A chilly, wind-blown downpour hit Johnstown, PA, at around 10:20 p.m. Saturday, August 2, 2014, bringing the performance of headliner, Boz Scaggs, to an abrupt end, after about seven songs. Up to that point the day had been partly to mostly sunny with temps in the high 70’s, and a hat and sunscreen were advisable for fans at the Flood City Music Festival, held annually at the Peoples Natural Gas Park and environs bordering the train station in downtown Johnstown.
Having enjoyed in years past the smorgasbord of performers, representing varied genres of pop music—but primarily trending to the edgier rock, blues, and funk-a-delic sides—this festival is always on my watch list. When I discovered last Thursday morning that Boz Scaggs was headlining on Saturday night, I began making plans for the much-needed day trip. I loaded my camou bag with journal, e-reader, and three dollar-store rain ponchos in the event that I might be dealing with more than one rain shower through the day.
Making a Sheetz stop for a bottle of cold water to add to my bag of essentials, I enjoyed the pleasant drive through the late afternoon hours over the Chestnut Ridge and down into the picturesque Conemaugh River Gorge where the charming little city of Johnstown rests. Taking advantage of the free weekend parking meters in the downtown business district, I parked near Market and Main and hiked a few blocks, arriving at the Festival site around 5 p.m.
Thirty-nine dollars seemed like a bargain, not only for the Boz Scaggs headline show, but to include the other groups performing at staggered times on four stages, three of which were sheltered by roofs or a tent. After surveying the Festival grounds, I parked on a chair shaded by the roof of a beer station where I ordered my token brew for the day, sipping in the shade while reading Joan Didion’s The Place Where I’m From. Meanwhile, a group called Grand Piano entertained a small crowd in the nearby Subaru tent stage. After twenty minutes I was ready to walk again. Needing something chewy with which to wash down the remainder of my beer, three wings with jacked up barbecue worked well.
Some empty seats under the Peoples Gas Pavilion where Nahko and Medicine for the People were shaking the rafters, looked inviting. I felt a little guilty chewing on succulent, sauce-slathered wings amidst these shirtless warriors of social justice, pounding out melodic, rap-rhythms with lyrics reminding me of all the hypocrisy and unfairness in the world. Their sound was in-your-face, hard to ignore, and I couldn’t help embracing it, even though I did not join with the handful of 60-somethings who were jumping up and down in delirium with the crowd of young people in front of the stage.
At the conclusion of Nahko and company, I meandered over to the open air Bud Light stage where the Boz would be performing later. Right now the stage was commandeered by Big Sam’s Funky Nation, another in-your-face brassy, thumpy, humph-humph band. Not quite social justice warriors, Big Sam’s deep-throated, percussive vocals and bop-pop t’ pow-wow trombones smacked the jive-jumping groupies “blam” in the face, just for the hell of it. What fun—just to watch.
By around 8:30 my stomach was jive-jumping along with ‘Funky Nation, so I headed directly to the pulled pork stand and ordered my sandwich Pittsburgh style with the slaw and fries on top. Near the Peoples Natural Gas pavilion stage again, another spirited rock band, Rubblebucket, had them dancing and jack-jumping beneath the stage and in the aisles. I enjoyed a few offerings by Rubblebucket almost as much as the pulled pork creation.
Now just 45 minutes away from the headline show, scheduled to run from 9:30-11:30 p.m., I made tracks for the open air venue where I was still able to find an end seat on the left side, two-thirds of the way back. I passed the time reviewing photos on my phone, checking email, and sending a couple text messages. By 9:00 instruments were in place and the Bud Light stage was set with just a little tweaking over the next half hour. Jarekus Singleton sang hard-driving blues in the nearby Subaru tent, but I found it hard to pay attention, as the minutes were winding down for the long-awaited performance of Boz Scaggs. At 9:35 Jarekus Singleton showed no sign of bringing his program to a close, but he did so after two more lengthy songs.
At about 9:50 p.m. Boz Scaggs and his troop entered to a cheering crowd. The first two songs, unfamiliar to me, were pleasant, but not as edgy and jazzy as the best of Boz. When he introduced Jo Jo, one that I had hoped, but didn’t necessarily expect that he would do, as a throwback to the “Hollywood years,” he really kicked into gear. The hard, funky downbeat with the syncopated vocal, so right for this amazing hipster’s voice, always makes me dance for my cats.
One middle-aged fellow in red t-shirt two rows ahead of me glided out of his row toward a woman two rows in front of him and started to gyrate in her direction. After he soloed for a minute or so, the bemused woman rose from her seat and joined him. The gentleman’s 20-something-year-old son, who had remained seated, enveloped himself in his red hoody as he slid low-down in his chair. I don’t think 20-something-year-olds are comfortable watching a parent having quite that much fun.
I noticed a rather chilly breeze kicking up by this time, and I heard some people talking about rain. While I was prepared for the elements with my three rain ponchos, I was not prepared for what Boz Scaggs offered next. He said, “Now we’re going to slow things down a little . . . ,” and the noise around me drowned out the remainder of his statement. Then it was right into the opening chords of what may be my favorite pop song of all time, “A Rainy Night in Georgia,” the soulful masterpiece made famous by Brook Benton, circa1968. Some light drops began to fall as Scaggs delivered his light and breezy rendition, not trying to sound like Brook Benton.
Nobody can sing that song like Brook Benton, but Boz found a way to bring a mournful melody and beautiful lyrics to a 21st century audience in his own way. As he ended this special treat, the night-time clouds opened up in a deluge that sent the audience scurrying en masse like a mammoth surfer’s wave. As the crowd huddled inside the Subaru tent, and some under the beer station roof, Scaggs continued to play for a while. The last tune I can recall hearing before the silence was “(Dirty) Lowdown.”
Gradually clusters of concert-goers headed out of the Festival grounds to their vehicles, many probably thinking that it was a “dirty lowdown” that the performance was cut so short. Sometimes less becomes more. It was more than enough for this fan on a rainy night in Johnstown.