“This reminds me of French Quarter Fest in New Orleans,” Paul Haggard said, standing among the crowd at San Rafael, California’s Gerstle Park. “Only I think this is actually better because it’s so much more intimate while having a similar, insanely high level of musicianship.”
The former art director of Guitar Player was watching guitarist Bryan Kehoe (who performs with Les Claypool in Duo De Twang) and his “psychobilly twang” band perform the musical equivalent of a high-wire circus act on a makeshift stage in a corner of the park. The performance was just one of those presented at the San Rafael PorchFest, which is itself one of many similar events that take place in neighborhoods all across America on various weekends. PorchFest started out in Ithaca, New York, in 2007, and has since become a loosely connected collection of community-minded, all-volunteer happenings that vary greatly from one location to another.
At the San Rafael event, porches, driveways and front yards throughout the Gerstle Park neighborhood were transformed into stages hosting a top-flight collection of Northern California talent. In addition to a kickass gang of great guitar pickers such as Mark Karan (Bob Weir & RatDog), James Nash (the Waybacks), slide ripper Danny Click and fingerstyle acoustic instrumental maestros Teja Gerken and Doug Young, the fest featured a host of singer-songwriters and a diverse selection of artistic performances by members of the Ali Akbar College of Music on sarode, sitar and tabla, the Ukulele Jubilee and the North Beach Brass Band.
The 2019 event benefited immensely from the organizational and musical contributions of Jenny Kerr and Phil “Philbillie” Milner, a pair of uniquely talented players and singers who perform in the Jenny Kerr Band. Milner has deep player connections in NorCal via his past gig as Bob Weir’s guitar tech, his thriving guitar and amp repair business and his recording studio, Okey Doke.
Kerr and Milner live together in a house on Marin Street in San Rafael where all the aforementioned business goes down, and its fabulous front porch was ground zero for San Rafael PorchFest. “Several much larger PorchFest events take place in California,” Milner says. “Napa PorchFest is huge, and it inspired the folks in the Gerstle Park neighborhood to organize our inaugural event last year.”
Kerr says they started their event by calling on musical friends, most of whom perform in the Americana genre. “Then we focused on cultivating a more diverse lineup of artists reaching beyond our network,” she says. Adds Milner, “The Ali Akbar College of Music [where Derek Trucks studied] is in San Rafael, so its participation was a no-brainer. Eric McFadden is one of our favorite guitar players, and he just finished making a record here at the studio, so he was a natural choice to close out the event on our front porch.”
McFadden put on an exhilarating acoustic-electric show, rocking out on a James Trussart SteelReso through a Supro combo. Another guitar highlight was a performance by 14-year-old Asher Belsky, who played with Marcus King at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas the day before. Recently chosen by Gibson Guitars as one of its new “G3” Gibson Generation Group, Belsky arrived home in the San Francisco Bay Area in time to drop in on the stage I hosted, playing both fretted and bottleneck with a sense of soul that belied his age.
Many PorchFest events have Facebook pages, making it easy to find one in your area. Milner and Kerr offer interested PorchFest planners ideas for sponsorship and how to make ends meet, and can be reached through the San Rafael PorchFest website. The weekend after their local event, they ambitiously produced a second, all-star show, called PorchStock, at Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads to raise money for PorchFest expenses. It’s easy to see why the concept continues to expand, and why it is a welcome addition to any music-minded community. It’s simply the hippest block party you’ll ever witness.