The smell of sticky asphalt wafted into my car from the newly paved road as I rolled past a steady stream of pedestrians walking towards the 2017 Rosendale Street Fest. The town, a cluster of vibrantly painted shops on the Rondout Creek between New Paltz and Kingston, has a population of 6,000 on non-festival days, but it would see at least 25,000 people descend on Main Street July 15th and 16th.
The festival started in 1978 as notable resident and freak flag-flier “Uncle” Willy Guldy’s birthday celebration, and by now is the largest free music festival in the Northeast.
After sloshing to a halt in a grassy lot, I joined the throngs passing by the “Customer Parking Only” signs Rosendale businesses had placed at the entrance of their lots. There were at least five festival parking lots set up for the event, excluding musician parking, and shuttles whizzed back and forth to deliver the sun-screened masses to Main Street.
Bre Liggan, the Rosendale Street Fest’s hospitality chair, whipped to a stop on a golf cart in front of the donation table ($5 suggested). She said her unofficial title is “beer admiral” and thought epaulettes should come with the position. She was driving to pick up more donated food for the volunteers and the musicians.
“This is the largest free festival in the Northeast…nothing like it really exists — an environment where even the musicians are donating their time — that’s unheard of,” she said.
There were more than 80 bands performing over the course of the two-day festival, Bre said, selected by the festival’s music committee from more than 200 applicants.
“They do very thorough research, they want to see how they perform,” she said. “There are people that are not really outdoor venue [performers].”
The festival couldn’t be held last year because of planned road construction on Main Street, a project that was ultimately delayed past the time the festival would have been held. But Bre said the festival was back with improvements, including beer gardens positioned so day drinkers could bring their Keegan’s Hurricane Kitties and Newburgh Ales to one of the stages, and a wider variety of musical talents.
“I think this lineup is more diverse than what we’ve had in the past,” she said. “There’s a lot of new artists, [but] we do have our festival favorites — Pitchfork Militia is here again, they’re going to be playing at the mountain stage, Lara Hope…she’s a huge supporter of the street fest.”
So much so that Lara apparently got married last year on the Mountain Stage, though Bre was quick to say it wasn’t actually DURING the festival.
Though billed as a street festival, the event is all about the music. Unlike music festivals, the event is family friendly, with a distinct lack of shirtless 20-somethings wandering around on experimental hallucinogens.
Some of the residents along Main Street opened their yards to festival-goers. One house had a toddler play area and a nursing station obscured from the crowds by a giant tarp. Another house featured a water slide. Some residents were selling wares off their stoops. A beer pong game was visible in a driveway.
I caught up with Uncle Willy between his MC duties on the Mid-Town Stage. He sported a sequined Shamrock vest, a tie-dyed shirt with a giant marijuana bud on it, and wrap-around shades, Groups of locals wished him Happy Birthday as we talked.
A committee tried to get the street fest off the ground for several years, but was met with resistance, Willy said.
“They gave me the run around…they didn’t want it,” he said. “It was a redneck village — they figured it would be a bunch of hippies running around.”
Willy and the committee eventually got the festival off the ground in 1978. It consisted of a single stage in a parking lot off Main Street, but Willy said about 8,000 people attended.
I strolled through the heat to the Café Stage, where the band Datura Road was spinning off a stream of caterwauling Eastern music. A group of older women clapped in the air while swaying their hips, and a young mother bounced her baby in time to the music.
There were seven separate stages at the Rosendale Street Fest. One, the Creekside Stage, was set up overlooking the Rondout Creek. Two women in skirts spun hula hoops around their hips during a set break, as other festival attendees gazed over the river where a couple children splashed in the sun.
The Rosendale Street Fest is an Ulster County institution, and brings people out of the woodwork you haven’t seen in years. I had several of these interactions, marked by having to summarize a decade of existence into a paragraph. One of these interactions involved me referring to a girl named “Kat” as “Siena,” which is hard to talk yourself out of.
Jillian Nadiak, one of the dazzlers of Shelia Dee and the Dazzlers, performed at the street fest for the first time Saturday. She had been to the festival once as a child, but kept missing it as an adult until this year.
“Most people go to [the Kingston venue Back Stage Productions] to see a rock band or something, and they watch, they listen — Shelia Dee is more of a dance group,” she said.
“I never know if people are going to enjoy it or not, because it’s not what people listen to today,” she said of the band’s sound. “There were so many people there, and they got up, and they were all dancing and having a great time. I think our band really fits the vibe of the street fest for that reason — people are walking around, they want something to have a good time to.”
The Rosendale Street Fest continued Sunday, but I only attended the first day. As I walked back to the parking lot, I noticed a distinct peppering of mud all over the side of my vehicle. A couple cars were stuck in the mud, and had sprayed dirt from their flailing tires, but there were ample Good Samaritans shoving the cars out of the sludgy ruts. I helped a man get his minivan out, because, hey, everyone needs to do their part to make these things work.