Fifteen years ago, when my buddy Jay Barron and I were juniors at Father Judge High School, we would attend the weekly Pennypack Park Music Festival concerts on Wednesdays in summer, mostly for the chance to score beer.
We’d meet up beforehand with friends who had fake IDs, or could grow manly-looking beards, and we’d pool our money so they could buy us cans of Milwaukee’s Best. Then we’d later rendezvous at a hidden, agreed-upon spot to stash the six-packs.
After that, we were good to go. We’d find a place to plop in the natural, grassy amphitheater, among hoards of concertgoers of all ages who were seated in sagging beach chairs, or sprawled across Ninja Turtle-patterned blankets. There would be tons of parents with kids in tow. Old-timers nodding off to the free music. And there were, of course, me and Jay and our friends, testing the limits of independence.
Once I headed to college, though, the festival — like so many touchstones of my youth — became a tiny dot in the rearview mirror of adulthood.
Last month, for the first time in 15 years, I returned to the festival. I’m 32 now, and I wanted to see how it had fared while my friends and I were off becoming grown-ups. Jay, 31, met me there, and we took our place in the grass.
Back then, our concert uniform consisted of white sneakers and colored undershirts that matched the logo on our Ralph Lauren tennis shirts. This time, we both wore bland-colored T-shirts and thong sandals; the latter slips off easily, ideal for stretching out in the grass. And we can now buy our own beer.
Over the years, we’ve both changed. I’m a journalist and Jay is in real estate. The festival, though? As I leaned back and took it all in, I found that it was reliably the same: Still a safe space for young parents to bring toddlers. For teens to flirt with adulthood. For the over-50 crowd to sing the songs they’d learned when they’d been as young as the teens here tonight.
To a thirtysomething like me, navigating the unpredictable worries and challenges of adulthood, the sameness was a surprising comfort.
At tonight’s show — a performance from a David Bowie tribute band called Starman — the place even breathed the same: inhaling the hot air from the crowd singing in unison, and exhaling when Starman wraps up its rendition of Man Who Sold The World:
For years and years I roamed
I gazed a gazely stare
At all the millions here
We must have died alone
A long, long time ago
As I “gazely” stared around the amphitheater, I felt an adult’s appreciation for the “bring-a-lawn-chair” festival that was born in the mid-'70s, the brainchild of longtime Rhawnhurst resident Ed Kelly, who died in 2012 and for whom the amphitheater is named.
For years, the man nicknamed “Mr. Northeast” had observed how the ground naturally sloped into a corner of Pennypack Park; he thought it would make for a great concert venue. It took a few years, but Kelly — a former executive director of the Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce — recruited enough volunteers and sponsors to bring a festival to fruition.
When the first concert was staged in 1977, the concept was a hit: For 11 weeks every summer, the festival offered jazz bands, big bands and string bands. The festival thrived through the ’70s and ’80s, but ground to a halt in the early ’90s, a victim of changing musical tastes. Kelly resurrected it in the early 2000s by booking only local tribute bands. The nostalgia concept appealed to wider audiences, and the festival now draws thousands every summer on Wednesday nights, from 7 to 9:30 p.m.
In the weeks since the concert, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of home. As I look to buy my own house and set down more sturdy roots, I’ve been waffling between investing in rougher, less expensive areas or spending more money on a smaller house in close proximity to grocery stores.
It occurs to me that what I’m really looking for is what I found last month at the festival.
The places of our childhood exist mostly in memory. But then there are places like Pennypack, where you can literally walk around in a space stuck in time, where the stresses of the present can’t follow you into a past that’s celebrated when a tribute band plays songs from your youth.
Tina McMahon, 60, knows what I’m talking about. She rode to the festival with her pal Keith Null on bicycles dotted with Grateful Dead stickers, then slipped out of her satin jacket (with “Bowie” emblazoned on the back) to reveal a black tank top (with “Rebel Music” emblazoned on the front). She’s been coming to the festival every summer for as long as she can remember.
She pointing out people seated on the grass.
“I went to grade school with him," she said. Then, “I work with her.” And then, “The guy over here in the chair by the speaker, I actually met him here about five years ago. I came by myself and he was by himself so I went and sat with him.”
McMahon, of Mayfair, poured a mysterious, red-tinted liquid from a one-gallon water cooler into clear party cups.
"I call it Mayfair juice," she said with a wink.
Technically, you’re not allowed to imbibe at the festival, as longtime festival coordinator Steve Hartzell reminded us from the stage.
“I have to remind you,” he announced over the loudspeaker, “no alcoholic beverages are permitted in Fairmount Park. However, Pennypack souvenir cups are available for $2 to help you with this issue.”
Apparently, even at 32, I’ll still have to sneak in beer. See? Some things never change.