When Napa Porchfest debuted on a July afternoon in 2011, the Michalski and Leavey families were present for the creation. On Sunday, the two households were at their same houses in the Old Town neighborhood, still giving over their porches to musicians – but in front of much larger audiences than they could have imagined.
Its roots were modest, so much so that when its creators first sought out Napans willing to offer up their historic houses, organizers would have been content to find enough venues for just 250 spectators. Yet from the first, Henry and Lynn Michalski were eager to help launch the musical crawl.
“They came to our house, told us what it was about, and it really sounded wonderful. We jumped at it and said ‘Sure, why not?’ And we’ve done it ever since,” Henry recalled Thursday, less than three days before the press of hundreds of music-loving strollers outside the couple’s 1905 Arts and Crafts edifice on Randolph Street – and thousands more throughout Old Town, the “alphabet streets” west of Jefferson Street and Alta Heights to the east.
“We thought it was a fantastic idea; live music always a fantastic idea, especially if it’s free to the neighborhood,” said Miki Hsu Leavey, who with her husband Lance turned the front of their Oak Street home into one of Porchfest Sunday’s 69 impromptu stages.
“All we knew we had to do is make sure we had music on the porch. We had young friends our kids’ age who played in bands, so we invited them there.”
From such a handful of hosts, Porchfest has expanded year by year into a six-hour buffet of rock, country, folk and other musical genres, an open-air showcase for more than 120 musical acts. Despite organizers’ policy of not promoting the event outside Napa County, Sunday’s seventh annual festival attracted an estimated more than 15,000 people moving from concert to concert on foot, bicycle and even skateboard, which co-founder and current City Councilwoman Juliana Inman called an attendance record.
To accommodate the crowds, Porchfest directors this year shifted the festival’s main gathering place for food vendors, water and restrooms from the Napa County Library to the tree-shaded Fuller Park in Old Town. Picnickers and other spectators packed the park, where the lines for eight food trucks grew as long as an hour, Inman said.
In its seventh year, Porchfest continued to draw both the longtime fans of local bands and those experiencing the musical stroll for the first time.
“I’ve come every year and I can’t get enough of it,” said Iris Barrie, who headed from Alta Heights to Old Town to hear the Cosmo Percussion Ensemble open the festival outside the Leaveys’ house. “I’m always running into neighbors and friends; there’s kids, bikes, dogs, skateboards, and everyone feels welcome.
“I hope they can keep it local though, so it doesn’t get so crowded that we can’t stand it.”
“It’s pretty awesome,” said Rodger Collinson, who took his 2 ½-year-old son Hank to see the band Way Out West. “It’s the one day in Napa that’s for locals, and for me, being born and raised here, that’s pretty awesome.”
The growth of Porchfest impressed a former Napan who was visiting a community barely recognizable from the one in which he was raised.
“It’s just wonderful – can’t imagine this happening in the mid-’70s, when I really would have wanted it,” said Richard Couch, who had chosen Porchfest weekend to travel from Merced with his girlfriend.
“Where I live, the only thing that brings the community together is their farmers market,” added Couch’s friend, Belia Hawkins of Turlock, who was making her second Porchfest visit. “This thing brings Napa together and it’s expanding every year – and not only that, you get to walk around and enjoy the beautiful homes, and make connections with the people who own them.”
While Porchfest is only one day on the calendar, Lynn Michalski, the Randolph Street host, saw the music festival spreading awareness of its core neighborhood – and especially its collection of restored homes from the city’s past – even after the guitars and drums fall silent.
“I think it helps people appreciate the neighborhoods and their architecture more,” she said. “It’s certainly broadened people’s understanding of Napa – that it’s not just wineries, that there’s history and architecture here.”