This summer’s Napa Porchfest will be less sprawling than in years past.
The ninth edition of the community music festival on July 28 will play out within a smaller area, pulling out of Alta Heights and the “alphabet streets” west of Jefferson Street to place all performers and fans within Old Town Napa.
Concentrating Porchfest concerts into a rough rectangle bordered by Jefferson, Third, Fourth, Coombs and Pine streets is necessary to cope with crowds that have steadily grown to more than 10,000 spectators as the musical crawl has featured more bands outside more homes, according to Jamie Cherry, chairman of the event committee.
“I don’t think there were more than 20 or 30 people at any porch, it was so small,” he recalled of Napa Porchfest’s humble debut in 2011, with about 300 people watching 24 musical acts.
By 2018, attendance at the free music festival drew an estimated 15,000, even with a schedule shortened from six to 4 ½ hours to reduce the disruption of street closures in Old Town.
Such growth has strained the capabilities of the all-volunteer force that assists spectators, guides homeowners into and out of the festival area, and picks up trash afterward, Porchfest organizers said in a March 17 statement on the festival website.
“The need for refuse/trash maintenance, emergency services, and traffic control has grown to be unmanageable by this small group of volunteers,” directors said.
In addition, according to Cherry, Porchfest leaders have dealt with unsanctioned musical performances at homes not participating in the festival – as well as impromptu roadblocks outside stages that obstruct those in cars or on foot.
“We had a couple of cases of people outside the closure area who took it on themselves to close streets, and then the police got a phone call because their street was shut down and the neighbor thought it had something to do with Porchfest and it didn’t,” he said “People dragged their stuff into the street – barbecues, sofas, you name it.”
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To head off such problems, the section of Old Town that has been closed to motor vehicles during recent Porchfests will become the sole festival area, with Fuller Park on the west side of the closure zone remaining a hub for food trucks and other services. The boundaries have been drawn specifically to keep traffic flowing on Jefferson and Coombs streets and avoid inconveniencing people not attending Porchfest, said Cherry.
A smaller festival space, however, likely will mean fewer venues for musicians than in the past, acknowledged Porchfest’s music coordinator Micah Malan. To accommodate as many performers as possible, organizers have extended the registration deadline a month to April 30 and created programs for homeowners to “adopt” bands to steer performers to available venues more quickly.
Musicians’ sets also will be shortened in some cases to reduce the risk of sound from one band spilling to other homes and disrupting other performances. On blocks with multiple venues, individual concerts will generally be limited to 90 minutes, although bands on more isolated sites may be allotted as much as two hours, Malan said.
Seventy-two musical acts and 38 homeowners had registered for this year’s Porchfest as of Sunday, more than two weeks before the deadline, according to Malan. The 2018 festival featured performances by 125 acts.
While new and returning performers seek places to play during Porchfest, at least one band may be frozen out – for lack of a large enough stage within the event’s new boundaries.
The Generation Gap Big Band made its Porchfest debut in July 2018 at Churchill Manor, a 19th-century mansion on Brown Street with a porch and front lawn spacious enough for the big-band ensemble’s 18 members. But the redrawn boundary leaves the landmark just east of this year’s festival area, with no clear alternatives for Generation Gap, according to bandleader K. Trekkor Wills, a trombonist who has lived in Napa for 30 years.
“This was an opportunity to get local exposure,” he said Sunday about the difficulty of finding a venue for Generation Gap and up to 400 spectators. “Here’s a chance to be a bandleader in my hometown, and now it’s gone.”
While hoping for Porchfest organizers to reconsider the exclusion of Churchill Manor, Wills is weighing alternative locales in Napa for his big band – whether on another date or, perhaps, the same day as the festival under a different permit.
“We just need a spot that won’t cause problems in the community,” he said. “This is not a protest move – we just want to play music.”