Love and Fire

When the going gets tough, the weird turn pro. H. S. Thompson.

We were going to die. That much was clear. There was nothing that we could do about it. We would all die, poached live like lobsters. So be it. At least ours would be a noble death.

They would find our corpses once the temperature had also died; say in December, when the mercury mellowed to 212 degrees. Those who came searching would stand over what was left of our emaciated, shriveled red forms, shake their heads, and say, “Poor idiots didn’t know enough to come out of the solar monsoon.”

But they wouldn’t understand. They’d lack context. They wouldn’t know that we had died for the music, for one and other, for the Beard—that we had died because we were Beardos.

They wouldn’t know that not only did we love the Beard but we also loved and lived to frolic about great towering campfires from whence rose song, dancing, and play. That is, once the sun dropped and the heat abated.

Those who would come later would not suspect that we had freely frolicked till dawn when the great, fiery orb rose anew to chase away the ham-sized stars.

Ok, so I’m exaggerating—though not by much. Let’s try a slightly less dramatic account…

2016 Beard load 2 (157 of 340)The Beard, or The Whispering Beard Folk Festival, if you’re the type that stands upon formality—though God knows no one at the Beard demands formality—happened in spectacular flaming summer extremis over the weekend of August 25-28, 2016.

The 2016 Beard will be remembered as a miserable, sweltering, horrid, lovely, heartbreaking, stellar event. Which means this Beard was pretty much like every Beard which preceded it.

The 2016 Beard featured the usual Beardo fare: music, music, and music; most of it of the beautiful, ironic, lonesome, yearning, string-laden, very well-written variety.

Then there were also crafts, amazing homemade and handmade, as well as damn fine food. But mostly it was the standard collection of hirsute dudes and crunchy chicks taking over the miniscule town of Friendship, Indiana (pop. 71), in the name of love.

And there was love. There was love of music and food and beer and love of impromptu jam sessions, which ran from midnight until 11 am when the formal festival began anew. There was love of 4-am batting practice at the festival’s manicured whiffleball field, and there was love of living like a wild animal for four blessed days.

Mostly, there was love of one and other. The Tillers are Mike Oberst, Sean Geil, and Aaron Geil. They’ve been Cincinnati favorites for quite some time now and have also been a part of the Beard since the get-go.

I found Sean relaxing in front of a trailer on Saturday morning. He was happy to talk even though it was barely past coffee hour. For Sean, it’s a literal homecoming; he grew up just down the road. He conversed for a while about the history of the festival and then neatly tied it all in a bow.

“What I like best about Whispering Beard,” he said, “is that this festival is all about everyone. It’s a group effort.”

Beardo Polly 4 (9 of 32)Almost everyone who attends the Beard, now in its ninth year, is a musician or some sort of artist. Most hail from within a couple of hours of Cincinnati. Most have played together in the past. It is not hyperbole to say that the Beard is a musical family reunion, a fierce gathering of those deeply in love with one and other and the lifestyle which is celebrated at the Beard—a lifestyle of freedom and creativity.

Such enthusiasm is contagious. In a Facebook post just after the show, Joe’s Truck Stop, who provided late night entertainment Thursday night, posted: “Whispering Beard Folk Festival! What an honor to be a part of something so special!”

Maria Carelli, who fronted her own band on Friday afternoon, added, “It’s just like a big party with thousands of your closest friends. Every year it gets bigger, which just means more potential friends.”

She went on to say that it’s one her favorite gigs to play throughout the year. It’s a chance to shine in front of peers, friends, and fans alike. “It’s a show I put a lot of thought into.”

This makes sense since the Beard is a magical act of love, which is why so many are willing to suffer under the broiling sun, willing to collectively steam after the rains departs and the sun returns with a ferocious vengeance.

But, to be blunt, who gives a damn?

Not the Beardos who choose this lot freely. Underneath all the love of most Beardos is a toughness and a wide streak of self-reliance. These are people who are long accustomed to long hours on the road and paying a steep price for living a life on the road. They’re not about to let a little heat and humidity keep them from this weekend.

For to be a Beardo is to shrug in nonchalance when the National Weather Service announces that the local deluge will produce a 7-foot storm surge in the creek immediately adjacent to the campgrounds. Possible impending death is not enough to chase any true Beardo from his or her appointed rounds.

Which is not to say that the Beard is an elitist festival—if for no other reason than the fact that creating and enforcing rules takes way too much time and energy—time and energy which can be put to better use, like building a ballpark in the middle of the festival grounds.

The gates are open to anyone. All are welcome, yet few dare to come. There is only primitive camping at the festival. There are no nearby hotel rooms. Luxury is getting a solid four hours of sleep in the passenger seat of your truck.

Beard 4am download 2016 cincy  (16 of 28)In Friendship, which sits just outside the grounds of the festival, there is a general store, gas station, tavern, and a large muzzleloading shooting range where national competitions are held. That’s pretty much it. The festival is organically small and sparse. You gotta wanna be there.

If the Beard were held in October, there’d be ten thousand people. But it’s not. It’s stubbornly held in August, so the festival remains an intimate event. As one concertgoer sagely noted, “The heat is the governor on this festival.”

Fun Beardo fact: there was a single security officer presiding over the entire festival, and even his casual presence, arguably, was overkill. In a world of music festivals that feature legions of ripped-and-ready-to-rumble T-shirted troops, this fact alone speaks volumes about the Beard.

You hear it time and time again. It’s all about community. It’s about making some very real and personal friendships. Time and time again concertgoer and musician alike insist that the weekend is the high point of their year or is the best gig of their year, because it’s like coming home.

Coming home to family you love. For to be a Beardo is to be awash, for one weekend a year, in love and fire and beer and sweat. And what’s better than that?