words &  photography | MATT STEFFEN


More than restaurants, more than bars. More than handshakes and hugs, having guests and dropping by. More than brunches on patios and overfilled living rooms for fight nights. More than almost anything, I have sorely missed live music.

I spend more time listening to bands play live than nearly anything else I do. Since I was old enough to get in, and maybe a few times before that, I was there. Sometimes smashed together in the sweat and smoke, sometimes just me and the bartender. Standing in the back, joining on stage, or stuffed into the photo pit, each its own experience. At night when it gets quiet, I have that ringing in my ears to remind me of all those amazing shows.

The end of my last ten or so summers have been marked by the Whispering Beard Folk Festival. Most took place at a steaming hot Friendship, Indiana, campground. The last one moved downtown to Smale Riverfront Park, at the base of the picturesque Roebling Bridge. Catfish, one-fifth of the crew that brings about the Beard, shared that the music festival had been 85 percent booked for the sophomore riverside edition when COVID-19 hit the fan and shut it all down. This easily could have been catastrophic for the independent festival.

The last year has been rough on most industries, but none as absolute and long term as on live events. Since the shutdown last March, twelve million people found themselves without work, 75 percent of whom lost 100 percent of their income, overnight. Over a trillion dollars no longer finding their way to the families and hardworking folks that make the concerts, the festivals, and the memories happen.

Not able to do what they do best and challenged by the difficulty of remaining idle, Beard director Casey Campbell teamed up with Lifeboat Digital Media and Mind Ignition and kept us entertained with virtual concerts from the archives and livestreams from The Southgate House Revival. Tuesday nights’ #beardocampout became a thing to look forward to and a much-needed feeling of familiar and calm. A laptop, fire, and cold beverage nearly transformed my backyard into that Indiana field I missed so much.

The crew has spent the last fifteen months assessing, readjusting, guessing what the next year would look like. Planning has been difficult. That pin in the calendar keeps getting pushed back a few months. Adaptability is what wins the game right now. With a year of hard lessons learned, Catfish brought up a great point: “Coming out of this, your threshold for stimulation is not what it was before.” After navigating a very quiet and leisurely paced year, twelve hours of anything sounds exhausting. Maybe this time around, the Whispering Beard isn’t a music-twelve-hours-a-day-for-three-days-to-a-full-crowd kind of festival. Maybe some of that pressure comes off and simmers over a summer, over a yearlong production. Maybe it ventures out into the world and pops up as a series, with limited remote locations and virtual components for those who aren’t free to roam. Catfish and the boys are dreaming, keeping their cards a bit close to the vest for now. If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that announcing plans can be a fool’s errand.

With the vaccines being readily available and restrictions lightening, a little ray of sunshine appeared in my email a few weeks ago. Whispering Beard scheduled a low-key, limited-capacity show behind the Ludlow Vets building in Northern KY. People with instruments would be playing in front of people with ears once again. My world was about to be a little more tolerable.

Whispering Beard alumni, the Harmed Brothers, Jeremy Pinnell, and Frontier Folk Nebraska gave us three hours of vital live music. Seats were sold in spaced-out pods painted into the grass. The state restrictions that had lessened the week before the show allowed room for the vaccinated to congregate and those still a little gun-shy to distance. Everyone could be comfortable and enjoy themselves.

The weather was perfect, the scene framed by trees and the setting sun dropping into a muddy Ohio River. As the dew rolled in, sound traveled through the humidity like electricity. Conversations, like cicadas, growing on the horizon in swells. A spatial cloud of voices, ebbing and flowing in indiscernible waves, laughing and loving. It was emotional, I had to remind myself to take a deep breath. Sitting with my family and friends by a river with a band playing, I had missed this more than almost everything.