InPraiseOf: A Honfest Rewind

4878_705945692102_9127236_40898925_2790442_nI attended both days of Honfest this year. This is a revelation for me, since for the past decade and a half I’ve protested this event as a classest exploitation of a dying culture. Now, indifference has set in. The neighborhood has gone through an evolution in that time, and the festival itself has emerged as a spring Mardi Gras for women, who can dress up all glamorous like and strutt in their hairbobbed confidence. Add a couple Natty Bohs and it ain’t so bad.

I’ve expressed my thoughts about all this before in an essay I published in ’06, titled “Revelations of Hampdenfest 2006”. This article is about Hampdenfest, the neigbhorhood’s fall festival, but it applies to Honfest as well:

Ever witness an ideal come together, a pure moment occur, and for one brief passing the world was perfect from your vantage point. And then, watch as that ideal faded into the vapor, into nothingness, and your heart almost broke?  Had a moment like that this weekend at Hampdenfest.

This story actually originates at Hampdenfest 2005. I’d been in Baltimore for less than a week post-Katrina evacuation, making it to town just a few days before following the exodus from Texas through Tennessee to home. Ashley and I arrived in Baltimore tired from our drive and depressed from our ordeal.

Hampdenfest was that Saturday, and while I’d missed Baltimore and it was fine to see my old concrete streets again, I wasn’t in the party mood. But then Ashley had some New Orleans friends working at Johns Hopkins or living in the state who wanted to get together, so we decided to go.

They’d tweaked Hampdenfest from when I was a kid, back when it was centered on Roosevelt Park with carnie games where you won stuffed Spuds McKenzies and Hooter girl posters and the Tilt-a-Whirl rides tumbled, blasting “Ice, Ice Baby” while the barker shouted “Now were going… BACKWARDS!” and all the kids would scream, and then there was the Big Slide that your rode using burlap sacks (friend of mine flew right off the edge of one of those things, even with the sack). For the day W. 36th street store owners would block the street off and set up tables outside their businesses. One sketchy old Hampdenite with chargrilled skin sold foam nun-chucks and explosive poppers and combs shaped like butterfly knives to 12 year olds. There were always the pit beef stands and bands banging through Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive” and at Chestnut Avenue they’d have pony rides, and when these horses brayed you swore they were asking you to put them out of the misery: “Brahhhh, Kill me, Brahhh.”

The carnival and ponies are gone, and no one sells fake weapons to kids anymore. The festival’s focus shifted to the Avenue, where local artists combined with the new boutique shops to make up the bulk of the retailers. The pit beef sandwiches are still there though, and the fried crab balls, and now, in a brilliant twist, they sell Brewer’s Art beer on the street (Resurrection Ale is a divine concoction, related more to an ancient alchemist’s elixir than Miller Light).

I accepted the changes, part of an evolution of my neighborhood’s hipster appeal and preppy weekend clientele. Ashley’s work friends made it to town that weekend and we drank and ate together, and I bumped into old neighborhood faces, some I hadn’t seen since the prior summer and some I hadn’t talked to since I was in elementary school. And if that’s all we would have done at Hampdenfest 2005 it still would have been perfect.

“Hampden Idol” though, pushed it over the top to a divine moment. My memory is sketchy of last year’s contest, which is basically a live, onstage version of “American Idol” hosted by a pasty hipster named Keyboard Man and featuring amateur karaoke singers whose vocal styling and presentations are beyond absurd. I do remember that everyone was having fun but not overly impressed, having sat through some fairly bad performances, not knowing the best was saved for last.

Just as the booze started to take hold, a lanky white dude dressed in purple velvets, 80s rock wig and electric guitar burst onto stage and proceeded to kick his way through a hardcore, hip shaking Prince cover. He sang his lungs raw, pranced about stage, wiggled and jived to the crowd’s support. When the solo hit he busted out the Slash-style air guitar, then, with the masses in a frenzy and the song hitting its peak, he tossed his axe off his back and set it on fire. The block went apeshit, and when the votes were tallied the phenom ran away with the Idol title hands down. A most surreal experience at the time, watching the local boys in the flat brimmed ball caps and XXXL t-shirts coexisting with the frumpy kids in the vintage jeans and black glasses for at least a few hours, even coming together to cheer on white Prince doin’ his thang. It lifted the woes for a moment and reminded me why I loved Baltimore and Hampden.

Fast forward to this year’s Hampdenfest. The pit beef was still juicy and the crab balls melted on the tongue and the Resurrection was wheaty and frosty.  The usual suspects were still here: hipsters, homies with 40z in paper bags, Roland Parkers enchanted by tales of Bawlamer right on their doorstep, cute young mamas with cute kids who had their hair sprayed neon green and electric blue, dogs of every breed and color, artists hawking wares, the local old school drunks and heroin addicts who wander the hood like zombies and who you always want to shake sense into.

Hampden Idol II moved from the Falls Road stage to the main venue in front of Bank of America between Roland and Elm. Keyboard Man was back, decked out in a blood red cowboy shirt with black fringe, “TAB” spelled out on the back in rhinestone in the same font as the soda.  Jeane Claude Monkee (dude in a monkey mask) and last year’s winner, whose name we learn is Juan AnChovi, kicked off the event with confetti cannons and rousing rendition of “Lay Your Hands on Me.” About a dozen contestants participated in the event, and among the highlights:

-Skinny guy dolled up like the biker from the Village People, complete with a sweet retro-70s ‘stache, going bonkers on Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher.” Great intro: “I don’t know what you were doing back in 1983 but I was high on meth, standing in a parking lot in the back of a Denny’s taking a crowbar to a guy’s face!”

-A real badass biker dude named Jethro tossed out Busch beer before going brave and singing a tough rendition of Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”, followed by a Rock the Vote monologue.: “I don’t care who you vote for, just vote, ’cause a lotta people died to so you can vote!”

-One of the afternoon’s stand-ins, dude named Charles I think, killed on a sweet R&B croon. If he had any stage presence (which is 90 percent of karaoke) he might have won.

-My favorite of the day was a fat guy dressed in full Spiderman costume, an O’s cap, and pulling the Spinal Tap “cucumber in the pants” routine in his spandex gear. Talk about Spider senses tingling. He jumped up on the amps and flexed his crotch at the crowd, and just when you thought this guy was a joke, he broke out Eric Burdon’s “Spill the Wine,” and he tore it up. Won third place, thought he was champ material. Best was my dad shouting, “I think that IS Eric Burdon under that costume!”

-A hipster chick who was going for Betty Page but ended up more Peg Bundy pulled through Heart’s “Crazy for You.” Stage presence earned points for a sharp dude in sunglasses, black jeans and cap breaking out Austin Powers’ Mod dance moves. Won second place.

-Iggy Pop’s brother from another mother apparently is from Hampden, ’cause this guy Bobby was a spitting image; lilt blond hair that fell to the shoulders, crazed eyeballs, a taught, skinny muscle build that could have been drug induced. Sang a solid version of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” though he needed something that rocked harder I thought. Couple good lines, “No it’s not Fabio, it’s Bobio,” tossing his hair back and “You know, you can take the boy out of Hampden, but you can’t take the boy… I mean the Hampden out the boy, yeah!”

(Also, at this point I had a good time watching a drunken Hampden dude who had a face straight out of a North England coal factory doublefisting his drinks and starting random conversations with the crowds. My dad and I cracked up when he bumped up to a random Roland Park type, and the guy turned around with a look of udder horror, and the Hampden dude just rambled on like they’d been buddies since they were kids. I thought the Roland Park guy was going to piss his pants. That was up there with the greasy drunk who spent the day pounding the stage with his fist, then taking the mic and belting out lines from “I Fought the Law” during the set of one of the indy-punk bands earlier in the day).

-A bizarre version of Mr. Roboto, with a fat chick, metal mask and First Down winter coat. Intriguing, crowd was a fan, but strange.

-The winner (dad called it) was a strapping young African-American guy who sang a perfect karaoke battle song in Guns and Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine”, tearing up the music and then pouncing down on the concrete to sing to the women and kids. “Sweet Child’s” the home run swing of karaoke, and he nailed it out the ballpark.

Like last year, the crowd ate it up. Homeboys and their babies got down, the hipsters air guitared it with wild abandon, the old folks from the nearby complexes and the Roland Parkers tried to shake it (A prestine elder from Roland Park pulled the twist next to us, good for a laugh). Then, after the awards, the contestants hit the stage and the day culminated with a drunken rendition of Queen’s “We are the Champions.” Darkness hit as the song kicked off, and the little Hampden girls sang on stage with little African-American kids, the hipsters and punkassses and contest finalists swayed arm in arm, belting out this sappy song and everyone digged everyone else and bathed in the euphoria that soaked 36th Street. If there was any feasible way to bottle the essence of what was left on that asphalt way last Saturday, that pure energy of togetherness, you’d be a millionaire.

Course, then a gutter punk skateboarder stole the mic and shouted “Everyone has AIDS!” Kids say the darndest shit I swear.

It’s an ideal of course. The punk kids will break into a car for a joyride, the hipsters will drive back to  the suburbs whence they came and become 40-something suburb yuppies, the Roland Parkers will think it quant and keep their noses turned upward. But, even for a fleeting moment its fun to live in ideals, to ponder the notion of an alternative existence where we respect each other with out stealing each others shit, shooting each other and otherwise encroaching on each other existence. Be nice if we can get to that point someday. ‘Til then, I’ll keep looking to Hampdenfest for my fix.

* Photo by my good friend James Schaffer

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