PorchFest is turning the Huntsville neighborhood into a hot local music festival
Jenny Askins had recently moved into a house with this large porch. Soon she couldn’t help but think how cool it would be to have live music there.
One weekend, Askins decided to give it a shot. She hired local acoustic rock duo Clint Kirkland and Brad Miller to play and invited friends to bring lawn chairs, hang out in the yard and listen to music outdoors.
“And it was so much fun,” Askins recalled. It’s actually his job to turn good ideas into good times. She is the founder of Touronimo, a company that designs and conducts tours and “experiences” exploring the culture of Huntsville.
Shortly after that first porch jam, Askins got up with his friend Judy Allison and told her about it. It turns out that Allison – a member of the Huntsville Music Board and organizer of SheWrites Songwriter Showcase – was already a fan of the concept. A few years ago, Allison performed at a porch “festival” in Franklin, Tennessee as a singer/songwriter. “‘And I loved, loved, loved,’ Allison says. ‘It was such a great community-building event.’
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Since then, Allison wanted to start something similar in Huntsville. And now with Askins, she had a conspirator. The two women co-founded PorchFest FivePoints, which debuted in 2021 with porch “stages” at five homes on Pratt Avenue in Five Points, the charming Huntsville neighborhood in which Askins resides.
PorchFest was an instant hit. Buzz spread about the new festival on social media, with around 1,500 fans turning up for the free festival. Just over a year into the pandemic, the small-scale outdoor PorchFest was a perfect fit for people who had lain down to get back to live music. “It was perfect timing,” Allison says. Askins adds, “Seeing everyone so excited to see each other, there were a lot of people who hadn’t seen each other for at least a year.”
It was also exciting for local musicians, a group devastated by the pandemic, to perform at the first PorchFest. Wanda Wesolowski, a gifted singer and songwriter, was among 13 artists on the lineup. At the time, Wesolowski — who goes by the mononym Wanda professionally, a la Cher or Slash — was also a resident of Five Points.
She decided to walk to the concert. “When I walked across Ward Avenue to Pratt,” Wesolowski says, “there were hundreds and hundreds of people. The sense of community I felt was unreal. PorchFest was great because it turned my neighborhood into a festival. During her PorchFest solo set, Wanda, who usually leads an electric trio, performed songs from her stellar 2020 album “One Hit,” including “Slaughter” and “Little Packages.”
This writer also attended the first PorchFest FivePoints. I was impressed with the turnout and sets from top local artists like Wanda and indie band Jayne and the Huntsmen. And it was a relief to see the crowd picking up after themselves and not turning into scum deeper into the night. The antithesis of one of those all-too-typical “That’s why you can’t have nice things” debacles.
PorchFest returns this Saturday, from 6-10 p.m. For the second edition, they increased the number of porch stages to eight and the number of artists to 34. The lineup, expertly curated by Allison, ranges from ambient rockers Silver Fern to conscious rappers The NEIGHBORS to pop-folk phenomenon Delaney Faulds. There’s even a Grammy winner in the mix, roots singer/songwriter Gary Nichols, formerly of The SteelDrivers. The festival is once again free. Porch Stage lodging houses include: 806, 1014, 1104, 1210, 1312., 1402, and 1420 Pratt Ave. NE and 210 Minor St. NE A Google map and artist schedule is available at purple19.com/porchfest-fivepoints-2022.
Silver Fern guitarist Steven Whaley says, “It’s really hard to underestimate the importance of events like these to a music scene. Huntsville has been moving at a faster pace lately, with outside investment and bigger music venues emerging. There’s certainly a feeling that live music in Huntsville is undergoing a transformation, but it’s unclear what these bigger changes will mean for local musicians like us. He adds, “I think people in Huntsville are gradually realizing how much musical diversity and talent there is here, but it takes events like (PorchFest) to really demonstrate that.”
Wesolowski hopes the energy of the event will spread, with attendees leaving inspired to play music themselves, book a show at home or otherwise get involved. “If we want Huntsville to be cool,” Wanda says, “we have to participate.”
Silver Fern’s hour-long set at 8 p.m. at “porch eight,” aka 1420 Pratt Ave. NE, will feature immersive songs from the band’s debut EP, including “Lantern,” and new tracks, like “Onlooker” and “Shape I Didn’t Do. In addition to Whaley, Silver Fern features vocalist Shannon Whaley (she and Steven are married), drummer Jacob Stewart and bassist Jonathan Shrout.
PorchFest attendees who reside at Five Points are encouraged to walk or bike to the event. For those coming from further afield, Uber is a good option. If you are going to drive, organizers encourage parking on the outskirts of the neighborhood and certainly not on Pratt Avenue. And be careful not to block walkways or intersections.
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Even in a mid-sized town like Huntsville, it’s hard for a new local music festival to connect let alone stay. Many, however well-meaning, are just X bands playing the Y outdoor venue with Z food trucks and W craft beer. You may see something quite similar next weekend or month next. The can’t-miss factor is low. PorchFest, on the other hand, has a compelling concept that sets it apart, but also feels very Huntsville, as Five Points is a classic neighborhood with lots of porches.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges, though. The city did not grant PorchFest a permit to close Pratt Avenue, a major thoroughfare to and from the mountain of Monte Sano. For the event’s 2021 debut, PortaPottys organizers rented didn’t show up, but luckily there were already some in the area since construction. This year, two PortaPottys will be installed at 1104 Pratt and two at 1402 Pratt.
PorchFest attendees can bring camping chairs and even coolers if they wish. However, revelers take note: Five Points is not one of Huntsville’s entertainment districts that allows walking around in public with open containers of booze in special purple cups. You can soak in the backyard of a PorchFest house during the event. But you can’t legally walk with an open container to the next house that’s hosting a performance. Garbage cans are installed in each reception house. And if you need ballast and/or fuel, there will be a few food trucks parked along the PorchFest route.
While Askins and Allison shoulder most of the burden of making PorchFest happen, they have some vital allies. These include approximately 12 volunteer days. And the eight owners who host the stage play a major role in the success of the event. Hosts decorate their porches, offer refreshments to performers, and open their homes to these musicians — not to mention welcoming crowds of strangers into their yards. “I think giving the hosts ownership (of their scenes) gave it more of that local feeling,” said co-founder Jenny Askins. “They went above and beyond last year in everything we asked them to do.”
Like many free events, PorchFest is made possible and the artists who perform there are paid thanks to sponsors, listed on the festival website. “We couldn’t do this without them,” Askins says. Fans can increase artists’ salaries by contributing tip jars at each porch scene or digitally. For the 2021 debut, merchandise sales from PorchFest also helped pay artists. Merchandise sales this year will help fund grants and scholarships for local music makers, organizers say, in memory of Allison’s daughter Zoe, who died of leukemia when she was only a child. only 11 months.
Askins and Allison first met in college. In recent years, they have reconnected after seeing each other at local concert venues like the Voodoo Lounge. They both grew up with music as a common thread in their lives. Allison is a fan of everything from Mozart to Judas Priest, and Askins’ listening tastes range from Prince to Van Halen.
In the years to come, Askins and Allison hope PorchFest can continue to grow and expand. The main reason they started it was to bring the community and musicians together in a fun and interesting way. And ultimately, says Allison, “I would love it to be the place where people come and find their next favorite band before they get big.”