Another springtime in Texas can only mean two things: Mother Nature continues to wrestle with multiple personality disorder, and I look forward to the one time of the year guaranteed to put a smile on my face: Scarborough Renaissance Festival. Prepare thyself for merriment!
And settle in for a really long blog post. Nature of the beast.
True to form, the weather bounced all around the warm and sun kind of thing the week before, then turned wet and nearly freezing on Saturday for opening day. I wasn’t there for that. Reports from those who were said the weather skipped over English and turned downright Scottish. Weather reports said it’d begin a bit chilly for Sunday and then warm up near 70. Then that changed to lower 60s. It didn’t even get quite that warm. It was cold, but we didn’t have biting winds, and it wasn’t wet. I’m calling that a win. Accordingly, I didn’t bother with the knightly raiment. And in a way, that sort of worked out. Opening weekend was billed as “Time Traveler’s Weekend,” so it was almost a license to wear modern clothes (though I’m sure it was more an acknowledgment of the steampunk set that’s been growing over the past years). So taking in the cold, I donned my leather jacket and my trusty Indiana Jones fedora and set off on my own kind of adventure… if you can call it that. I’m so not the adventurous type, except when it comes to exploring new music. And that, my friends, is what Scarborough was all about for this visit. Almost every performance I saw was musical, and even where the performer was familiar, the music was often new to me.
Here’s the thing about the cold and damp: it’s the absolute worst weather for both instruments and performers, not that hot and dry or hot and humid is much better. Outdoor weather just wreaks havoc on everything, and stringed instruments are going to take that hit even more than virtually anything else you can name, save for maybe vocals. So what am I there to hear? Stringed instruments, mostly. Being stressed and depressed most of the time, I find an otherworldly level of happiness in the sounds of a harp. And loving Early Music of all types, any chance I get to hear other instruments of the era, I’m taking full advantage of it. Even going to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra from time to time as I do, how often do I get to hear pipes? Or a viola da gamba? Or for that matter, acoustic guitar? All the concerts I go to (rock or pop concerts notwithstanding), I’ve heard one guitar set. Granted it was Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, so that bar always seems high. But the fact is I’m passionate about music, and there are some experiences that you just have to be there. By that, I mean you have to be present for it. Even if the phone comes out to snap a quick shot of the performers, it’s all about actively listening to the experience they offer. Live performance is something special that people take for granted, assuming they bother with it at all. Scarborough and other ren faires across the world take that to the next level where it’s not just about the music. I love that, and from time to time I take in some of the other performances or demonstrations to round out the experience. The variety at a faire is wide, after all. But I know my heart. My heart is with the music and with the musicians who create it. Were I rich enough to be their personal Medici, I’d proudly sponsor them all so they’d be free to create without limits. But alas, it was not meant to be.
I knew going in that this year would be different. Towards Austin, the Sherwood Forest Faire is going on, and it overlaps with the first three weeks of Scarborough. I’m not going to get into rumor and innuendo here about the business and politics of it all. Suffice it to say, some of the acts I never get to see end up there, but I discover and follow them through podcasts and CDs. This year, Scarborough took some hits, musically. Last year, after losing Saxon Moon, who only recently started playing there and were gone just as quickly (after making quite the impression), and after losing Cast in Bronze when the owner of the carillon decided to put the instrument into a museum (which is still unforgivable in my book), I commented that it wouldn’t be the same should we lose Tartanic as they’re practically an institution at Scarborough. Well, Tartanic played Sherwood this year. I certainly will not begrudge anyone with going where they need to for whatever reason, and honestly even if there is no other reason, the upside is they grow their audience by playing different venues. This is still a business, I get that. In the end, performers got to do what they’ve got to do to survive, so I begrudge nothing. I just hope they come back at some point down the road. I’ll miss the favorites, and I’ll still support the bands, buy their CDs, and generally keep up where possible. Fandom continues. It’s a little harder to keep up with non-musical performers that have to make those same decisions, and there were a number of changes on that front that I noted this year as well, but I wish them all well wherever they are.
Likewise, I welcome back the returning favorites as well as the new performers who step into the opportunity to show us what they can do. The show must go on, and the circle of inclusion truly has no limits. Tomorrow’s legend may be today’s lane performer still looking for a break. And more than that, ren fests tend to be a kind of family, as dysfunctional at times as most real ones. Sometimes you get to know people on some level, and it can really elevate the appreciation for their performance and for the festival as a whole. That’s what it’s all about.
For both the longtime veterans and new acts that are front and center on the stages and in the lanes, doing what they do for our entertainment… from the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Along the same lines, readers from last year might remember a little drama we had involving some casting changes in the royal court. I have no desire to rehash it all. Suffice it to say, what’s passed is now prologue. It’s just that these are the sorts of things that color my perception going in, which is why I mention it at all. This feels like the beginning of a new chapter for Scarborough, which I’m sure is by design.
To start with, Scarborough did a sort of a soft reboot on their historical personages. This year we got a new Henry VIII, and by his side… Katherine of Aragon, the true queen. Interesting, no? I recognized our Katherine. I’m pretty sure she was part of the Spanish court players before, though I’ve not really had any direct interaction with them before now. And Margaret, Queen of Scots, was there as always, lending the sense of nostalgic continuity.
I’m guessing they went for really early in the reign too, as not only was there no Princess Mary, but our Thomas Cromwell was recast as a priest. It threw me off at first because this guy’s been a rather incredible Cromwell for as long as I’ve been attending. (Seriously, I wish I had names for these performers!) Also, no sign of Cardinal Wolsey, a character we’ve never had previously but would be appropriate in this part of the timeline. Believe me, I looked for him. I tell myself he’s behind the scenes, doing the “real” work of managing the kingdom.
Just an aside… I figured if they were ever going to do a reboot, they’d go Elizabethan and have the likes of Dudley, Walsingham, and Shakespeare running around. That would probably be a shake-up too far, I suppose.
Just another aside… every year, they introduce the various acts to the patrons outside the gates, yelling to be heard. I understand why they do this, and I fault no one here, but… you can’t really tell what’s being said. Not unless you’re right up close, and they’re shouting in your direction. They shout to the open parking lot, which means there’s nothing for sound to bounce off, so it gets lost on the wind. And there is usually plenty of wind. Once inside, it’s completely different. There are buildings and trees. Sound travels and reverbs. Outside, not so much… with one exception: Miguel, of Don Juan and Miguel fame, can be heard very clearly. Why? He stands up on the one available spot that elevates him above the crowd and points himself back towards the castle wall. It’s basic acoustic science, combined with showmanship and the vocal projection that he has developed from literally decades of experience. It makes a big difference.
I don’t want that to sound like I’m calling everyone else out. I’m really not. I understand you work with what you’re given to work with. In this case, we’re working with a wide open field where sound just keeps going and gets lost on the wind. Indeed, it’s something I’ve not really considered over the years, but this year, I thought about it. You see, I have incredibly sensitive ears, and if I can’t hear discern at close range, I have to believe most people can’t either. In all the years I’ve come to Scarborough, I’ve only been in the front circle of people once, and even then, I couldn’t make out what was being said unless people were pointed right at me. Much of it sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher, only with some fun accents in the semi-discernible parts. It seems to me that if there was some kind of elevated stage in that area where Miguel was standing (possibly with some kind of sound reflecting backdrop since most will be standing to the sides and not out in the parking lot), it might help some performers to become better recognized and/or discovered in the first place. Just thinking out loud here. After all, the show starts here, before the gates are open.
Once inside, it was easy to see the entire festival got a bit of a reworking too. Some acts that have been on specific stages for years got shuffled around, some of the stages got new names and new paint jobs. They even painted a giant Tudor rose on the wall of the jousting arena beneath the royal box just to accent the point that this was still Henry’s festival. (I missed the joust this time around… it’s on the must-see list for next time.) And I took pictures of virtually none of the scenery because I tend to soak in the moment instead of fumbling with the phone. Hey, this is why I write blogs like this. I don’t have the pics, so I need a couple thousand more words. If you weren’t interested, you’d have stopped reading by now. I really should snap some scenery pics next time I’m out there.
There were some differences beyond the superficial too. They didn’t do the big afternoon parade, for example. I’m sort of wondering if that’s a Saturday thing and not a Sunday thing, as this is the first time I’ve come on a Sunday. Don’t know. It was on the schedule, but at the time it was slated, there was a big royal dance in the courtyard, so I got a better look at our new Henry and Katherine. Like I say, it’s not as it once was, but credit where it’s due, they commanded with all authority. Katherine is quite the Spanish spitfire too, as volatile towards some rogues where need be and just as graceful in dance. Pretty impressive all around for opening weekend. And you know I stopped just to hear the music.
We spent the first part of the day wandering around, getting the lay of the land and taking in what was different and what was familiar. Good thing we did because the printed schedule was wrong about some other points of which performers were on which stage, but these things were listed correctly on stage signs. And it was really weird to note which performers got shuffled to which different stage. It was like deja vu – everything was familiar, but not. Even among the cosplayers, things were a bit different. We had some steampunk types, plenty of fairies, a handful of Scots and Musketeers as befitting the norm for Scarborough. Gandalf wasn’t there this time, but the guy dressed as Monty Python’s Arthur from last week’s John Cleese event was there, and he had a Black Knight with him (who was Sir Not Appearing at the Other Event).
Our first performance of the day was longtime favorite, harpist Sarah Marie Mullen.
I’ve blogged about her before at length. She and her husband Cyrus are the very core of my version of the “faire family” so far as I’m concerned thanks to a musical odyssey she kickstarted in me a number of years back. One of those things. I didn’t know I loved the harp. Next thing I know, I’m learning all about its history and traditions and variety and… yeah, it’s pretty incredible when you start digging. Anyway, Sarah opted not to do a stage show this year. I was just happy she was there. She had her familiar spot on the end of the bridge. There was some discussion before and between songs about the havoc that weather wreaks on instruments, her newest album In the Moon of Wintertime, the jazz-like improvisational nature of some later Renaissance works, and some of the music she has not yet recorded due to lack of funding and time but still performs because she can. She recently learned a Serbian tune that she played for us, for example, and also one of those Renaissance “jazz” riffs she’s working on that she claims isn’t quite ready for primetime. So much fun. Admittedly, I’m biased. And I’m not the only one. She had a number of people come by early on. My intention was to swing her spot again later that afternoon, but we got swept up in other things and lost track of time. Typical in that setting, but I’m usually better about that. But again, multiple visits to the festival are needed these days. It’s jam-packed scheduling and virtually no down time between shows unless you force the issue. And even then, there are still plenty of things to ensnare all of the senses. So… the plan is to catch her next time around. She’s always first on my list of must-sees.
By the time we parted, it was time for lunch, or very nearly so. We opted to go a bit early to beat the crowds because we were starving and eager for some hot food. A couple of years ago, we tried the Rose and Crown for the first time, and it wasn’t the best experience due to brand new staff and long waits. There were ample apologies, and they tried. I don’t hold it against them. We gave it another chance this time because… well, why not, right? And it was awesome. Good food, fun waitress, and next to zero wait time. The weather was still against us, though, so we had to eat fast if we wanted our food while it was still warm. I’ve never once considered this before, and this is probably a bad idea in a wooden building, but a fireplace might have been nice. *shrug* As I say, this is rarely an issue. Usually it’s hotter than hell outside, and places like this are welcome refuge from the burning sun. I’m reminded that this is why the coffee, tea, and ale flow. I’m not much for the ales, but coffee and tea were certainly tempting. I really felt sorry for the vendors trying to sell lemon freezes and such. Even the pretzel vendors had to keep them covered so they’d have a chance at staying warm.
After lunch, some more wandering. Some go shopping. I was specifically on the look out for lane performers who sometimes tuck themselves between the buildings or whatever. Didn’t find Leza Mesiah on this visit, The Moor of Dundee whom I met last year (I hope to find her next time), but I did run into Rita Callens.
If you’ve not heard a dulcimer before, it’s just one of those great old instruments you have to experience. It’s got a bright, clear sound to it. I don’t think you could play one of these and ever be in a bad mood. Seriously. If I could afford one, it might be worth consideration. And Rita encourages others to jump in there with her. When I talk about the people who make the faire experience what it is, she’s one of those. It’s not just about the people on the stage.
I wish I’d thought to take any pics at all, but we rambled past the Birds of Prey demonstration put on by an organization called Last Chance Forever. They do rescues and educate the masses about these raptors. It’s not the first time I’ve seen them, but the majesty of such creatures can never truly get old, so stopping in to watch the show was just a foregone conclusion. Owls, falcons, a vulture, a bald eagle… up close and personal. People, I used to live out in the country, and some of my family still does. I see some of these birds in the wild, but never this close, and usually as part of the background. This is the sort of thing that garners true appreciation. Last Chance Forever is funded by public support, not sponsored by government. Give them a look-see.
Also, just because I have an ear for this… their background music for their show includes some of the romantic selections from James Horner’s Braveheart and Michael Kamen’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Of course I notice. These are some of my favorite film scores.
Eventually we made our way all over the grounds and back around to the stage that would occupy the entirety of our early afternoon. The stage itself was this little cracker box, tucked away in a corner overlooking a creek and a troll bridge that even had a troll. I do love little touches like that.
There’s a venerable group in the circuit called Cantiga. I’m sure many patrons of ren faires will have heard of them. Cantiga no longer performs as a complete ensemble, but as I say, ren faires have a kind of family mentality about them, and the ensemble’s name is being kept active to help supplement the circumstances. Cantiga is known for performing some of the finest Early Music on the circuit, which is how I discovered them. I was a bit late to that party, as it turns out, but I’ve gained an enormous amount of respect since for both the ensemble and for the music they perform. To that end, I wanted to hear Martha Gay perform. She’s one of Cantiga‘s founding members, still carrying their torch and their legacy.
Like Sarah, Martha plays harp, but unlike Sarah, she doesn’t play solo very often by her own admission. This was an opportunity to hear her do so, and it was an opportunity to hear some things she doesn’t normally play as part of the group. As one might expect, it’s a completely different repertoire from other performers here. That’s half the fun. It goes without saying, but she’s fantastic, and she seems to bliss out while she’s playing. She’s got a kind heart that comes across in her playing. It was a pleasure to hear her play, and it was a pleasure to finally meet her after the performance. She came back to the stage a bit later on to perform in duet with the viola da gamba. I didn’t get to learn the gentleman’s name who accompanied her in that later set. I wouldn’t have expected this, but that cracker box of a stage is perfect for amplifying acoustic instruments, so that worked out nicely.
Last year, I got to briefly hear one song by a duo called Songs of the Nightgale. They were surrounded by little kids last year, so further performance just wasn’t happening due to rampant enthusiasm. This year they got a stage show, which I was more than happy to attend.
According to the billing, it’s “Baba Manouche, gypsy guitar prodigy, and the Nightingale, siren of the sky.” Let me just say that after hearing them perform, this is not false advertising. That is some truly impressive guitar work, most of which he performs with his eyes closed, lost in the music. Nightingale… the name says it all. She’s got a smoky quality to her vocals for that proper otherworldly effect that would really be at home in a jazz club just as easily. And as attractive as she is, there’s a charisma there that works on a deeper level. You can see her working the crowd with her eyes. I’ve seen that only a handful of times, even among rock and roll legends. In combination, Songs of the Nightingale is going to see their star quickly rise on the circuit. I couldn’t find a website to link back to, but I did find her Facebook page… not that I’m on Facebook, but it gives you something to click if you are.
The last show on this particular stage is in the same vein as Cantiga in that they specialize in authentic Early Music, and it turns out they are legends in their own right in these circles. I didn’t know that going in, but I’ve since learned. The group is called Wolgemut, which I’m told is German for “to be in a good mood.” Just from that alone, I know I’m in for a fun time.
As I say, I went into this completely cold as they are new to Scarborough, and apparently I still have much to learn about Early Music ensembles despite my attempts to immerse myself in recent years. They were billed to me simply as “a German piper band” by one of the rennies. They are clearly so much more than that. As it turns out, this particular show was their “quiet show.” After listening to their CDs, I can believe that. As I mentioned earlier, the weather plays havoc on instruments, so they spent some extra time tuning and poking fun at one another. The show itself was most worthy. I can see why they have the reputation they do. I really need to see their loud show next time so I can get the full effect. It’s the nature of live performance. It’s one thing to hear these tunes on CD. It’s something else entirely to hear them played live, where you can watch the musicians.
More wondering around after that, looking for more lane performers because we haven’t yet seen all of our regular favorites. We had stopped by to visit Lady Prudence Piper at her picnic spot on the other bridge, but she wasn’t there at the time. That afternoon, she was there.
I mentioned last year that Lady Prudence is a consummate professional with diverse talents. Vocals, harp, ukulele, various percussion, she never breaks character (except when talking CD sales), and she’s even great with kids. It was pointed out to me, and I can’t believe I never noticed this for myself, but kids are attracted to harps. They always make a bee line, and invariably their adults steer many of them away for whatever reason. Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t not see it. For those who do make it inside, Lady Prudence passes out rattles and such and actively engages them into the music. This, people, is how you grow your geeks and develop musical interest from an early age. But even if you have no kids (I certainly don’t), she’s got songs for absolutely every occasion in every style.
Our final show for the day was on my must-see list due to less than optimal circumstances last year that needed to be corrected this year before I could feel better about myself, and due to the curiosity that experience engendered. So this year, instead of sitting way at the back where I couldn’t hear much of anything, I sat at the front for Vesperam Noriega.
Marc and Kim are gentle souls, as I’ve learned from talking with them after the show, and that’s reflected in the music they perform. He plays romantic Spanish Classical / Renaissance guitar, the sort of thing that’s just perfect to relax to in the late evenings. While many of the instrumental songs are classics from way back in the day, much of what Kim sings are original works of her own. The two styles meld really well, I think. For those who want to find them, they do have Facebook and YouTube.
True story: they actually remembered my mention of them right here on my blog last year, despite that from where I sat, there wasn’t much to tell in the end. When talking with them after this show, they gifted me with a CD that had two new songs on it that haven’t yet made it to their album recordings. As in, “We have something for you…” How amazing is that? (And thank you again!) They asked me to share those tracks, and I’m certainly happy to do so. Both of these songs are on their YouTube channel, which makes it really easy to drop them in right here for you.
All in all, a very good day that not even the cold could diminish. Weird as it is to say, the cold actually lent rather well to the idea of quieter musical sets for this visit. Usually there’s a wider mix of styles and volumes. I didn’t plan it this way (or much of anything, really), but it worked out. I’m most definitely looking forward to my next visit, which will hopefully be in two or three weeks, depending on scheduling. Crazy weekends this month. You know how it goes: everything happens at once.
Again, a heartfelt thank you to all the performers past and present who make this awesome every single year without fail. I encourage any who read this to go visit the various social media platforms (that I typically neglect and shun) and listen to all of these musicians. Or for that matter, look up any of the other performers and artisans out there too. If you’re in the area while Scarborough is happening, or if any of these acts come to your local Renaissance festivals, go and have fun.