words & photography | MATT STEFFEN

 

I pulled into Smale Riverfront Park almost ready to be disappointed. No one likes change, and the reconfiguration of a beloved music festival, especially one with the rabidly loyal following of the Whispering Beard, wouldn’t be without its naysayers. I’m still haunted by the ghosts of Midpoint past, now shuttered since my last check in.

What will the Beard in a city park, a city at all, look like? The rural setting of Friendship, Indiana, felt like its whole spirit, the so-called Valley of the Unconcerned. It set the bar of admission pretty high, you had to really want to be there—make the trek, pack in what you plan on needing, make your phone calls before Dillsboro since reception ends there. And who camps in the last week of August in this part of the country? It was not a comfortable hang, but we lined up anyway. All that sun, humidity, occasional wild thunderstorm, and not a discouraging word to be heard.

The Beardos are a galvanized lot. Childhood friends and perfect strangers alike got a wave or howdy. If you were here, you passed the test. You were one of us. The fallen would often wake wearing a blanket, a bottle of water waiting. Belongings were left wherever and remained there until reclaimed. All ages and social standings were accounted for and quickly forgotten.

Now this proudly independent gathering is to have sponsors, parking fees, beer tents. Will we be seeing Peter Rowan singing under the waving vinyl 4-Ways on the Skyline Chili Stage? Will the PA belch out auto parts ads while we stand in line with our only choices being tastes great and less filling?

Walking into the park, I was quickly met by smiling faces, recognizable faces. The police presence was for the most part manning the crosswalk, occasionally pausing to take in a song. The stage setup was the same, only now Covington’s skyline towered behind them. The leisurely, drawled voice of Whispering Beard barker, Casey Campbell ripped through the PA with a “ladies and gentlemen, Willy Tea Taylor!” And almost immediately, this was the Beard. It was familiar. I added my chair to the pile, lounging in front of the red awninged twin stages, jockeying for any shade to be found. At this point, I forgot the looming buildings, stadiums, and Ferris wheels. It was at once known and new. My friend Steve nailed it when he said, “It’s like when you see your grade schoolteacher at Kroger.”

I started to let my guard down, because to my surprise and my delight, the Beard was still what it always was, a field full of folks doing their thing. We listened to music spanning more genres than the festival’s moniker implies. I got hugs from random Beardos, held their babies, shared a drink or two. Fretboard Brewing brought the tasty beverages and were kind enough to charge tasting room prices. The boys from Mind Ignition were pushing the PA just loud enough to drown out everything but the occasional Steamboat whistle.

Close your eyes, and you could still be sitting in that sun blazed field, waiting for the lone oak to sun dial some shade your way. Willy Tea told us how it was. Frontier Folk Nebraska cleaned out the cobwebs and got you ready for the evening sets. Peter Rowan, the legend, mixing stories into songs, making it impossible to know which you enjoyed listening to more. There were well-knowns and unknowns, songwriters, rockers, and flatpickers.

Then there was the genre-elusive wild man, Possessed by Paul James, speaking in tongues, referring to himself in the plural, exorcising his demons in the most loving, positively empowering way—a one-man band entrancing the audience with a single instrument shuffle, whoops and hollers, all limbs flying through space, stomping and spitting with an almost square note hymnal chant. He reminded us that we all have loss, but we carry our burdens unnecessarily, it’s ok to put them down. “We’ve got to carry on with one another… and we welcome you home.”

There seemed to be a multitude of factors playing into this year’s change up. We were all shocked to see that press release in January with the announcement. If we’re being honest, maybe the most shocking part was that it was on branded letterhead. It spoke of an uncertain future with the Old Mill Campground being put on the market. At the Beard, Casey additionally told us of the organizers’ love of the river festivals and for the legendary Tall Stacks—that was the reason behind the addition of the riverboat cruise performances to the Whispering Beard. There was also his memory of The National’s new festival from the previous April, one of the most enjoyable music events of 2018 and held in the new christened Smale.

As someone accustomed to putting in long hours with a crazy and sporadic schedule, gambling with sometimes not-so-small sums of money, I felt that they were attempting to pull off something herculean with the mere hope of breaking even. Different people saw the situation differently. Some folks got angry, took to their keyboards and threw around accusations. But in describing the handful of guys that are at the helm of this thing, money grubbing and opportunistic wouldn’t make the list.

The Beard might be a victim of its own success. To build a community, people need to feel a sense of ownership. When things change, it can be taken personally. But that’s the nature of this whole thing, change. If it’s not something you can come to terms with, stay with your memories. If festivals to you are defined as rural with a camping counterpart, I’ve heard there is a campground for sale in Indiana. But this reboot is pretty alright. It’s going to grow, and new people will be able to come and share it. It will be the same, and yet it will continue to change. As a member of the old guard, we can maintain that tenure by showing them what it can be, keep on waving, buy the newbies a beer, call out any shenanigans. Show them how to Beard.

I sat there Saturday night thinking about all of Friday’s preconceived complaints I thought this piece would be. With Ryan Bingham wrapping her up, I slung my camera bag and chair over a shoulder and made my way back to the garage. As I walked through the gate the strangest thing happened—there was a city, doing what cities do, with traffic and people and noises. Motorcycles obnoxiously revved their engines, people laughed as they walked through crosswalks, kids zipped down sidewalks on rental scooters. But for the entire day I had forgotten all about them, not a sight or sound from them even entered my mind. Two days earlier, I thought I had to find a field in the middle of nowhere to get that peace, but as it turns out, it is possible to carve a niche right out of the middle of the buildings and the movings about and the people. This festival is more than location, it’s bigger than a field in Friendship. The Whispering Beard is about community.