Friday, July 9, 2010

The Sterling Renaissance Festival!

One of my all-time favorite annual summer activities is to attend the Sterling Renaissance Festival. My parents took me for the first time back in 1990 and my wife and I have gone together almost every year since 1992. Hey - that makes this my 20-year anniversary there. Well!

One of the things you notice when you're there is that the people who go in garb (which is what "renn-faire folks" call their period clothing) seem to be having a particularly good time. Plus, it makes the faire come that much more alive in its setting as an English village in the late 1500s to have many people wandering around in Renaissance-style clothes. So, beginning back in 95 or 96, my wife and I borrowed costumes from the Le Moyne College Firehouse Theater at which I'd been a castmember while an undergrad there. They weren't very good costumes (I have pictures somewhere. No, I'm not sharing them here. Well, ok, maybe sometime if I can find them.), at least mine wasn't (Karen looked ravishing as always), but they let us start getting into the spirit in a new way. By the next year we'd bought some cheap costumes online and a couple years later we'd assembled our own. My wife's is particularly lovely - a maroon overdress with detached sleeves over a dark blue underskirt. I wish I could find some decent pics that didn't include the kids (whose pics I don't put online publicly), but there don't seem to be any good ones of either of us anywhere that I can find.

The Faire is such a pastoral place - it's a lush, wooded setting dotted throughout the grounds with stages, food vendors, games and merchants. I love it all and could easily spend several days wandering around. There's literally never enough time to see and do everything you'd like, especially since a lot of the fun is just relaxing and enjoying the people passing by.

There's so much to buy there, and never enough time or money. One of my favorite shops is Potomac Leather, where they sell all manner of leather gear - from pouches to gloves, cloaks and even full outfits all of leather. I can't afford their stuff, but I love to go in and look at it. There are merchants in hats, masks, pewter, elaborate glass and stained glass crafts, and even musical instruments like flutes and drums. I was so busy this year I hardly made it to any of them.

The food, though expensive, is really tasty and fairly portable as well. One of my favorites is "Steak on a Stake" - a good-sized chunk of beef on a wooden skewer. I used to get the Turkey Leg when it was $3, but it's now up to $8 and they don't taste as good as they used to, so I stopped. Potatoes (salted or baked), pizza, fried cheese curds and waffle-cone sundaes usually round out our day. Every year I say we're going to try to get into the Tavern where they sell some different foods you can't get elsewhere, but so far we never have. Naturally, the boys won't eat any of that - they have peanut butter sandwiches, instead.

This year, a fellow named Johnny Fox debuted at the Faire, doing magic slight of hand and swallowing swords. He was quite good. We watched a Don Juan & Miguel show, too, but my kids don't really care for the loud crack of their whips so there was much complaining. Since the kids and I had already seen most of the shows of the Bless the Mark Players (the professional acting troupe who perform many of the acts at the Faire as well as playing the roles of the Queen of England, her court, and the villagers of Warwick) at Mock Faire Day, Fox and the Joust were just about the only non-music performances we watched.

Which was fine by me. I really like the plays, the improv performances and the shows, but for me, the Faire is all about the music. My son and I enjoyed a performance of a trio calling themselves Celtic Spirits - they're new to Sterling this year and we were there on opening day, so we were actually at their debut performance there. We also listened to an impromptu performance by a mish-mash of the festival's wonderful musicians and finished the day with the BTM cast's Pubsing. But the highlight of the day for me was to see the full quartet of Empty Hats finally returning to Sterling for the full season after several years away. They're definitely my favorite musical act at the Faire and I got to sit through three of their sets on Saturday. It was glorious. One of the ways my family gets into the "Renn Faire" spirit every season is to pop in the Empty Hats CDs (plus those of their predecessors, Double Indemnity) and get into their blend of ancient and modern Celtic and Celtic-like music.

It all wraps up at the final Pubsing. The Bless the Mark cast assembles at the main Festival Stage along with a group of the Faire's musicians and they sing us home. The set includes favorites like Auld Lang Syne (a much different version than the one you likely hear on New Year's Eve), So We'll Go No More A-Roving, Three Jolly Coachmen, Drunken Sailor, Tom O'Bedlam, and then finished with the Mingulay Boat Song. My son and I have actually learned quite a few of those tunes on our guitars and practice them almost daily, so it was really nice to hear them live. I don't think I've ever been at the final Pubsing on the last day of Faire for a given season, but I bet it's a terribly emotional experience. The cast is never exactly the same from year to year, and patrons come and go, so Auld Lang Syne surely carries particular meaning on that occasion. It's sad enough at the end of just a typical Faire day.

And then it's a quick stop at the gift shop (usually to buy one of the few Empty Hats CDs that I don't already own. I think I have all the ones I want at this point. I guess they need to record a new one) and we're off for the drive home. We're foot-weary, sweaty, dirty and full, but very contented after a full day of some of the best entertainment anywhere. It's been a terrific twenty years and I'm looking forward to spending many more summer days there this year and in years to come.

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