Music festival season is upon us. Coachella is already in the rearview, and local music fans are already placing bets on which acts will be featured on this year's LouFest lineup. But this weekend, a smaller, more neighborhood-centric festival takes place not far from LouFest's Forest Park home. And rather than performing on stages with a pro sound system, the local performers will use porches and minimal amplification.
Now in its second year, Porchfest STL provides a free and diverse slate of music in a walkable, bike-able setting in the Skinker DeBaliviere neighborhood. And while the roots of Porchfest formally date back to 2007 in Ithaca, New York, the idea simply formalizes what many prize as essential to healthy living: an intersection of art, culture and community feeding off of each other.
Among Porchfest STL's organizers are two recent Washington University graduates, Dylan Bassett and Lauren Chase. Bassett, who had worked at KWUR (90.3 FM), the university's student radio station, offered help on some of the technical aspects of throwing a festival, but he points to Chase as the prime mover who brought the idea to St. Louis.
"She really got it going and drew in a bunch of people," Bassett says. The turnaround, from conception to execution, was so quick that it caught people by surprise. "In two months it went from not existing at all to being a fairly large event with fifteen to twenty bands on eight porches," says Bassett.
While neither Bassett nor Chase still live in St. Louis, both are offering their organizational know-how to this year's festival and will be on-site this weekend. Bassett hopes that their grassroots efforts will continue to grow, with buy-ins from both the Wash U community and its residential neighbors. "We're trying to make it a more formal institution," he says.
Chase, a native of Massachusetts, had experienced a Porchfest in Somerville a few years ago. She lit upon the idea of bringing it here one afternoon last year as she walked through Skinker Debaliviere, which is northeast of Wash U's campus, and heard people strumming guitars on their front porch. The neighborhood felt like a perfect fit for such a festival.
"I moved into Skinker DeBaliviere as soon as I was able to move off campus and I fell in love with the neighborhood, and a lot of that is how diverse it is and how intentional it is," says Chase, who graduated from Wash U last year with a major in American culture and focus on social policy.
"It's the merger of public and private spaces in a celebratory way," Chase continues. "I was really excited about having [Porchfest] in the neighborhood I love."
Organizers enlisted Brandon Sterling from the Skinker DeBaliviere neighborhood council to help with planning, as well as to ensure that the festival was a true integration of art and community, not just a bunch of college kids using the neighborhood as a place to throw a party.
"I wanted to de-center Wash U from this event since it's about the neighborhood and its residents," says Chase. "But Brandon was excited to involve the university; it's rare to have organic relationships."
And since Porchfest is, first and foremost, a music festival, the organizers took care to book a variety of acts to fill out the afternoon. "We've always taken the approach that we want the music at this festival to represent the full range of musical expression in St. Louis," says Bassett. "We hope to appeal to people of all age ranges and backgrounds."
To that end, organizers relied on Will Hunersen, who organizes pop-up concerts through the local outpost of Sofar Sounds, to fill out the bill. This year 26 acts will fill the neighborhood's makeshift stages, including soul singer Gene Jackson, upright bassist and vocalist Tonina Saputo and samba-flecked jazz trio the Bonbon Plot.
Another performing musician is Zach Sullentrup, who records as a solo artist and as part of the band Tidal Volume. He played last year and was quick to fill out a submission to play again this year. "It's a very cool event, one of those rare music events that engages its surroundings as much as it engages the crowd," Sullentrup says. "The community feel alone is worth coming for. Last year everyone was in great spirits and enjoying spending time soaking it all in."
With repeat performers like Sullentrup and an enthusiastic buy-in from the neighborhood, Chase and Bassett knew the festival would be more than a one-off.
"I was just amazed at the response from the community," says Chase. "So many people were asking when it was gonna happen again, and people were wanting it to happen multiple times a year."
It's a long way from where it started. Chase recalls that in the run-up to last year's inaugural festival, she went to her neighbors to spread information and garner interest for Porchfest.
"This woman I met going door to door was in her eighties, sitting on her porch," Chase says. "She was interested in the event, but her son was kind of negative, saying that they weren't gonna go.
"The day of the event, the whole family was on the porch, enjoying the music."