Turning your front porch into a music venue isn’t difficult. You need a visible perch for the musicians, a yard (preferably a comfortable lawn) for the audience, an extension cord for amps and mics, and a trash can and recycling bin. Beverages (alcoholic or otherwise) are welcome but optional. Ditto food.
The only difficult aspects of this Lawn-a-palooza are booking the musicians and making sure there are enough toilets. That’s where Scott Doyon comes in.
A resident of Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood for 20 years, he founded Oakhurst Porchfest in 2015 as a weekend afternoon when local stoops can become music stages and neighbors can walk around, listen to music, and sip a beer.
Porchfest returns Saturday, October 8, from noon to 6 p.m., with Doyon again matching people who’ve volunteered their porches with musicians who’ve volunteered their talent and time. And with an assist from the Decatur Arts Alliance, he’ll again make sure there are portable toilets at several pedestrian junctions, so porch hosts don’t need to let strangers into their homes. Scheduling and bathrooms, he says, are the organizational minimum. All other aspects of planning the event are up to the neighbors.
“You’re the manager of the patch of land in front of your house,” he says. “There’s not a team of volunteers that arrives to make it happen. You’re the festival organizer.”
Doyon got the idea for Porchfest in 2006 from a friend who’d started a similar event in Ithaca, New York. He thought it’d be perfect for Oakhurst, but the opportunity didn’t arise until 2015, when construction at Oakhurst’s Harmony Park forced the cancellation of the neighborhood’s annual arts festival.
“The Arts Alliance reached out to the community and asked if anyone had an arts-related project to support,” he says. “The goal was 30 porches because Ithaca had 25 the first year. I thought if we could beat that by five, we can call it a good year.”
As it turned out, Oakhurst had a somewhat better than good inaugural year, with more than 130 households, including mine, hosting musical acts on a Sunday last October. As showtime approached, about 30 people—many with blankets and coolers—landed on my lawn to see Dyla and Jan, an acoustic duo in their first public performance. I thought they were great and so did the people on my lawn, judging from the fact that they could have gotten up and gone to any of three dozen other gigs happening nearby.
Prior to our hosting slot, I was in the audience for four other Porchfest shows. The event felt nothing like any music festival I’ve ever attended—more like a series of friendly backyard cookouts, if you replaced backyards with front yards and meat smoke with music. Other than the little boy I found in my daughter’s bedroom, playing with her doll house, everyone appeared to be well behaved. (And in the boy’s defense, our front door was open and the doll house is epic.)
My unscientific survey uncovered similarly happy experiences. Oakhurst resident Meg Watson said her only worry after signing up as a Porchfest host last year was that no one would show up. Soon after the early afternoon start time, however, her yard was full of neighbors and near-neighbors who’d come to watch the local band Oryx & Crake. Watson and her husband, Graham Kirkland, had no refreshments to offer, but someone from Avondale’s Wild Heaven brewery—fans of the band—showed up with a wagon of beer to share.
Ryan Peoples, the band’s singer, says the downside of playing Porchfest, or any unconventional venue, is sound quality. They wanted to be loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to be inconsiderate to nearby residents. The upside is the spontaneity. Young children of two of the band members stood on the porch/stage with them during their set and played drums. “It’s magical when that stuff happens,” he says.
Doyon was in the audience for the Oryx & Crake show. I recall seeing him there with a look I can only describe as “blissed out.” I asked him recently how he felt at that moment.
“We dangled this in front of the neighborhood and said, ‘Make it great.’” he says. “Everyone around me made it happen. I wasn’t feeling kick-ass about creating something. I was elated about what other people had created.”
This article originally appeared in our October 2016 issue.