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Otis Grove performs a set from the loading dock of Boss Organ Company. Photo courtesy of Otis Grove.
Otis Grove performs a set from the loading dock of Boss Organ Company. Photo courtesy of Otis Grove.

The annual DIY festival sparks the same annual discussions: how to grow, regulate and support the grassroots event

Over 350 musicians and bands performed for Somerville’s PorchFest last weekend. Thousands of attendees traversed the festival map from west to east. While musicians and fans lauded the event, some questions remain regarding street closures 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. Musicians and those “with the band” are in charge. The PorchFest Guide recommends bands coordinate set 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 closing more streets or 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. “While the City provides infrastructure and a structure, it’s still a decentralized event. The spirit of PorchFest is that the bands are trusted to be respectful, to communicate with their fans, and to organize themselves,” Jenkins said.

“The face of PorchFest is the SAC and that website, but from there it’s all it’s kind of word-of-mouth,” said Bob Judge of Judge Amps, a tube-amp repair shop in the Brickbottom Artists Association building. “There aren’t any ads,” he said, laughing. His band, The New Noise, performed in the parking lot of the Brickbottom building. “It’s these kinds of events that support folks who keep my business going,” he said.

On the other side of McGrath Highway, Tyler Drabick, guitarist for Otis Grove, performed from the loading dock of his shop, Boss Organs. “It’s amazing how Somerville arranges this community-wide event for the whole city. It’s the one day of the year where we can legally blare music off the dock and make an event out of it—to have the entire alley full of people. It’s so cool.”

Art-punk group, Sidebody, needed to find a porch in advance of the Fest. “I ended up knocking on doors this year and flyering,” singer Hava Horowitz said. “Didn’t you write hand-written notes?” Drummer Martha Schnee clarified. The group landed a porch right next to Horowitz’s previous residence and turnout was incredible, the band said. “The guys who let us use their porch had no idea what they were getting into, but were very gracious.”

One parent wrote to the Somerville Arts Council after the Fest concluded. “My husband is a working artist and musician, and we hosted two of his bands on our porch on Saturday. As parents of a school student, we invited the families of her classmates as well as family and friends both in Somerville and outside of Somerville. We also provided a cookout for guests on our private property. The atmosphere of music, food, and friends (both those we invited and those who walked by) made it a truly special day,” one Somerville resident wrote to the Somerville Arts Council. 

“There aren’t a lot of homegrown events around,” Said Jon Wallis, the guitarist for local indie-rock group, Hereboy. “I don’t feel like anyone’s trying to take advantage of me. There’s no financial incentive for any of this. It’s people with a love of music, going out and enjoying themselves.”

Still, local businesses benefited from the event. More than 4,400 people visited Bow Market in Union Square on Saturday. General Manager of Remnant Brewery, Brittany Lajoie, said the crowds were constant. “I wish I could have hung out, but I couldn’t get out from behind the bar. 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 attempted to navigate the clogged streets. This year, the City closed a total of eight streets: Morrison, Morgan, Beech, Greenville, Prospect Hill, Highland, Charnwood, and Davis Plaza. Arguments broke out over street closures on a few Somerville Reddit threads following the event. Some festival-goers voiced concerns for pedestrian safety and wanted to expand capacity and close streets—others said they had to get to work.

“The issue with closing streets is the traffic just goes elsewhere,” Jenkins said. But he said the Council will look at closing additional streets while barring performances on others, to improve traffic patterns.

Trash was also an issue. Jill Lathan, the commissioner of the Department of Public Works said good weather and post-COVID excitement brought a record crowd. “We had a huge uptick in trash this year. Crowds seemed to linger longer and hosted other social gatherings in area parks and playgrounds. DPW had crews out setting up road closures and doing as much real-time clean up as possible, as we do for every PorchFest,” Lathan said. DPW also set up 25 portajohns across the City. Jenkins said the SAC will ask for more next year.

“It also may be helpful to have the participants more involved in announcing the end of event, so DPW can begin cleaning up and opening roadways,” she added. Jenkins echoed, “our biggest challenge was bands performing past their two-hour slots.”

Somerville Police received a handful of noise complaints related to the festival, but no arrests were made.

Aside from the logistical challenges, another perennial question festival performers and attendees ask is, “why isn’t this every weekend?” Jenkins said he doesn’t foresee additional PorchFest type events in a calendar year, but that SAC 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, and are seeking ways to support more nightlight life venues within our expanded development.  In addition, 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,” Jenkins said.

This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service—a project of the IRS 501(c)(3) tax-deductible nonprofit Somerville Media Fund.

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Ryan DiLello is the staff reporter for the Somerville Wire

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