At summer festivals, celebrate music as art

John “J.T.” Thompson performs with The Triple A Blues Band during the 2016 Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts.
John “J.T.” Thompson performs with The Triple A Blues Band during the 2016 Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. Centre Daily Times, file

July is a special time in central Pennsylvania, and especially so in the State College area. It’s Arts Fest time, and you can feel the energy soaring throughout the community.

Whether you are into the visual arts, jewelry, food, recycling or music, the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts has it all. All you need is to carve out little time, find someplace to park — which is always a challenge — and hit the streets of State College. In a few blocks you are bound to find something that piques your interest, even if that just means you get lost in a dazzling conversation with one of the artists.

Chief among the many attractions are the musical performances. Arts Fest really delivers, especially on the local scene. When I first starting flirting with the idea of moving to State College, I remember walking around during Arts Fest and thinking how awesome a place it would be to live. I stood there one early evening while Kate Twoey, Natalie Race and Molly Countermine of Pure Cane Sugar were singing their hearts out on the Allen Street stage. Their harmonies were sublime, the band just crushed and I thought, “There’s really nothing sweeter than standing here on Allen Street listening to this awesome band on this hot July day in the midst of thousands of people who are here to celebrate the arts.”

Most of the performances are free to festival-goers, meaning most performances are free to anyone who decides to walk the streets of downtown State College during the festival, which features various outdoor stages and indoor performances at places such as The State Theatre and the State College Presbyterian Church.

“Music is art,” said Brian Cleary, of The Tommy Roberts and Strayer and the Dogs. “It would be incomplete if you didn’t have it. Plus, the music of State College is so important to what Arts Fest is all about. You can hear the personality of this area in the local music.”

Local performers such as Pure Cane Sugar, Miss Melanie and the Valley Rats and Natascha and the Spy Boys are highlights of the festival, and they are joined by performers who tour regionally, nationally and even internationally. Multiple genres are covered by way of the seemingly innumerable musical performances schedule throughout the week, including jazz, rock, blues, bluegrass, folk, vocal and many more. On Saturday alone there are 22 musical performers scheduled to play from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. 

For the performers, it’s a really special event, with thousands of ears for listenin’ and thousands of eyes for watchin’.  

“It’s definitely one of the biggest highlights on our musical calendar each year,” said Spy Boys lead singer Natascha Hoffmeyer. “We get to play for a large, enthusiastic crowd of locals and out-of-town visitors, and the atmosphere is always fantastic.”

The way pianist John Thompson sees it, the music is simply one thread of the fabric that weaves together the tapestry of art throughout the week.

“Music is art created by musicians, and just like visual art,” Thompson said. “Painting, pottery, sculpture — there are many varieties of aural art. So I see music as an integral part of Arts Fest.”

It’s a great time of year in central Pennsylvania, and, even if you simply go to downtown State College to walk around a bit and eat as much festy bratwurst as you can handle, it’s definitely a time to celebrate an enjoy our region. This is it. The time is now.

Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail.com.