Santa Rosa music festival a hit despite sudden hail storm

Jason Schneider sipped a Lagunitas IPA in the sunshine Sunday as he watched his daughters in Railroad Square chase bubbles made by a woman in a pink polka-dot dress with a rainbow on her cheek.

As he savored his local brew, his wife Laura, drinking a plastic cup of Virginia Dare chardonnay, said something that will be music to the ears of the organizers of the third annual Railroad Square Music Festival.

“I like this better than BottleRock!” she said.

The Santa Rosa event’s kid-friendly vibe, the historic charm of Railroad Square and the impressive musical acts all made Laura Schneider feel that Napa’s high-end, high-octane music fest had nothing on downtown’s day of free down-home music.

With more than a dozen live acts on four stages, the event was the largest ever and on track — before the sudden rain and hail showers — to draw an attendance of about 5,000, said festival founder Josh Windmiller.

“Everybody realizes that this is good for Santa Rosa,” Windmiller said. “We’ve got these streets, and we’ve got these neighborhoods and we’ve got this music, so it feels like a waste to not do this.”

The stormy weather, while it caused some revelers to duck for cover a couple times, didn’t dampen spirits at the event, a blend of a family-friendly farmer’s market and a hipster circus set to live music.

“This is how a farmer’s market should be!” said Ruby Edwards, of Petaluma, who kept her Revolution Bread booth up longer than she might have once the crowds started swelling after 2 p.m.

The noon-to-7 p.m. festival had a couple hours of overlap with the West End Farmer’s Market. Several food trucks supplemented the Railroad Square restaurants and bars, many of which were packed during the event.

The festival rose from the ashes of the Great Handcar Regatta, the popular, whimsical steam-punk infused mad dash down a largely unused rail line. Upgrades to bring the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit to life sent the regatta packing, but Windmiller sought to keep that lifeline to the city’s arts community alive.

A nod to that handcar history was on display with two of the more elaborate contraptions parked outside Jack and Tony’s restaurant, as parents hoisted their toddlers up into the driver’s seats for photo-ops.

Performers from the Circus Maximus, including women on stilts dressed as a zebra and cheetah, added to the theatical atmosphere of the event.

New this year was the closure of Fourth and Fifth Streets between Davis and Wilson, creating an open, U-shaped venue that didn’t keep drinkers penned into one particular area.

The musical genres ran the gamut, from the bluesy rock of John Courage, who also rocked a red-white-and-blue headband, to Andy Graham blowing a pair of didgeridoos, to Corwin Zekley and his pals busting out some Django-tinged klezmer music that inspired local gallery owners Robin and Simmon Factor to do a little impromptu softshoe in the middle of Wilson Street.

Zekley, who plays violin, said the festival’s growth is a testament to the city’s growing arts scene.

“I really love the music community here,” Zekley said. “It’s really growing and people are appreciating it, obviously.”

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