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It's Festival Time in Johnstown Again!
August 30, 2007 - Jim Price
For many people, the Labor Day holiday weekend signifies one of the last opportunities to enjoy summer sun and fun before the temperatures slowly start to cool off and we head into autumn. For this area music connoisseur, though, Labor Day means a three-day residency in Johnstown. It’s festival time in Johnstown again, including the ever-popular Johnstown Folkfest!
Johnstown Folkfest has been a highlight of my summers going clear back to when the National Folk Festival first set up residency in Johnstown’s Cambria City neighborhood in 1990. The National Folk Festival introduced the combination of folk- and ethnic-based musical performers, demonstrating their talents against the backdrop of Cambria City’s ethnic heritage; with neighborhood churches and vendors offering up an equally diverse menu of ethnic foods.
If one performance served as a pivotal catalyst that converted me into a Folk Festival fanatic, it was during the National Folk Festival’s final year in Johnstown, 1992. One of the bands on the bill was Terrence Simien and the Mallet Playboys. This would be the year in which Johnstown fell in love with zydeco music. Terrence Simien and his Mallet Playboys whipped the crowd into a dancing frenzy, with Simien himself dancing back through the aisles, tossing beads to audience members and electrifying a new legion of fans. By the time all was said and done, every single person in the audience was up and dancing, from toddlers to senior citizens. With the lone exception of 1999, zydeco music has been visiting Johnstown on Labor Day weekend ever since.
When the National Folk Festival moved on from Johnstown after 1992, the Johnstown Area Heritage Association took over the reins and presented Johnstown Folkfest. Folkfest continued to be staged in Cambria City through 2003; then, citing growing pains, the event moved to its present home, Festival Park near downtown Johnstown.
Johnstown Folkfest has presented some unforgettable performers and performances over the years. Among my favorites: Terrence Simien (who has returned to Folkfest three times since that unforgettable 1992 appearance), Southern Culture on the Skids (2001), Jimmy Thackery (1994, 2001), Those Darn Accordions (2000, 2003, 2006), The Red Elvises (2005), Philip Fankhauser and the Checkerboard Blues Band (1995), Cephas & Wiggins (1990, 1999, 2005), and the Asylum Street Spankers (1998, 2002). Folkfest has presented legendary blues performers such as Cephas & Wiggins, R.L. Burnside, Ernie Hawkins, Tab Benoit, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Junior Kimbrough and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.
Happening Friday night and all day Saturday and Sunday, this year’s Johnstown Folkfest line-up has many interesting performers as well. Some of the standouts include A.J. Croce, the son of the early 70’s pop legend Jim Croce; the Chicago-based Celtic/folk/punk/rock band The Tossers; the Eric Lindell Band (doing New Orleans R&B); Bill Kirchen and the Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods (Kirchen is the former guitarist for Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen, who scored a 1972 hit with “Hot Rod Lincoln”); Scott Miller and the Commonwealth (doing roots rock); Druha Trava (performing Czechoslovakian bluegrass); Too Slim and the Taildraggers (blues rock) and Bill Deasy (the former singer for Pittsburgh national recording group The Gathering Field.
This year’s Folkfest zydeco party will be provided by Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers. An interesting story from Folkfest history regards Dwayne’s father, the late Rockin’ Dopsie. Just two weeks before Rockin’ Dopsie and the Zydeco Twisters were to play at the 1993 Johnstown Folkfest, Rockin’ Dopsie unexpectedly passed away. The band still performed at Folkfest and provided that year’s zydeco celebration, without their leader.
This year’s Johnstown Folkfest also offers an impressive slate of local and regional performers; including Altoona rockabilly favorites The Marauders, Bedford singer/songwriter Jackson Monsour, western PA jam band favorites Grinning Mob, Johnstown singer/songwriter Jennifer Drummey and the Small Band, Pittsburgh blues guitarist Jimmy Adler, Pittsburgh jazz group Jimmy Sapienza & Five Guys Named Moe and more.
Once again, admission to Johnstown Folkfest is free. The event is funded by various corporate sponsors, as well as partial proceeds from the sale of food “scrip” tickets. Parking is available throughout downtown Johnstown. And new this year, a free shuttle bus service is being offered to travel between Johnstown Folkfest and the Cambria City Ethnic Festival (organized by local Cambria City churches and businesses, this festival started in 2004 after Folkfest departed the neighborhood to relocate to Festival Park), so visitors can also park in Cambria City and take the bus to Folkfest.
And of course, Cambria City Ethnic Festival will also be offering a wide variety of local entertainment, as well as ethnic food favorites at the neighborhood’s churches. Some of the entertainers at this year’s Ethnic Festival include Johnstown party favorites Yum and Ribbon Grass, the Johnstown Classic Rockers, Midnight Graffiti, Inside Out, a reunion of popular Johnstown 80’s band Maiden America, Red Alert, Dead Irish Blues, Rosie & the Jammers and more. There will also be ethnic dance performances from the Johnstown Concert Ballet, Johnstown Folk Dancers, Zahara & Cirque du Shimmy and Slavjane Folk Dancers; and art exhibits at the Bottle Works Ethnic Arts Center and adjacent ArtWorks. Like Johnstown Folkfest, Cambria City Ethnic Festival runs on Friday night, Saturday and Sunday, and admission is free. And don’t forget to sample the pierogies, halushki and halupki at St. Mary’s Church pavilion; to die for!
Not enough Johnstown festivals for you? There are two more!
The 37th annual Log House Arts Festival happens Saturday and Sunday along Menoher Boulevard in Westmont. Arts and crafts are the emphasis of this festival, with over 100 craftsmen with their wares on display. There will also be a variety of food items available, plus musical entertainment. Saturday’s musical entertainment features Rosie & The Jammers, Acousticity and Earl Pickins. Sunday’s lineup includes the music of Satrycon and Tree. For the young ones, Dennie Huber will be offering his balloon creations from 1 to 3 PM on Saturday. Admission is free.
And the 19th annual Forest Hills Festival will take place on Saturday, Sunday and Monday at Berwind Wayside Festival Park, along Route Route 869 in St. Michael. This festival will again offer a variety of arts and crafts, food items and entertainment. Among the musical performers are Elvis impersonator Phil McCaulley on Saturday and Sunday; the Broken Spoke Country Band on Saturday; Johnstown classic rock favorites The Conniptions on Sunday; and Rosie & the Jammers, the Hot Wax Band and Johnstown Button Box on Monday. And again, admission is free.
Needless to say, I’ll be a virtual Johnstown resident again this Labor Day Weekend. I can hardly wait!