Saturday's Rose Arts Festival picks up where it left off

·5 min read

Jun. 23—In 2017, the city of Norwich — sparked by a large number of big-hearted donors and proud hometown activists/volunteers — resurrected the long dormant Rose Arts Festival. By 2019, in terms of free regional festivals, of which there is decidedly no shortage, Rose Arts had become a true frontrunner destination.

Then — say it all together! — COVID happened.

This Saturday, three years later, Rose Arts returns and, with all the fervor (but none of the false hype) of a P.T. Barnum, yes, it's bigger and better than ever. The dayside events in Chelsea Parade Park will segue into evening fun taking place throughout the historic downtown district. During the sunlight hours, activities and events include 5K and 10K road races, arts, crafts and merch booths, the Rose Bud Parade, exhibits and show openings, food trucks and vendors, carnival rides, country fair-style competitions and the Rose Court Pageant. Then, under the shelter of darkness, the options shift to shops, galleries, restaurants and breweries.

"It's wild to this weekend will mark three total years since we were last able to host this event," says Jason Wallace, live music director for Rose Arts and the owner of the city's popular Strange Brew Pub live music room. "Safe to say that everyone involved is excited to watch it unfold, and it will be great for everyone who chooses to join us. Music and art are wonderful things to witness bringing people together."

Wallace, whose Strange Brew Pub was closed 19 months during the height of the plague, says none of the Rose Arts team takes this opportunity for granted, and it's something they've cautiously hoped and planned for. Two years of the festival being postponed taught them the importance of flexibility.

"Last minute cancellations have always been part of hosting any events in my capacity, but that's certainly increased as safety precautions have heightened," he says.

Having operated under a green light for several months — fingers crossed throughout — and with the festival impending, Wallace says they're all hopeful for a strong local turnout as well as visitors who had started to hear about Rose Arts before COVID and were making the journey to be part of it.

"Not only is it great to know the local community has a fun summer event to look forward to and attend, but being able to put the area in a spotlight for those who will travel to enjoy the festival is something I think all the volunteers and the wonderful sponsors are proud of," Wallace says.

Musical juggler

In booking the acts for Rose Arts, Wallace relies on the same incredibly adventurous and open-minded formula he's used for years to fill the calendar at his Strange Brew — all informed by his own experiences as a musician and expansive affection for different musical genres.

On Saturday, 35 acts will perform on 12 stages, and the variety is incredibly representative of a world's worth of possibilities. Proper headliners are roots magicians Dust Bowl Revival and Houston's beat-happy purveyors of Gulf Coast R&B The Suffers. Other nationally touring acts include Bela's Bartok, the Amherst, Mass., band that might be what happened if Frank Zappa conducted a circus, and classically trained harpist/pop songwriter Mikaela Davis from Rochester, N.Y.

The remaining performers are from all over the region; some are more well known to local audiences than others, but Wallace is decidedly about quality, eclecticism and giving newer artists an opportunity to perform at the festival alongside veterans.

Emphasis on diversity

"Since this reformatted version of Rose Arts was introduced in 2017, I had one main point of interest as the volunteer live music director, and that's DIVERSITY," Wallace says. "To me, that means a focus not only on genres of music but the people that make up those acts — with the end goal being to put together the best possible lineup."

There are many considerations involved, not the least of which is budget. Nationally touring headliners cost money, and in conversation, Wallace continues to emphasize the generosity of the Rose Arts sponsors. In that capacity, he was able to secure acts like Dust Bowl Revival and The Suffers, then turn his attention to judiciously filling out the rest of the lineup.

That meant finding acts available for Saturday, providing the diversity he thinks audiences deserve while maintaining a cohesive energy and momentum. He's also conscious, he says, of "the wide-ranging age gap I expect to attend the Chelsea Parade daytime portion of the festival, so I like the acts presented on that main stage to have broad appeal and also a strong vocal presence to make it more palatable for everyone."

Of course, like most anything in the age of social media, the post-2017 version of Rose Arts has inspired some negative commentary from the ol' "it ain't as good as it used to be" contrarians.

Wallace says he and his fellow volunteers are not deterred or affected by such things.

"What else is there to do but roll up our sleeves and keep plugging away on putting on the best possible event and remind everyone it's a day to enjoy and come find your fun from so many incredible options — art, food, drinks, music, races and so much, much more," he says.