The best kind of Kerrville rain is the sudden storm that hits in late afternoon, just when you're at the point of deciding that this is the hottest day you've seen in all the sizzling summers of your lifetime; that you're going to die of heat prostration and will never hear Gary P. Nunn sing "London Homesick Blues" again. Then a cloud blows up from somewhere, bringing cool air and blessed moisture. It settles the dust in the campground, charges your mind and body with new life, and moves on before the evening show begins.
Lovely, too, are the showers that fall in early morning, after most of the campfires have played themselves out. If they're timed right, such rains can delay the full heat of day, giving campers an extra hour or two to catch up on sleep. This only works, of course, if your shelter is reasonably waterproof. But even if it turns out not to be, there's joy in a rain-washed spring morning. When the sun comes out and dries your gear, the discomforts of the past few hours will shimmer like the memory of a great adventure.
When rain comes during a concert, the audience responds in a variety of ways. The serious music lovers down front break out ponchos and umbrellas, girding themselves against the elements without missing a beat or moving from their seats. Folks who sit back in the crowd, listening with one ear while they eat or visit with buddies, may run for camp to make sure everything is battened down. Craft dealers move merchandise to the driest parts of their tin-roofed booths and hang tarps to keep out blowing water. If there's any room left in a booth, shoppers will take refuge there, too.
Reactions among tourists (audience members who drive out just for the night or "camp" at hotels in town) vary with the circumstances. If the rain lasts more than a few minutes, a certain percentage will pack up and head for their cars. Others will stick it out, covering their heads with hats, blankets, trash bags, or whatever they can find, at least until their favorite artist has played.
Concerts are seldom canceled. Main Stage has a roof, and so does the Threadgill stage in the campground. The campground theater also has covered seating for a medium-sized crowd. Rod generally won't call off a show unless rain is blowing directly into the mikes and pickups, creating a real danger of electrocution. Or until the audience gets so thoroughly drenched and dispirited that he figures there's no point in going on. Sometimes, even then, he's wrong.
He shut it down early on the next-to-last night of the '89 Folk Festival, canceling Darden Smith's closing set. A lot of the crowd had left earlier in the evening when it was still raining drops. Now, it was coming down in sheets. The fans that remained didn't run for their cars and tents when Rod said, "Good night." They made for the Hospitality shed instead.
Hospitality was a bigger place in '89 than it is now. It was situated in the center of the theater behind the benches. The lights were still working, and the volunteers selling tapes and CDs weren't in a hurry to go anywhere. Darden Smith found a sizable crowd there, standing shoulder to shoulder under the tin roof. He climbed on a table and sang a song. The crowd cheered and clapped, so he did his whole set. Some said it was the best show they'd heard all night; maybe one of Darden's best ever.
People who are concerned with the festival's economic health pray that rain, if it must come, will arrive late in the weekend. There's a crowd psychology to these things. Most people, campers and tourists alike, will take a Sunday or Monday storm in good cheer if they've enjoyed two or three beautiful nights already. If they do decide to pack up and leave, they've already paid their money. If it rains on Friday afternoon, however, people tend to stay away in droves.
Most years, we have more dry days than wet ones. But dedicated Kerrverts don't remember it that way, because fair-weather moments tend to fade into the general ambiance. It's the storms that stand out in our minds.
At Crow's Nest on Sumac Ridge, songwriter Brian Cutean recalls a jam lit by something wilder than firelight. "It must have been '84 or '85. There was a big storm, lightning all over the ridgetop. We had a tarp over the music circle. A bunch of people were crowded under it," he says. "It got really scary. There was no time at all between the lightning and the thunder."
No one in the huddle knew quite what to do. Stay under a tarp on a ridge of high ground? Or run for more substantial shelter, exposing oneself en route to the full force of the elements? Every ten seconds or so, someone would make the decision to cut and run. "They went slipping and sliding down the hill, because it was so wet," said Brian. "Then someone said, 'If this is to be your last night on Earth, is there anywhere you'd rather be?'"
Songwriter Kristina Olsen started singing "Rock Island Line." Everyone joined in, singing faster and faster as the wind howled and rain pounded on the plastic canopy. When the storm passed, they were still there. "Nobody got hurt," says Brian, "except for those that slid down the hill."
Another memorable moment happened on Peter Yarrow's birthday. When he turned fifty in 1988, the festival honored him with a Tuesday barbecue and concert on Main Stage. Sometime before dark, I crossed paths with Peter near Slim Richey's record booth. We were in the middle of a birthday hug when he looked over my shoulder and said, "My God!" I let go and turned around to see what had startled him.
There, over Hawk Mountain, were some very odd cloud formations. They puffed down instead of up: oblong, curving shapes protruding from the light-gray layer that covered a third of the sky. Thrown into sharp relief by the setting sun, they seemed to grow longer as we watched, like the fingers of a colossal hand descending from on high.
"I have never seen a sky like that," declared Peter. Strong words, coming from a guy who'd just logged a half century on the planet.
Later that night, a small tornado hit the State Arts & Crafts Fair in Kerrville, taking down one of the big, striped show tents. No one was injured at the ranch, but we had an hour or so of torrential rain and one heck of a light show. And a few things went awry in the campground, of course. The barometric pressure dropped so fast that one heavily waterproofed, tightly-zipped dome tent exploded from within.
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