Surely there are few small towns in America where a pirate can walk his dog along the main drag on a Saturday night and earn greetings rather than questions from the police—or at least local rumors regarding his sanity. Beaufort, North Carolina, a coastal community of less than 5,000 people that sits at this state's heel between Morehead City and Cape Lookout, is apparently one of them.
Each August, the town, just a dozen years from its 300th birthday, honors its historic ties to piracy with a full-blown mock pirate invasion. And for the last 22 years, the town's hosted a small but strong music festival that's as idyllic as you could imagine.
Flanked on one side by the boardwalk along the Taylor Creek's boat-filled docks and on the other by the quaint shops along Front Street, a 40-yard-long municipal parking lot was again transformed into the site of Beaufort's festival last weekend. The crowd—mostly locals, with smatterings of tourists and die-hard fans of each act—was largely hemmed in by a makeshift beer garden (a first in the festival's two-plus decades) and a few sets of metal bleachers. Bands used a nearby beauty salon as a green room, and a man dressed as a pirate handed The Rosebuds frontman Ivan Howard a boating brochure mid-song. Cute, and perfect.
Following a three-act Friday night headlined by Asheville bluegrass unit Steep Canyon Rangers, Saturday's eight-hour slate of performers was chock-full of talent imported from the Triangle. The festival's best offering in recent memory, half of the eight bands—The Rosebuds, American Aquarium, Atomic Rhythm All-Stars and Crucial Fiya—came from Raleigh, with acoustic duo Mandolin Orange traveling from Carrboro. Rounded out by Greensboro's Holy Ghost Tent Revival, Wilmington's Noseriders and Knoxville's Christabel and the Jons, the event largely eschewed straight rock 'n' roll in favor of a smorgasbord of genre-crossing acts. From big band, swing and folk to surf, reggae and indie pop—unlike many of its roots-bound, quaint counterparts in the Western reaches of the state, Beaufort Music Festival reflected the vibrancy and energy of North Carolina's modern music whole by offering small samples of bigger scenes. This is the most the festival has ever drawn from the Triangle, especially for its headliners, and the plan worked.
While Beaufort's long drawn tourists due with its tranquil charm, the timing of the music festival avoids the peak season for outsiders. Even during tourist season, the seaside community—three hours from the Triangle and two hours from both Wilmington and Greenville—is rarely a stop for any but the smallest of touring bands. Thus, the festival is a yearly highlight for music-starved locals who rapturously devour each act, even if they are entirely unfamiliar with each one.
Unlike some city-run festivals that are often an excuse to trash the grounds while getting trashed, attendees in Beaufort had a mutual respect for the space, the performers and one another. Despite the fact that police were seemingly turning a blind eye toward open containers, boorish behavior was at a minimum and appreciation for bands was high.
By late afternoon, the crowd had swollen, attendees dotting the docks and the decks of nearby sailboats. Authorities shut down a block of an adjacent road, allowing festival goers to safely spill into that street. Dual stages—one at each end of the lot—maximized set times, keeping transitions so brief that the music was nearly continuous. Thanks to dozens of corporate and private donors, admission was free. Vendors were nonexistent. Even that which can't be planned seemed to welcome the town's guests warmly: A moderate sea breeze graced the mild, sunny day.
Indeed, maybe the day even began a tad politely. American Aquarium was originally scheduled to perform just before The Rosebuds. In the day's opening slot, though, they had a bit of trouble rousing the kind but reserved crowd through bar rock. With white hair as common among the then-200 people present as any other shade, the scene stood in stark contrast to the sextet's rowdy CD release show at The Pour House just a week earlier. Rather than the throng that shouted along to every word of BJ Barham's howled disdain during an encore of "I Hope He Breaks Your Heart,"—"And I hope you cry all night/ And I hope you feel the way I do now"—a few folks softly mouthed the words while sipping beer. The strongest reaction, in fact, came from a toddler. Perhaps in anticipation of being scorned in the same way as Barham, the young boy teetered to the front of the stage and hugged a speaker. Still, at least a dozen new converts flocked to the band when American Aquarium wrapped its family-friendly, bowdlerized set just before 1 p.m., buying albums and asking for autographs. The band obliged, packed its white van and booked it across the state for a sold-out gig in Charlotte.
Mandolin Orange's sweet co-ed harmonies and gentle folk duets fared better with the mixed crowd, a few of whom were familiar enough with the band's repertoire to make requests. Fiddler Emily Frantz sounded completely genuine when she called it the most beautiful festival the young couple has played. Most of the performers later echoed that sentiment.
Really, if microphones had been given to the ranks of the steadily growing crowd, they likely would have said so, too. The familiarity and congeniality among the locals was like a late-spring friend reunion where nothing felt out of place—not even the stranger's dog curling beneath everyone's feet.
With vocalist and Beaufort native Laura Windley, Raleigh's Atomic Rhythm All-Stars engaged both young dancers and idle gray hairs with its blend of wartime jazz sounds. The sound worked particularly well set in the historic area of downtown Beaufort, where classic cars cruise on Front Street behind horse-drawn carriages and hometown businesses still rule.
But this wasn't some blind nostalgia trip, either. After playing a packed show just two nights before at Tir Na Nog in Raleigh, The Rosebuds closed out the night in Beaufort in front of a crowd accustomed mostly to thinking of the word "merge" as a traffic signal. Where the Raleigh crowd needed no primer to the band's four-album catalog, The Rosebuds connected with Saturday's audience by briefing them before each participatory number. Sure, the crowd didn't quite master the timing of the call-and-response chorus of "Shake Our Tree" or keep up with the steps to the "Bow to the Middle" dance. But Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp's humorous demonstrations won over the pack of schoolchildren crowding the stage and the several hundred kids and adults behind them.
By the time the tunes died down just past 10 p.m., it was beginning to push bedtime for the throng of youngsters dancing in the front row. The refrain of "Nice Fox," one imagined, scored their dreams.
One day and two nights of free music in a picturesque setting among a few hundred friendly folks—the Beaufort Music Festival is one of the state's best-kept secrets. The trouble with great secrets, though, is that talking about them threatens to ruin them. But in Beaufort, despite a tradition of more than two decades, the festival still maintains a relatively humble size. Maybe the pirates scared everyone, anyway.