The Meriden Daffodil Festival
Sat. April 27 and Sun. April 28, Hubbard Park, Meriden, daffodilfest.com
The Meriden Daffodil Festival never ceases to amaze. On the surface, it appears to be a common-or-garden springtime city festival, with pageants and carnival rides and crafts booths and food tents and frolicking families. But the soundtrack of this ever-fun weekend in the sun is provided by dozens of Connecticut-based bands. Most of these acts write their own material, and are as fresh and up-and-coming as the festival's titular daffodils that punctuate Hubbard Park by hundreds of thousands.
Rob DeRosa, the Daffodil Festival's longtime "music coordinator," calls this year's bookings "my best line-up yet." He also thinks the timing and climate are right for it to be "one of the best years for the daffodils in the past 10."
If this year wasn't already indelibly marked by the grand return of Mark Mulcahy — the '80s indie-rock pioneer who fronted the internationally acclaimed band Miracle Legion — and the Daffodil debut of PBS-anointed kid-music star Steve Songs, we might register this as the Year of the Intriguing Duos. On Saturday at 12:15 on the Welcome Stage, you've got the married guitar/drum couple the Sawtelles, thumping and wailing their stripped-down rock shockers. The Sawtelles are one of three acts using this year's Daffodil Festival as a CD release party. (The other bands premiering new discs this weekend are Breakthrough Frequencies and the Manchurians.) At 5:15 p.m. on the selfsame Welcome stage (leading in to their old friend Mark Mulcahy) are the frenetic Furors, who've been calling "Hey, Joni" around Connecticut since the late 1970s. The Alternate Routes, on the Welcome Stage Saturday at 7:45 p.m., frequently perform as a duo, but DeRosa insisted they bring their full band — partly because it's his wife's favorite Connecticut band, but also so they could bring in Fairfield Weekly writer Mike Sembos as their bassist. (Sembos has played the Daffodil with numerous different acts over the years.) Besides, DeRosa figures, "I didn't think it would be a fireworks act as a duo."
Ah, the fireworks acts. It's a relatively new wrinkle for the Daffodil Festival, which used to pipe in pre-recorded classical sounds (or nothing at all) during Saturday's climactic fireworks display. The organizers came to realize that certain local bands are well suited to soundtracking pyrotechnical spectacles, and arranged for them to play at each of the fest's three distinct music stages. This year, fireworks-watchers can choose to be serenaded by alt-Americanics the Alternate Routes on the Welcome Stage (will they shake their rumbling percussive tool chest in beat to the explosions?), the folk-pop ensemble Goodnight Blue Moon on the Food Tent Stage and the cover band Last Licks in the band shell.
The fireworks provides the climax for Saturday's Daffodil delights, but the fest picks right back up again on Sunday at 10 a.m. with another notable duo. Singer/songwriter Becky Kessler, who moved to Connecticut just a couple of years ago from North Carolina, got on Rob DeRosa's Daffodil radar after she won a 2012 Connecticut Music Award from the Advocate/Weekly papers. In the time between when the festival was booked and when it's happening, Kessler started an electric pop duo with drummer Floyd Kellogg of You Scream I Scream. It's "a bit dark, but not too dark" she says of the new sound. "I have a low voice, and play guitar voicings that are low too. I play an electric hollow-body guitar, which weighs a ton, and I plug it into a bass amp because we don't have a bassist. Floyd's kit has a 28-inch kick-drum. It can get pretty loud." Which pleases Rob DeRosa no end. He's not the sort of festival programmer who favors familiarity over originality. He sees the Daffodil Festival, which he has truly built into the biggest and longest-running local band showcase festival in Connecticut, as a place where bands can find new audiences, try out new material, and demonstrate the awe-inspiring range and talent the local music scene is known for.
Becky Kessler is a great example of how DeRosa and the Daffodil likes to shake things up. While the dull roar of diners can make the Food Tent Stage a challenge to play, Kessler's pleased to be playing anywhere in the morning, and not another late-night club gig. Her day job involves maintaining an organic farm on a friend's estate in Fairfield County. "My friends can finally see me play. I'm like, 'Guys, it's at 10 a.m. That's like noon for you!'"
The Daffodil Festival is all about upending expectations: about the community it serves, about the performers it entices, about what constitutes a splendid time in a city park in the 21st century. Rob DeRosa, who's been booking the fest for a couple of decades now, still marvels at how carefully musicians will prep for this special gig, and how distinctive some of the sets will be. The salsa ensemble Orquesta Afinke (4 p.m. Saturday in the Food Tent) will feature a 10-year-old conga player. The jazz combo Sparkplug, which switches up guitarists for each gig, has enlisted Fuzz from Deep Banana Blackout and Caravan of Thieves for its 1 p.m. Sunday Food Tent show. The roots band Poor Old Shine (Food Tent again, 5:30 p.m. Saturday) hits the Daffodil fresh from a national tour; DeRosa looks forward to the "one-two punch" of Poor Old Shine followed by Goodnight Blue Moon.
Frank Critelli, one of the few musicians whom DeRosa asks back every year (partly because of the emphasis placed on Meriden residents in the line-up, partly because of Critelli's versatility, and partly because of the singer/songwriter/bandleader long allegiance to the Festival, where he's hosted stages and done volunteer work as well as performed), insisted on being given a slot which many musicians would decline: 10 a.m. Saturday on the Welcome Stage, playing the first notes heard in the entire two-day, 36-band festival. It's the same slot Critelli took when he first played the Meriden Daffodil Festival 14 years ago. The festival, by the way, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.
DeRosa's especially thrilled to be presenting Mark Mulcahy in his first Connecticut appearance in several years. The singer-songwriter, who came up through the New Haven music scene of the 1970s and '80s, is emerging with a new album in June, and will spend the summer playing major festivals such as Solid Sound (curated by the band Wilco) and the End of the Road Festival in England. It was at a previous Daffodil Festival show that Mulcahy indulged in a surprise reunion with the other members of the final line-up of Miracle Legion — "Mr. Ray" Neal, "Spot" Boutier and Dave Caffrey.
"I'm absolutely beside myself," DeRosa says, "that Mark Mulcahy is playing here again. But even beyond that, I've never had a year where I've been so excited about the Daffodil Festival."
Here's who's rocking the Daffodil for 2013. There are three separate stages set up in Hubbard Park:
• The Welcome Stage (WS) at the park entrance, near where the shuttle buses to the festival arrive;
• The Food Tent Stage (FTS), where thousands of festivalgoers mill about in search of strawberry shortcake, fried dough and other delicacies found at dozens of booths sponsored by local non-profit organizations; and
• The Band Shell Stage (BSS), hosting the bands you'll hear while riding the Ferris Wheel or standing in line for the other carnival rides.
There are plenty of places near each stage to just sit and just listen to the music, if that's your desire.
10-10:45 a.m.: Frank Critelli, folk/pop (WS).
10:15-11:15 a.m.: Chico & Friends, covers and originals (FTS).
11:15-11:45 a.m.: Hannah Fair, singer/songwriter (WS)
11:45 a.m.-12:30 p.m.: Food, "funky progressive jazz" (FTS)
12:15-1 p.m.: The Sawtelles, indie rock (WS).
12:45-1:30 p.m.: The Ivory Bills, folk rock (BSS).
1-2 p.m.: The Gonkus Brothers, covers (FTS).
1:30-2:15 p.m.: Elison Jackson, "stoner soul" (WS).
2-2:45 p.m.: The Radiation, garage/punk (BSS).
2:30-3:30 p.m.: River City Slim & the Zydeco Hogs, zydeco/R&B (FTS)
2:45-3:30 p.m.: Daphne Lee Martin, country rock (WS).
3:15-4 p.m.: 1974, original rock (BSS).
4-4:45 p.m.: The Guru, psychedelic rock (WS).
4-5 p.m.: Orquesta Afinke, merengue/salsa (FTS).
4:30-5:15 p.m.: The Manchurians, blues/R&B (BSS).
5:15-5:45 p.m.: The Furors, perfect pop duo (WS).
5:30 p.m.: Poor Old Shine, roots/Americana (FTS).
5:45-6:30 p.m.: Hostage Calm, punk/rock (BSS).
6:15-7 p.m.: Mark Mulcahy, alt-rock genius (WS).
7-8 p.m.: Goodnight Blue Moon, folk pop (FTS).
7:15-8:15 p.m.: Last Licks, covers (BSS).
7:45-9 p.m.: The Alternate Routes, soft rock (WS).
10-11 a.m.: Becky Kessler & Floyd Kellogg, pop duo (FTS).
10:30-11:15 a.m.: Christopher Bousquet, singer/songwriter (WS).
11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m.: Robert Messore, songs for children (WS).
11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.: Dan Stevens Trio, acoustic blues (FTS).
12:30-1:15 p.m.: Breakthrough Frequencies, rock (BSS).
1-2 p.m.: SteveSongs, songs for children (WS).
1-2 p.m.: Sparkplug, funk/jazz tribute (FTS).
1:45-2:30 p.m.: The Peacock Flounders, alt-rock (BSS).
2:30-3:15 p.m.: Paper Hill Casket Company, "progressive Americana" (WS).
2:30-3:30 p.m.: Rani D'Arbo & Daisy Mayhem, eclectic grooves (FTS).
3-3:45 p.m.: Little Ugly, violin-inflected rock (BSS).
3:45-4:30 p.m.: The Mold Monkies, Britpop (WS).
4-5 p.m.: Kelley & Sean, covers (FTS).
4:15-5 p.m.: 691, covers (BSS).