A month after the most recent coronavirus surge and more than a year since COVID-19 silenced concerts worldwide, the Richmond Folk Festival is back.
Since 2005 — excluding 2020, when there was a virtual version — the three-day event has taken over the Richmond riverfront. There’s been jazz. Reggae. Gospel. Bluegrass. Soul.
But never quite like this.
Ponchos, multicolored umbrellas and weatherproof boots were ever-present on Saturday, as they usually are during the often-rainy celebration. This time, so were noticeable reminders of COVID-19 protocols.
Volunteers — who were required to be vaccinated — and vendors were masked and handing out face coverings to those who asked for them. Performers would remind the audience to wear masks, and signs planted throughout urged: “Be a good neighbor. Wear a mask. Maintain social distance. Clean your hands. Be vaccinated.”
Test Here, a medical laboratory in partnership with the Virginia Department of Health, had a mobile truck at the entrance near the Altria Stage off Second Street for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.
Past the crafts marketplace and over the bridge into Brown’s Island, Pierre Ramos recounted the history of bomba y plena to hundreds of masked festivalgoers. The distinct thwack thwack thwack of drums is rooted in Black Puerto Rican culture, he said, and bomba emerged as a way for enslaved Africans in Puerto Rico to communicate.
Ramos founded the band Plena Es and, on Saturday afternoon, he swung his hips from side to side as his bandmates played and the crowd cheered.
This is what Debbie Hanks drove from Petersburg and braved the downpour for: a chance to break the repetitive pandemic cycle of only going to work and then back home.
“I’m a concert person and I haven’t been to a concert in two years!” Hanks said through her teal mask. “Being out and seeing people is just wonderful.”
Within a few hours, Hanks would be preparing for a night shift at the hospital — but not before hitting all five stages of the festival.
The pandemic scattered the herd that pre-COVID was known for swelling into the hundreds of thousands, but the festival was far from empty even with the persistent rain.
Simone Peña, who recently moved to Chesterfield County from Chicago, said it rains a little harder in the Windy City, so the weather wasn’t going to slow them down. Her daughter, Ileana, was prepared to scope out the dozens of food stands.
Unlike her mom, she’s not a picky eater, she joked.
Between just the CoStar Group Stage and Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion — the two performance tents on Brown’s Island — there was smoked barbecue and Texas-style brisket, funnel cakes and corn dogs, and West African cuisine from Chef MaMusu’s Africanne on Main.
At Croaker’s Spot — whose tagline is “The Soul of Seafood” — the smells of cornbread and mac ’n’ cheese filled the air as workers swayed to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”
Across the bridge, where the sounds of squishing soles were sometimes louder than the music, there were smoked turkey legs, the classic soft-serve ice cream, and jerk chicken and plantains from Jem’s Caribbean Cuisine.
By 2:30 p.m., Jillian Newby, 12, had gotten what she came for: a fried oyster po’boy. Next was walking toward the live music that her dad, John, talked about when persuading Jillian to go on Saturday.
He nodded proudly beside her. It was their first concert together since the pandemic began.
The opening guitar chords of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” could be heard behind them, as The Brotherhood Singers — an a cappella gospel quartet hailing from Kentucky — gripped the mics.
“Looks like nothing’s going to change,” they crooned. “Everything still remains the same.”