SolarFest returns to farming roots
Annual festival joins Earth Sky Time's roster of cultural events
MANCHESTER — Rounding the main building at Earth Sky Time Community Farm on a Sunday evening, across from the rows of lettuce, visitors may notice growing volumes of staggering saxophone riffs and syncopated drums as they inhale the aroma of freshly baked bread.
After almost a decade of hosting community meal nights, live music and an annual festival at their organic farm on Route 7A in Manchester Village, Earth Sky Time is welcoming SolarFest to its 2019 schedule of cultural happenings. The festival is returning back to its farm roots for its 24th year of education, art, and music.
Earth Sky Time, which was previously a food vendor for the festival when it was held at Forget Me Not farm in Middletown Springs, is extending its Sunday music series for the single-day festival on July 21. Educational workshops and seminars about renewable energy and transportation, green buildings, music and arts, farming and food, and sustainable living and activism will take place throughout the day as well.
In the summer, there's music at the barn every other Sunday. And since the multi-purpose barn was built on the property about five years ago, traveling musicians and bigger acts have taken the stage performing for hundreds of guests. Visiting performers have come from as far away as Haiti and Zimbabwe to entertain listeners with rhythms and melodies from around the globe.
"For us, it's not that big of a step up from what we're already doing in terms of the Sunday music. We're just starting the music earlier," said Earth Sky Time co-owner Oliver Levis, who also curates the performance schedule. "But hopefully SolarFest will create a draw that will bring more people, so we're able to spend more money on musicians.
"Partnering with the workshops and the advocacy and all the cool things that are happening through the other part of the event is a
bonus," he said.
Attendance for SolarFest has varied recently as the festival has moved locations. After the festival's long residency in Middletown Springs, it was held at Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester in 2016, and at Stratton Mountain Resort in 2018. (The festival wasn't staged in 2017.) It's drawn anywhere from 500 to 5,000 folks, including years in which it was a multi-day festival, according to Levis.
Musical acts to be featured at this year's SolarFest include artists from Vermont and around the world. The Gaslight Tinkers, Freddi Shehadi and friends, and Mowgli's Bluegrass Trio, all from Vermont, will be joined by the Chicago Afro Beat Project and Rio Mira, featuring the African-influenced music of coastal Ecuador and Colombia.
"Expect to feel as much as you hear," said Shehadi, who splits his time between Pawlet and New York. "I love playing for large groups and I love [SolarFests'] mission."
Shehadi performed at SolarFest at SVAC in 2016, when he was joined on stage by Trey Anastasio Band members Tony Markellis and Russ Lawton.
A winner of Emmy and Mobius awards as a guitarist, composer and producer, Shehadi will perform songs off his soon-to-be-released second studio album. It's being recorded in New York City, in Pawlet, and in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., and features local musicians Tom Major on drums and percussion, Sam Clement on guitar, Matt Scott on bass and Adam Turner on percussion.
Shehadi will also lead a seminar about the guitar and songwriting at SolarFest.
"I go deep into music, especially as it applies to the guitar," Shehadi said of the seminar. "I explore many rich and intricate ideas of harmony, theory and technique. It's endless. Also with the mission of creating music and performance that maintains a natural musical feel and
expression. Even if a piece is quite intricate and demanding, it shouldn't necessarily sound intricate and demanding — the idea being that one can distill these things down to very accessible and listenable passages and songs."
Shehadi will speak about his career and how he derives ideas from his influences, from Bach to the Beatles and anything in between.
SolarFest has traditionally offered a wide diversity of perspectives, topics, musical genres, and art. This year's lineup offers a balance of local and international music.
Before hosting larger Sunday concerts, the farm started with entertainment on Wednesdays off-site. For seven years the Wilburton Inn, where Oliver Levis's sisters Melissa and Tajlei Levis are innkeepers, has been home to Earth Sky Time's farm night dinners, accompanied by laid-back musical acts.
"[Wednesday farm dinners] is part of the story really," said Oliver Levis, who co-owns the farm with his wife, Bonnie Levis. "That's where it started. The idea of combining the food and music and it evolved into doing it on the weekends."
At past festivals, music and art workshops explored improvisation, landscape painting, songwriting, standing in balance, theater as a vehicle for social change, and world percussion. This year, guests can expect about 25 workshops covering topics ranging from discussions on energy storage to making a 1850's farmhouse net-zero, as well as a talk about the transformation of climate change as an environmental issue to a human rights issue by keynote speaker Edward Cameron, who helped draft the Paris Climate Accord. Workshops run between 60 and 90 minutes.
The festival begins at 10 a.m. with activities for the entire family. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door and free for children under 12.
"This year we put the fest back in SolarFest. We're bringing back the mission. It's always been renewable energy education through the arts," SolarFest treasurer Mike Bailey said. "There are festivals and there are energy days, but we're creating a community where solar power consultant John Blittersdorf can talk to a young business owner trying to figure out how to make their bakery more sustainable. It's breaking the bubble and breaking down the silos so everyone has a great time."
Earth Sky Time is at 1547 Main St. in Manchester Center. Visit solarfest.org for more information about the event.
Makayla-Courtney McGeeney is a freelance writer based in North Adams, Mass.
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