From the Road: #SultrySummerTour Week One Roundup

My intrepid crew and I are officially past the week one mark for the Sultry Summer Tour.  Let me tell you, week one was a hell of a way to start things out.  Two concerts obliterated by inclement weather, and very nearly a third.  Having a port-a-potty service truck for a wakeup call the morning before a cross-country drive–  those beasts are loud, by the way, and more so when you’ve got nothing but a thin tent wall protecting you from what sounds like unstoppable diesel death from above.  Surviving a pretty significant campsite flood, and helping others to do the same.  Making the most of compromised opportunities by letting the music carry us, just like it always does.  We’ve definitely got some stories to tell after this week.  Read on for more!

Pagan Spirit Gathering celebrated its 35th festival this year.  Normally, the gathering lasts for a week.  This year, staff and volunteers and participants had to call it off on the second full day. This decision was made with tears, but with full mutual support.  I’ve never been so proud of a community before.  Monday morning and afternoon, the PSG campsite was pounded by torrential rain and thunderstorms, to the degree that participants and staff alike had to rescue each other’s vehicles and camps from being washed away.  There was no outside assistance.  There were zero casualties, zero injuries beyond cuts and blisters, and zero small children misplaced.  What’s more, I never heard a cross word from anyone.  And we were all soaked through, tired, and filthy for most of the experience, with a flooded shower house, and a necessarily tiered-and-timed exodus plan that couldn’t allow us all to pack up and bug out for higher ground at the same time. In the words of one of our beloved festival staff members, we did by ourselves what it would have taken FEMA and the National Guard and the Red Cross several days to manage, for any given town with the same population density as the event.

PSG brings in a lot of performers. It makes sense to do that, with an event that lasts for more than just the weekend.  As a result, I was camped along the road with a whole bunch of friends and colleagues.  All of us, with a couple of early week exceptions, lost our chances to perform due to the weather.  So what did we do?  We sang together all day and all night.  We entertained anyone who needed a smile and happened to be standing in front of us.  We all joined forces on Tuesday evening and played a 3+ hour marathon of a shared concert for everyone who was still on site.  And the community rose around us, dancing and singing along with everything they had, well into the evening.  They also bought CDs, and even asked several of us if we needed cash for gas money enough to get home.  And Michael, our sound man, stayed on site and was happy to leave all of his gear set up for us, so that we could make that last hurrah a magical memory for the whole community.  Thank you, Spiral Rhythm.  Thank you, Arthur Hinds.  Thank you, Wendy Rule.  Thank you, Mama Gina.  Thank you, Celia.  Thank you, Brian Henke.  Thank you, Beltana Spellsinger.  Thank you, Selena Fox.  Thank you, Moonfeather.  Thank you, everyone. 🙂

Ryan and I left the site exactly when we had planned, on Wednesday morning, to head to my next scheduled performance.  I still can’t keep from smiling about how everything worked out, even though the flooding and storms were terrifying, fast, and cost me my work for half the week.  The whole situation could have been a horrific tragedy, but it wasn’t.  We all had each other’s backs, and we all worked together.

Ryan and I drove from Illinois to just outside of Pittsburg on Wednesday, bleary eyed and filthy, with a truly impressive sack of festival laundry mouldering behind our seats, my trusty SUV packed higgledy-piggledy, in damp haste.  I chose poorly that evening in finding a motel, because our refuge didn’t turn out to have guest laundry facilities.  I’m catching up on that now, as I write this.  Unfortunately, the laundry beast is now two festivals’ worth, not just one.  It’s all good.

Somewhat better rested and a lot cleaner, we took a very quick hike before hitting the road again.  Our motel was right next to the Buttermilk Falls Natural Area, and I can’t resist a waterfall in early summer.

Here she is.

With a Mark Twain audiobook to keep us company, we drove the rest of the way east to Free Spirit Gathering, stopping north of Baltimore to pick up Betsy and to repack the car.  Ramblewood Retreat Center, where the Gathering is held each year, turned out to be a lovely place.  Staff and volunteers welcomed us with open arms, installing us upstairs in the beautiful building known as the White House- a massive pre-Civil-War treasure with a ghost and a story for every square foot of space.  

Friday was for taking part in the festival and enjoying ourselves.  I attended Grandmother Elspeth’s group discussion on The New Mythology, which mostly became about what sort of mythology we wanted to be able to pass on to future generations.  There was a lot of sharing about who the gods of technology and climate change might be, and a hope that a future mythology would leave space, for instance, for both the Sufi stories and George Washington and the Apple Tree.  I wondered if the god of technology might be the child of deities of Earth and Wisdom, and we discussed that ze has a Trickster aspect — not everyone remembers that you can’t have an internal combustion engine that runs on fuel, without first having had dinosaur poop for a very long time.  Therefore, the god of tech cannot exist without the Earth deities.  The Earth deities, however, might very well do just fine without the god of tech.  We also discussed the thought that you must destroy the old in order to make way for the new, even where myths are concerned.  I hope this isn’t purely the case, because I love so much of existing folklore from around the world.  There are still things we can learn from it.  Greek myths tell us that harvest goddess Demeter was so bound up with grief at the loss of her daughter, Persephone, that she forgot who she was, causing all the crops to fail, until Baubo, now thought of as the goddess of belly laughs and earthy feminine power & sexuality, made her laugh again.  Perhaps we need to find a way to make the gods of climate change laugh, and we might be in better shape?  I’m not making light of the situation.  Far from it.  But I do wonder.

That Friday evening, I was fortunate enough to watch a performance by local fire troupe, HVBRIS, which was light-hearted and well executed, indeed.  Afterwards, I was even more fortunate — the team stuck around to do some less formal fire play, and all experienced fire spinners were invited to join in.  I can never get enough of spinning fire, and so sharing play space with Hobbit, Tiff, Hellion, Pyro, Elf, Gimbel, and everyone was a serious treat for me.  It also turned out to be the best possible opportunity we were going to get, because the rains found us the following evening.

So there we were, Betsy and I, having prepared our energy and our skills to give the best concert we could give, when we learned from staff and crew that we might have to shut the show down due to the coming storms.  We told our sound man and the festival staff that we’d stay flexible and do whatever was best.  The first half of the show went as planned, and I was pleased both with our performance and with the crowd’s response.  We started with one of my newer songs, “Papa’s Groove”, along with a chant to ask the storm to be kind.  The crowd took the chant up with us immediately, and they rose to dance with us for our second song, “Witch’s Rune”, as soon as I prompted them.  Betsy noticed a tornado warning pop up on her phone’s weather app, but she kept right on playing.  A hard rain began to fall all around the big pavilion we were in, but everybody stuck with us.  People of all ages were up and dancing, singing along, and letting us know that they were enjoying themselves.  Lights and sound were just so.  Gimbel gave me the gift of a masterful fire performance to “Hymn to Herne”, even though it was pouring down rain enough to intimidate just about any outdoor performer.  Betsy’s solo cello piece, “Gentle Storm”, got performed as a duet with an actual thunderstorm for the first time.

It was after “Gentle Storm” that our staff and crew had to make the call to shut the equipment down.  Betsy and I simply stepped off stage and kept the music going.  Over half the crowd came up front to sit on the ground around us — all ages, all paths, all sorts.  And they listened.  It was seriously magical.  So many people told me the next day that the unplugged part of the thunderstorm concert was their favorite part.  Grandmother Elspeth congratulated me on doing something that few other performers would be willing to do, in keeping the music going no matter what.  I’m not so sure she’s right about that, considering who all I’d been keeping company with throughout the week.  I think any of my festival music colleagues would have done exactly the same as we did, and done it well.

Barry fired the sound system up again so that we could do our closing number from the stage, with full lights and sound again.  It was, of course, “Firebird’s Child”.  What a blast!

Most everyone stuck around under the shelter of the pavilion for as long as they could.  Having another big, intentional fire circle in the usual outdoor place wouldn’t have been especially safe at that point, what with all of the mud and lightning, so the staff set up space for drummers and dancers, with a tray of festive little candles in holders at the center.  If it feels like a fire circle, then it’s a fire circle.  So say we all.

It was an intense week, but a beautiful one.  I’m so grateful to everyone we met, everyone we worked with, and everyone we got to sing for.  I’m so glad to have had a fresh chance to see real community in action, real support and love and compassion.  Thank you, PSG.  Thank you, FSG.  Thank you all.  You’re doing it right.