Throughout a lifetime, there are events and celebrations that we all look forward to with the eager anticipation of a starry-eyed child. So many years ago, the promise of Christmas morning had this guy toe-tapping in his footed flannel pajamas months in advance.
As teenagers, excitement wanes for the red-suited, jolly fat man and turns to other pursuits, which, for me, included bussing tables while stuffing my pockets with tips, rolling at skate parties, and rocking concerts wherever and whenever.
Later on, as a broke-ass UMass student, weekly bar bands and Friday happy hour at Mike’s Westview (with that $1.00 all-u-can-eat buffet and buckets of Rolling Rocks) stoked those inner passions, along with the anticipation of spring-break road trips — and chasing a girl from Lowell. Not long thereafter (yet 30 years ago this month!) it was the fear and anticipation of having a very first baby that had us dancing on air — that girl and I.
Fast forward to today and, coincidentally, another historic event will be celebrating the number 30 this month — the Lowell Folk Festival. It, too, has fanned my fire for so many years. The folk festival is an annual phenomenon that is impossible to properly portray in writing — much like trying to describe flying reindeer, Bob Marley live in concert, or me on roller skates, attempting to roll bounce to Nu Shooz.
Lowell is a national historical park, and the folk festival is a shining shindig of the National Park Service — perhaps the grandest of all national celebrations of arts, community and culture. Since 1994, our first restaurant has had the incredible fortune of being surrounded by thousands of revelers during the last full weekend every July — in addition to mouthwatering cuisine and dozens of live musical performances throughout the downtown for all ages and tastes, inspired by each corner of the world.
People-watching? Grab a plate of spanakopita and pull up a bench. And upon the occasion of a rain shower, join those pirouetting in the puddles. It’s like that. Of course, when business levels quadruple, it’s not always “fun and games.” In fact, caught up in the excitement of our very first festival, “someone” thought that printing folk festival T-shirts to sell alongside the sausages was a brilliant idea. The swift “cease and desist” letter from a local lawyer made incisively clear “proprietary” and “copyright infringement.” Who knew!
Then there was the record-breaking Saturday that left us running low on all kinds of food heading into Sunday. What to do? First, check the weather, of course. To our abundant delight, a “zero percent chance of rain” was reported, so we made a list, we checked it twice, and dragged ourselves to Sam’s Club at 8 a.m. Sunday. Armed at the ready with $600 worth of re-up, it poured rain from nearly the minute the festival began … for hours. Seriously, who predicts zero percent of anything, especially New England weather! A total washout.
From people angry over bathroom lines to the time that “someone’s” brother (who will remain nameless) enjoyed a hard-earned cigar after working all day, but chose to light up indoors, hence setting off the fire alarm, large events are not without stress. Just ask my wife, who, after years of threatening, is finally heading out of town for this year’s festival. Rum drinks come in handy for anxiety management. Too much rum — opposite effect — and a story (or two) you won’t soon hear. Though the one involving a visiting Southern cousin and a borrowed vehicle is a beauty. I have stories for days, but, unfortunately, I am bound by both my editor and vows of secrecy.
This annual onslaught of party people also creates a special dynamic for us at Cobblestones as we excitedly welcome back dozens of former employees to assist. Over the years, we have half-teased many that have chosen to leave us for their next opportunity that they are nonetheless scheduled for all festivals to follow. “Mark it on your calendar!”
Each summer we cull our kin from near and far, and they often make the pilgrimage with friends in tow to assist with grilling, pouring beers, stuffing buns or welcoming visitors as we test the limits of how many people can sleep in our house, or soak in our hot tub, after working nonstop each day! A quasi-family reunion with the largest free folk festival in the country as the stage. I can’t wait.
This year’s lineup already promises bluegrass, Louisiana Cajun, rockabilly, gospel, Chicago jump-blues, Irish dance and musical styling from Portugal to Peking. Strolling down the middle of the streets of Lowell, you are likely to find spring rolls, satay and shish kebab, jambalaya, tacos and banh mi, and any number of Lowell restaurant patios packed. Craft brews and old school blues? No doubt. Pierogi and polka? You betcha. Margaritas and mariachi? Si, si señor! My toes are actually tapping as I write …
“Dear Park Service Santa,
I have (mostly) been nice. I promise not to sell unsanctioned merchandise. (I really am sorry for that!) All I want for Folk Festival is, hmm, zydeco, and falafel, and that trolley whistle, and a marching band with twirling umbrellas, and some salsa dancing and a great big straw hat, and some Jesus-sandals and my very own folding beach chair, and great reggae and maybe just one rum drink, and some bluegrass, and some ribs and a pony and …”