On Sunday, the Nolan Park area of Governor’s Island was absolutely packed with picnic blankets, happy toddlers, and mandolins. The 21 historic, sun-yellow houses that circle Nolan’s perimeter were once home to military officers, back when the island was in use by the Coast Guard; now that it’s open to the public, there are cultural and art exhibits set up in many of them. And every year during the Porch Stomp folk festival, their sprawling, white-columned, 19th-century porches transform into stages.
Theo Boguszewski, who alongside Nick Horner is one of the festival’s co-producers, noted that Noland Park is the perfect location for an all-acoustic day of programming. “There’s not a lot of electricity, and [the houses] are all close together,” she said—everything can be kept near, communal, on the grass, and no one need compete loudly with anyone else.
It’s also not trivial that the houses face each other in a circle; in fact, it’s become part of the fabric of the festival. “We don’t post exact locations of the artists until the day of. We want to encourage people to just walk around the periphery,” Boguszewski said. The Porch Stomp vibe is too laid-back for tiered staging; it’s highly democratic in this way. If you take a few minutes and stroll from house to house, you’ll get a sampling of everything on offer.
This year, those offerings included scene staples like Sheriff Bob, and up-and-comers like The Racket River Girls and Glaser Drive. “The goal is to make music a shared, participatory thing,” Boguszewski said. “Not just a couple of really good musicians, but all the people with a banjo sitting in their trunk.”
She and Horner accepted almost everyone who applied to play in the lineup this year, as part of this egalitarian mission statement. Last year, there were around 120 performers in Porch Stomp’s lineup; this year, the number was closer to 200. As a result of the overwhelming response, they ended up needing to expand out past Noland’s porches for the first time. They set up pseudo-stages in nearby spots, including at the Manhattan and Brooklyn ferry landings (these caught some of the best foot traffic, by the way: packs of people entering the island stopped here, first). The resulting feel was that of an integrated folk bubble. A car-free, acoustic oasis in the East River.
Growth has meant other changes this year, too: Porch Stomp was sponsored for the first time, not just run on donations. And being “as inclusive as possible” also meant expanding the genre limits a bit. “Folk” has traditionally, for Porch Stomp, meant bluegrass and Americana sounds. But on Sunday, they devoted a stage to Irish folk tunes, and another to trad jazz—these genres have overlapping histories, and spiritual kinships, with American folk, but were integrated into the Porch Stomp lineup for the first time. There were workshops offered to audience members in harmonica, bluegrass harmony singing, and flatfooting, a form of Appalachian clog dancing not far removed from Irish step. And in the middle of the day, Bethlehem and Sad Patrick brought their unique blend of guitar, soulful vocals, and body percussion to one of the house exteriors. Their genre hybridization felt indicative of the festival’s larger growth this year, and also happened to put the “stomp” in Porch Stomp.