There were grunge rockers and bluegrass fiddlers, jazz cats and folksters.
But for the crowds in West Philadelphia on Saturday for the annual D.I.Y. music festival known as “PorchFest,” the biggest attraction may have been that there were crowds at all.
With social distancing and mask mandates falling away as vaccination rates rise, this year’s “PorchFest” had the feel of a trial run for what may soon again be normal life as the pandemic loosens its grip. It’s the first since 2019 after last year’s was canceled due to the coronavirus.
Spectators clustered together in streets closed to traffic watching acts perform on rowhouse porches, while people walked the shady streets in groups from one mini-concert to the next.
“It really feels like a coming-out party,” said Amilcar Cipriano, 28, an engineer, who came to the event with his wife and young daughter. “It’s really nice to be able to be around people.”
The organizers of PorchFest started the festival in 2016 after looking around one summer and seeing music being played all season long on West Philadelphia’s porches.
They called on their musician neighbors to come out and perform on the same day, the first Saturday in June, to give music lovers a chance to enjoy the area’s talents all at one time.
The event started in 2016 with a few dozen acts spread across 40 porches and has steadily grown.
But after last year’s cancellation, organizers were unsure how to proceed. They debated whether to have an event this year, speculating that many participants might still be fearful of close interaction.
What they got instead was the biggest PorchFest ever: more than 260 performers playing over six hours on more than 135 porches.
While centered in the neighborhood of Cedar Park, there were performances spanning from Kingsessing and Woodland Avenues north to Chestnut Street, between 40th and 53rd Street.
“It was a really massive success,” Joe DeVitis, one of the festival’s organizers, said late in the event. “The community is still here and we can engage with each other safely.”
Joy Ike, who played a keyboard and sang catchy but soulful ballads to at least 100 onlookers gathered on the 4500 block of Osage Avenue, said she had hoped her music would bring people together after more than a year of enforced distance.
“It’s an opportunity to push back against that invisible wall of fear that can sometimes keep us trapped,” said Ike, 37, who is a full-time musician and lives in Germantown.
One block north, on Pine Street, Brady Santoro, a 16-year-old high school student at Masterman, strummed a guitar on his family’s porch, while singing folk ditties about doomed seamen and flowing wine.
He called the event “the first fun day we’ve had in a year.”
Jessica Marcus, cellist in a band called Taupe that plays acoustic covers of 1970s and 1980s “yacht rock” tunes — think Christopher Cross or Steely Dan — said she hoped her performance on the 4700 block of Baltimore Avenue would remind onlookers of how they once enjoyed themselves pre-pandemic.
“Independent of how great it is to play PorchFest every time, there’s also this aspect that any return to normalcy feels really nice,” said Marcus, 44, who manages the University of Pennsylvania’s cognitive science program when she’s not performing with Taupe, whose other members include a harpist and an Irish bouzouki player.
Still, the pandemic was not completely absent from people’s thoughts at PorchFest.
A sign at a house on the 4600 block of Hazel Street, where a Jazz fusion trio led by multi-instrumentalist Gabe Preston was playing, suggested that audience members stay masked or maintain a distance from one another, since not everyone is vaccinated.
“I’m still keeping my space,” said M.J., 50, a guitarist with the funk group Badd Kitti who stood by himself watching Preston’s band. “I’m still getting used to it.”
Most, however, seemed ready to behave as though the pandemic were already a memory — at least outside, where the virus’ spread is thought to be relatively unlikely.
Mary Cerulli, a 27-year-old social worker who was catching up with friends as Preston’s trio played, said she wasn’t worried.
“I know everyone sees it differently, but I feel great,” Cerulli said. “It feels really exciting and positive to see people out.”