“What is Byronfest known for?” asked the lead singer of the band The Stevee Nix during the band’s opening-night set.
“Brilliant stage banter,” I snarked to a fellow volunteer standing next to me.
“I wanna taste every booth here tonight,” continued the lead singer, then “Relax; go to it,” he Frankie Goes to Hollywooded. The band then covered “Jump Around” and one, and only one, middle-aged white dude did just that.
Byronfest is the community party for Byron, Illinois, a town about 100 miles west of Chicago. This year’s events started on Friday, July 11, and the festival included live bands, beer tents, carnival rides, a children’s play area, a bean-bag tournament, and “Taste of Byronfest.” I served as a volunteer this year, assigned to keep track of inventory for the beer and soda concessions. This task required me to attend for much of the festival’s duration, but also allowed for some time to just walk around and watch and listen.
Barely out of earshot from The Stevee Nix band, a magician on a stage that had folded out of the side of a truck pattered, “What’s that smoke? Oh, no! Oh, no! This went REALLY bad,” as he produced what looked like a burned shoe. He then grabbed a “first aid box” to fix the shoe, inside of which box was another box, a purple one, from which the magician offered the boy on his stage three replacement shoes. Then he pulled out the fluorescent green shoe that matched the boy’s other shoe. Audience members applauded. “Were you worried about your shoe at all? … So was I,” said magician.
A couple minutes before 7 p.m., the guy who trained me in my volunteer position last year told me that I should “start finding your replacement now” and he laughed.
At the second stage, the Festival Stage, the Prime Time Live Band is singing “and I ran, I ran so far away.” I actually started writing this line in my notes before he sang it, but by the time I had put the closing quotation marks on it, he had sung it.
I smelled something like ginger coming from one of the festival-goers near me.
We’re the Prime Time Live Band, announced the lead singer, who continued, “Does anybody know that? Prime Time Live Band!”
A female singer starts into that “Big Black Horse and a Cherry Tree” song, and when she sings, “You’re not the one for me,” I snark (only to my notes this time), “the feeling’s mutual.”
Two married, retired high school teachers are talking to the current high school teacher who is supervising the local high school’s Key Club’s pop sales. The retired male teacher wears a baseball hat with “MR. PORK CHOP” and red pig outline-shapes on it.
About 7:12 p.m., I saw two of my own former students (from a neighboring town), 16-year-olds S. and M., and I told them to stay away from the beer. Then S. asked me to bring her some. What did I JUST say, I said. Then I said I’d stop yelling at them since we’re not in school. S. told me that she asked M. to stand in front of the portable toilet S. was using so no one would tip it over.
7:14 p.m.: The sun came out from cloudy sky, the first sunlight of the Byronfest, now 2 and a quarter hours old. The Prime Time Live Band sang “tonight’s gonna be a good, good night.”
Over the walkie-talkie radio I got to carry (which radio-privilege is half the reason I volunteered, I told someone), I heard a voice ask what beers were available at one of the festival’s two beer tents. The same beer that’s at the other tent, I said. Hearing no response, I figured that that answer was satisfactory.
Later on, I saw and spoke to the teacher I had for 11th grade trig. 23 years ago, which teacher didn’t seem to remember me, but as a teacher myself of fewer years than that, I didn’t expect him to.
The Stevee Nicks lead singer asserted a claim that he himself was “bringing sexy back.” At the other stage, “Where do we go?” Axl’d the singer of Prime Time Live Band.
“You’re gonna die laughing,” said a woman to a ticket booth operator. A woman next to the speaking woman had a tramp stamp vining out of her shorts.
8:46 p.m. Moments ago, I saw a little girl carrying a little-girl-sized stuffed prize.
I also saw a young woman who had a tattoo running vertically down her entire spine. Later, I saw that it was a tattoo of all words, a sentence that began between her scapula and ended near her coccyx. I didn’t get close enough to read this sentence. Another young woman had a short paragraph of three lines or so tattooed above where an anatomist would find her kidney.
A voice, from festival headquarters, on my radio asked, “Do you need tickets?” A male voice answered, “We need a vacuum cleaner. Over.”
Passing by me was a young man wearing a shirt with the words “American Menace” in a gothic font.
By about 4 hours into Byronfest, I’d seen both Jessica, a teller at the drive-thru window at the Byron branch of my local bank, and Jenna, a drive-thru teller at the Stillman Valley branch of the same bank, 4 miles east.
9:25 p.m. A new band, AudioDrive, claimed to be “hot-blooded” and challenged the audience to “check it and see.”
A 50-ish woman with two crutches and a cigarette, glides (easily enough) past our seating spot on Walnut Street. My wife starts to put a melody to “Two Crutches and a Cigarette.”
My wife, a local business owner, tells me, “I’m sponsoring something — I just don’t know what.”
AudioDriver covers a Poison song.
At the other stage, a band called “Mike & Joe” cover “Semi-Charmed Kind of Life” and then “Mr. Jones.”
“White people on the move,” I said to my wife, of people trying to get around us from their seated positions. “Scariest words in the English language,” she answered.
I see two people from our Byron neighborhood standing next to two of my uncle’s friends who live in Stillman Valley, about 4 miles (or less, to their house) away. “Our worlds are colliding!” I said to my wife. “It’s a pretty small world, Stillman to Byron,” my wife said.
10:18 p.m. From the festival stage, AudioDrive plays a song I haven’t heard in years, “Wait,” by White Lion. I hadn’t missed it.
SATURDAY, 11:27 a.m. The work crew volunteers seem to be sweeping out puddles from this morning’s rain. “Here’s a broom. There’s a puddle. Make it wider,” I imagine were their instructions.
My contact at one of the beer tents tells me he’s sold beer twice to the same two women by 11:37 a.m.
I told my wife about a guy I saw Friday night who, on finding the portable toilet near his beer tent to be occupied, went behind the portable toilet for a minute. Did he really pee on the pile of firewood I had noticed back there?
Walking past the bags tournament, I saw one guy holding his head, experiencing the agony of defeat at the bags tourney.
Byronfest Manager Sarah told one of the work crew to “scoot” around a fence gate. I decided “scoot” is a terrific supervisory verb.
Getting breakfast at our usual diner, our waitress, who graduated from the Byron high school herself a few years ago, said Byronfest is like a high school reunion for her — not necessarily a good thing, she implied.
Said one person at the Festival Stage’s beer tent, to a newly arriving volunteer: “You gotta drink your mistakes.”
At the Gateway Club, where there is free food served to Byronfest sponsors, an adult woman said of a little girl’s Tootsie Pop that “it’s just got [some] frog on it,” referring to some fuzz from a stuffed frog.
One man said, referring to his pregnant wife, “We got another one to fire out August 9th,” as if a child were an intercontinental ballistic missile.
9:10 p.m. I heard the second version today, one by each of two bands, of “Take me down to the little white church.”
A girl of about 13 years said to a younger kid, “I been to a festival a few times in my life.”
My wife had seemed to be enjoying selling raffle tickets for a local charity, I told her. “I could SEEM like I’m enjoying a lot of things,” she said.
At 9:10 p.m., we were seeing lightning over the festival grounds. The band that had started about 9:00 quit playing about 9:20. I took shelter inside a garage at the city building, and others came in, too. At 9:26, a dude suggested “wet t-shirt contest” and he laughed. A seemingly drunk guy told me, while slurring and lisping, that he had come into the garage “to make some decisions.”
By 9:35, my wife had brought me into the city building and upstairs, away from the storm. “The rain has now hit,” I heard someone say. Out the window, I saw flags on the “Power Slide” carnival ride flapping hard. A lady answering the headquarters’ radio left when her shift ended at 10, saying, “It’s been a slice, guys.” Byronfest was scheduled to continue til midnight, but had been weather-canceled by 10 p.m.
SUNDAY at Byronfest, no admission buttons are required. “How are we gonna keep out the riffraff?” I asked my wife. “We aren’t,” she said.
One Key Club soda-seller to another, focused on people they saw behind me as they ignored me handing them my payment, “I don’t know if they’re still dating so don’t say that.”
I sat under one of the food-eating tents to calculate my beer inventories. I heard a boy talking to his peers as they were walking past the tent say something, and then a woman said, “What number did you assign me?” The boy answered, “Second — you’re my second mom.”
Also under the tent Sunday afternoon, a man walked in with a girl of 4 or 5 years who had a Spiderman-design painted face and said to a woman, “You should see the large mouth [bass] she caught. She caught the same fish, like, 9 times!” The girl had apparently been catching mechanical/toy fish at the kids’ area pool.
Your writing made me laugh. Good snapshots of festival time in small towns! Don’t you have the feeling festivals are all relatively the same throughout the Midwest? And would the coasts and/or plains areas look/sound similar?
I don’t know about generalizing about festivals. In taking the notes that became this post, I was simply writing down descriptions and quotes that I saw and heard around me at the fest. I don’t have any larger theories or lessons to draw from these particulars, but I enjoy sharing these particulars.