Fall festival season in the Hudson Valley

A redcoat looks for his regiment during the Burning of Kingston. (Photo by Will Dendis)

Parades are in decline, but festivals are booming. Americans are sick of standing in one place watching John Philip Sousa marches drift down a boulevard. They’d rather lick garlicky lollipops, or get lost in a hay maze.

Personally, I like talking to strangers. That’s why I enjoy festivals. When you attend an autumnal gathering, you have the right to turn to a neighbor and remark: “That was a tricky maze, don’t you think?”

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A festival is a leap into the unknown. Even if you’re familiar with the headliner at the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice (for example), you won’t know 90 percent of the other performers. So you’re taking a chance, as are your fellow attendees. It’s like getting stuck in an elevator with nine people. A festival is a type of crisis, but a happy crisis.

Each gathering has its own community, with a unique dress code. Why do women wear high heels and shiny silver shirts to the Bearsville Theatre for the Woodstock Comedy Festival? Because they associate comedians with nightclubs? Because everyone did it last year? It’s hard to know. But they are certainly more glamorous than the habitués of the Woodstock Bookfest.

If you know a lot of Hudson Valley dwellers, you’ll be surprised which friends you run into where. An aging podiatrist will show up at an avant-garde poetry tent.

Two pieces of advice:

  1. Beware of “festival gluttony,” the compulsion to see everything. In many festivals, it’s impossible. And even if it’s feasible, one should exercise a bit of restraint. My parents always say: “Save something for next time!” (And they have, so far, lived to 98 and 94 — so maybe they know something.)
  2. Be daring. Even if you dislike classical music, you may adore a classical-music fest, because two or three of the offerings will be so odd, they’ll resemble the Velvet Underground, or whatever music you collect. For example, I saw a piece by Edgar Varese at the Bard Music Festival (honoring Aaron Copland!), a stunning, proto-punk blast of sacred noise, written by Frank Zappa’s hero.

For many years, I ritually attended the New York Film Festival, the cruelest gathering of culture-lovers I’ve ever beheld. After each movie, the director would take questions from the audience. The first question would begin with insincere praise (“This is a very fine film; I was delighted to see it …”), and then circle in for the kill (“Are you satisfied with the ending, as it now stands?”). The next questioner would be even more heartless. Even a narcissistic filmmaker would soon be reduced almost to tears.

The New York State Sheep and Wool Festival is October 21-22 in Rhinebeck

But upstate festivals are different. Citizens of our region arrive to celebrate. Even with global warming, winter is a time of retreat in the Catskills: the season to begin a demanding novel, or turn to that stack of Buster Keaton DVDs. Autumn is our last chance for collective rejoicing. In place of the traditional harvest festivals, we now have harvests of art.

Hunter Mountain will have four free Oktoberfest weekends, with authentic lederhosen and dirndls, ending October 14-15. (That last weekend will feature Catskill wineries and a Doxie Derby, which is a race between athletic dachshunds.

The multifarious Woodstock Film Festival, in its 18th year, is October 11-15. And the ritual Burning of Kingston is October 13-15, commemorating the British torching of the city in 1777 (Over 300 structures were destroyed in a few hours). This free biannual event includes re-creations of street battles and British military camps, plus a tour of colonial stone houses. Visitors are encouraged to dress in colonial garb, and to carry “Loyalty Papers,” without which they may be imprisoned by the Redcoats.

The Beacon Club Pumpkin Festival at the Pete & Toshi Seeger Riverfront Park on October 15 is also free of charge. Look for pumpkin pie, cider, chili, music, and free rides on the sloop Woody Guthrie.

The New York State Sheep and Wool Festival is October 21-22 in Rhinebeck, with 300 fiber artists, plus sheep-herding demonstrations, canine frisbee, a llama parade, a hay maze, and an angora goat show.

The ninth annual Woodstock Invitational Luthiers Showcase, October 27-29, is an exhibition of handbuilt guitars, ukuleles, mandolins, etc. by some of the most gifted living instrument-builders. The show offers instructional clinics, workshops and continual acoustic music, including performances by Happy Traum, Macyn Taylor and Pasquale Grasso. I love the word “luthier.” I wish all medieval occupations had festivals: tinkers, wheelwrights, alchemists … (“Are you going to AlchemiCon this year?” one software designer might ask another, in San Jose.)

Last year the Woodstock Comedy Festival began with a night of female comedians. One lanky, tall woman from Albany named Jaye McBride revealed, five minutes into her set, that she was a transsexual. There was a confused silence in the audience, but she continued, recounting the absurdities of her life. She was funny, and we all loved her. My first transsexual comedian! That’s what festivals are for.