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Beardfest is a freewheeling rite of summer — and a deep Philly hang

Beardsnack (a mashup of Beardspace + Snacktime) live at Beardfest 2022
Alex Buschiazzo
215 Music
Beardsnack (a mashup of Beardspace + Snacktime) live at Beardfest 2022

It’s 1 a.m. on a Friday morning a few days before the summer solstice, and the festival grounds are still a hive of activity.

I’m exactly where I want to be: outside, in the middle of a crowd soaking in bright stage lights. Vines and flowers are intricately woven through a set of pillars onstage, melding with a surrounding forest. Spirits are high, because we all know that from stage right, a shadowy figure will emerge — lights blinding all details but a massive sousaphone resting across their shoulder.

Then comes an explosion of horns, guitar feedback, what feels like the cheer of a whole city. And the smack of a snare that could only belong to Austin Marlow. It was SNACKTIME, closing out the first night of last summer’s Beardfest.

In case that name doesn’t ring a bell, Beardfest bills itself as “a three-day celebration of creative expression” in the heart of the pine barrens, at Paradise Lakes Campground in Hammonton, NJ. (This year, it runs June 22-25.) What may sound like a gathering of beards is actually a summit of some of the hottest cats in Philly, alongside headliners like drummer Mark Guiliana, guitarist Isaiah Sharkey, steel pan player Jonathan Scales, and multi-instrumentalist Sam Greenfield. These and other heavy hitters reveal the nature (no pun intended) of the festival, at the convergence of jazz and funk.

The spirit of improvisation flows off the stage and into the festival grounds. The band members of Out of The Beardspace curated this scene for over a decade, starting out in guitarist Zach LoPresti’s backyard. They are building a community actively engaged in the festival environment; those who don't perform onstage find unique ways to perform on the festival grounds. “The artists see and feel people not just being spectators, but being very actively engaged in the environment and creating the environment,” LoPresti tells WRTI.

Yesseh Furaha-Ali at Beardfest 2022
Corey Rice
Yesseh Furaha-Ali at Beardfest 2022

Improvisational musicians chase a barrier dissolution between the performer and the audience. In the moment, there is one concern: the spirit of the musician and the way they access inspiration in real time. At Beardfest, you’ll find musicians hopping onstage countless times over the weekend, especially during The Jawn. Hosted by keyboardist Dan Rouse, The Jawn puts a name to the sound of a jam session like those held at Time, North Bowl and Leda’s, which provide the heartbeat of the Philly scene. Beardfest elevates that sound — swapping out intimate stages for large sound systems and larger headliners.

Drummer-bandleader Nazir Ebo will descend upon this year’s Beardfest in full force. Last summer, WRTI hosted Ebo’s quartet for a live session, and were blown away by the intentionality, force, and timelessness of their music. “We’re playing most of my original stuff,” Ebo says, alluding to that session — though his music is sure to hit different in the open air.

Guitarist Simon Martinez and bassist Tone Whitfield, two members of Ebo’s band, will perform separately as a duo, presenting Martinez’s solo project, Flanafi, which highlights his chops as a songwriter and producer.

Supergroups and sit-ins are integral: last year, SNACKTIME and Out of The Beardspace melded forces, creating BeardSnack. This year, Ebo and SNACKTIME saxophonist Yesseh Furaha-Ali plan to sit in with keyboardist and beatmaker Kayla Childs, aka Black Buttafly. “There’s a lot of Philly on the bill this year, which I appreciate so much,” says Childs, who will welcome her guests in a full band set.

SNACKTIME is sure to be a hometown highlight this year, along with nationally prominent groups like Mark Guiliana’s Beat Music and Jonathan Scales’ Fourchestra. Flashing back to last year, when SNACKTIME hyped up the Forest Stage, I can recall how it felt not only like a finale but also a culmination — the natural outcome of a day that saw Furaha-Ali hopping all over the campgrounds, sitting in with whoever he could. “It was easy, it was fun, it was a good time,” he says, looking back. “But last year, it was six groups.”

“I feel like this year is going to be the deepest Philly hang out of all the Beardfests that I’ve been to,” Furaha-Ali adds — and he would know.

Beardfest runs June 22-25 in Hammonton, NJ; for tickets and more info, see the official website.