 20th Annual Blues and Jazz Festival.

Sure, it’s Monday morning; my column is 5 days past deadline, I’m sunburnt, I’m tired, I’m dehydrated, and my face hurts. The last thing I want to be doing right now is working – but that incredible weekend that didn’t end until early Monday morning has me so jazzed that despite my litany of #ErieProblems, I will.

If you missed the festival, don’t beat yourself up over it; it’s only the best thing this town does each year, and, perched atop the small hillock that crowns the end of the pitch, our giant Erie Reader tent provided me with the perfect vantage point from which to observe the festival’s goings-on. And observe I did.

First, on Saturday, I met a sick but recovering cockatoo named Lovey, who almost purred as I gently stroked the feathers on the back of her neck. And how about that huge tortoise? I’m not talking Galapagos here, but I’m not talking red-eared slider either; this thing was about as big as a trash can lid, and about as rigid, too. I think his name was Bean. Anyhow, he kind of crawled around our tent, ate carrots, and just generally looked very wise. I can say without exaggeration that every single child under the age of cool teenage rebellion instantly materialized in our tent to get a closer look; all I could think about, however, was how good turtle soup tastes.

Then, there were the hula-hoopers – a constant presence at this event, spinning their plastic fantastic in time to the tunes. And then, there was the bubble guy – using a deftly-tied rope attached to two sticks dipped in a bucket of sloshing, soapy, secret solution, this fella was producing soap bubbles bigger than some cars. Again, the kids went crazy for this man and his bubbles – he brought miles of smiles to everyone within eyeshot.

But the best part of the festival for me – and I’m betting for you – was the people. Friends, both old and new, stopped by the tent each day to do some visitatin’ and commiseratin’ over beer and Gyros. I got to meet a few people who, up until now, I’ve only known virtually – through Facebook or Twitter. One particular highlight was finally getting to meet Karen [Redacted], who is not the crazy pigeon catch and consume lady, but was most certainly the inspiration for – or should I say, instigator of – that strange and terrible voyage I took a few weeks back.

Then, on Sunday, I got a rare treat – to be outside, yet sheltered, during a torrential downpour is one of the most terrifying, exhilarating experiences any human being can ever experience. The sheer panic of suddenly being reminded just how insignificant and transient we all are when backdropped by Mother Nature was, quite literally, awesome – exciting and overwhelming, inspiring feelings of veneration and apprehension at the same time. Although I’m sure the festival staff saw it differently, soaked to the bone in their yellow plastic outerwear as they were. The Glarner Group, on stage at the dawn of the deluge, were interrupted, yet resumed.

Oh yes, that reminds me – the music; there is so much going on at this festival that one could almost overlook the main attraction – the music. And thanks to John Vanco and everyone at the Erie Art Museum, many people I talked to told me they thought this year’s lineup was the best they’d ever seen. Super Chikan was as promised – real, raw, and robust. Oliver Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits, who closed out Saturday night, opened eyes, ears, and hearts, and provided perspectives not often found in fair Erie. Lee Konitz was also as promised – cool. Real cool, man. Special. Legendary, even. And then, there was Red Baraat. Ahh yes, raucous Red Baraat.

I cannot recall ever seeing a better live performance. Ever. Anywhere. Even as someone who has been to literally thousands of live music performances – be they barroom, stadium, or anything in between – I’ve never seen a group display that kind of energy and talent. Vanco truly set the bar high with this act, which appropriately capped off this most incredible weekend.

But lest ye think the Blues and Jazz Festival was all tortoises and saxophones, I have to say that it was a little bittersweet too. Most folks I know consider this festival to be the penultimate weekend of the summer festival season here in Erie, and I’m pretty sure that many of us, during that unbelievable set by Red Baraat, could actually feel, see, and hear the summer peaking, reaching its zenith, right at that moment, with Sonny Jain frantically pounding away on his dhol, providing the ever-quickening, ever-strengthening tempo that represented the sonic summit of summer. Right at that moment, this shiny blue ball we all ride around the sun turned the corner on summer and started heading down the road towards the big grey – if not meteorologically, at least metaphorically. But much greater than the music, the fun, the friends, and the food, there’s an important lesson to be learned here, so pay attention.

In a city that often sabotages itself both verbally and physically, John Vanco and the Erie Art Museum continue to prove that somebody in this town knows what the hell they’re doing. I think this festival is awesome; I think it’s done really well; I think we should do more of them; I think I’m going to make turtle soup later this week…wait, I got a little off track with that last one.

Anyhow, I think that the summer festival season in the Gem City really crowns this town; atop that crown sits our big sparkly diamond, the Erie Art Museum Blues and Jazz Festival. And as this summer begins to draw to a close, it makes me wonder – could someone please give me an excuse to slam my fingers in a car door during winter, too?

Cory Vaillancourt is a brilliant writer/complete hack and can be complimented/heckled at cVaillancourt@ErieReader.com. Find him on Twitter @VLNCRT.

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