Soulful Solstice

Dedication and hard work keep the Laurel District Summer Solstice Music Festival alive for its fifth year.

Saturday’s Laurel District Summer Solstice Music Festival isn’t just a neighborhood music festival — it’s a lesson in what can be accomplished with few resources and a lot of goodwill. In the face of the recession and flagging enthusiasm, the festival, which had become an institution in the neighborhood over four years, was all but abandoned. The Laurel Village Association, which raised funds for the past festivals, dropped out because of economic constraints. Among local residents, “the energy wasn’t there this year — because of the economy, because people are more stressed out,” said Rochelle Wald, one of the festival’s organizers. But a group of friends and neighbors decided to pull it together anyway, with a tiny group of volunteers and a budget of next to nothing. “We’re doing it on our own,” she said.

The result is a smaller, quieter, decidedly pared-down festival that will lack some of the bells and whistles, but none of the spirit, of previous years. Instead of a months-long planning process, organizers had a few weeks. Rather than 65 musical acts, there will be twenty this year. The organizers didn’t obtain permits to close the streets, so performances will be held in parking lots and driveways. And they can’t afford to advertise, so news of the festival’s very existence is being spread by word of mouth. “It’s very grassroots,” Wald said.

But, she said, the ethos of the festival — getting folks out of their homes, enjoying music, celebrating the solstice — hasn’t changed. It’s modeled after Paris’ Fete de la Musique — which draws hundreds of thousands to the city’s streets annually — and mirrors similar solstice celebrations in cities worldwide. “The idea is just to encourage people — all kinds of people, no matter what their age or experience — to come out and play music in the streets and celebrate the beginning of summer,” Wald said. Last year’s festival featured musicians from every genre imaginable, including self-described “cyber-jazz” outfit Gemini Soul, thrash-rockers Deadringer, and New Queen’s Ha’Penny Consort, which plays 16th-century recorder music. This year’s performers promise to be no less eclectic: According to Wald, they’ve booked Beltaine’s Fire, a Celtic-hip-hop fusion outfit, and Trivalve, which plays a hybrid of surf-rock and jazz.

The whole thing, Wald said, “is very celebratory.” It’s also one of the biggest annual events in an Oakland neighborhood that’s often overlooked. “It’s referred to as kind of a corridor — people pass through,” Wald said. “But there’s been development and redevelopment here,” and the festival is a celebration of the neighborhood as well as of the solstice. Many of the musicians are local to the Laurel District — “this is people playing music on the blocks right where they live,” Wald said — and business owners and residents have welcomed the festival with open arms. “There’s so much energy coming from everyone.” On Saturday, June 19, along MacArthur Blvd. between 35th Ave. and High St., Oakland. 1-7 p.m., free.


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