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N.C. Folk Festival wraps up its first year in Greensboro

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GREENSBORO — Amy Grossmann was exhausted but thrilled.

The closing notes of the inaugural N.C. Folk Festival approached on Sunday afternoon, heralding the evening's ending of the three-day downtown celebration for another year.

"I could not be happier with how things have gone," Grossmann, the festival director, said as Trio Brasileiro played Brazilian choro on a nearby stage.

The locally-produced outdoor multicultural festival replaced the National Folk Festival, which the city hosted each September from 2015 to 2017.

ArtsGreensboro and the city partnered with other sponsors to continue the event, with the national festival as their model.

"I think we met or exceeded people’s expectations for what it would be after the national left," said Grossmann. 

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Sona Jobarteh performs at the N.C. Folk Festival on Sunday in Greensboro.

Friday's heat and humidity gave way by Sunday to highs in the low 70s and the threat of rain. 

With the exception of a brief shower on Saturday afternoon, the rain held off.

"We are incredibly blessed with the weather we have had the past four years," Grossmann said.

The threat of rain didn't faze Terry Hammond.

She and husband Roy Nydorf came from Oak Ridge Sunday to attend. They wanted to catch performances by Big Sam's Funky Nation and reggae band Wesli.

"For me, it’s much nicer that it’s cool," Hammond said. "I’ve got a raincoat and umbrella in my bag if I need it."

Over three days, crowds enjoyed more than 30 acts of music, dance and storytelling from a mix of cultures, performing in seven outdoor locations.

Downtown Greensboro came to life Friday with entertainment that opened the inaugural N.C. Folk Festival, a free, three-day outdoor festival of multicultural music, dance, storytelling, crafts and food.

Among the acts was Greensboro native and Grammy Award-winner Rhiannon Giddens, who also served as guest curator. Her performances attracted overflow crowds.

Grossmann didn't have attendance estimates Sunday. She awaited data from the city and film footage from aerial drones. 

Festival organizers had aimed for 175,000 people, up from 162,000 at last year's national event.

Grossmann also expects economic impact data after it is compiled.

Various departments at UNC-Greensboro conducted audience surveys to determine the festival's economic impact. Past studies have estimated it at $12 million to $15 million annually.

Organizers hoped that a Bucket Brigade of volunteers would collect donations totaling $80,000, up from $77,000 last year. Those donations — coupled with sponsorships — help keep the festival free.

As of Sunday afternoon, donations to the Bucket Brigade totaled $40,000, Grossmann said. 

That doesn't include online donations or those contributed through the Text to Give campaign. Supporters could text the word "give" to 336-439-3934 and make a donation.

For Tom Philion, the festival marked a transition.

Philion was president and chief executive officer of ArtsGreensboro for eight years until July 1.

He led the effort to recruit and co-produce the National Folk Festival in the city, and to produce the N.C. Folk Festival in its place.

Since July 1, Philion has served as senior adviser to ArtsGreensboro. On Monday, he will retire from ArtsGreensboro, but remain a consultant and active in the arts community.

"It's been a tremendous honor to have been part of the arts scene in Greensboro," Philion said. "I'm very proud of what we have accomplished in those years, including what we did this weekend."

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David Hurt, of Greensboro, juggles while listening to the music at the BlueCross BlueShield CityStage.

As festival-goers enjoyed the live music, they bought a variety of foods, crafts, beer and other beverages from vendors.

Saturday's sales for food trucks Medley of High Point and Spanglish of Durham broke records, said Johnny Carlo, who owns Medley.

"A record day for us was maybe 400 people fed out of this truck in one day," Carlo said. "Yesterday we did close to 500."

Those crowds were evident around festival stages. 

Giddens' performance on Saturday night with her band drew an audience that spilled beyond the Lincoln Financial parking lot and into East Market Street.

"It was amazing to look out and see so many people, not only there to support Rhiannon but to support the festival," said Lalenja Harrington of Greensboro, Giddens' sister who sings and performs spoken word with the band.

Harrington praised the "seamless" transition from the national festival to the locally-produced event.

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Ava Kuecker dances on stage with Big Sam's Funky Nation at the North Carolina Folk Fest on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018 in Greensboro, NC. 

"It’s been just as diverse, it’s been just as well attended, and it makes me proud to see Greensboro succeeding with this," Harrington said.

As guest curator, Giddens brought several select performers whose work she wants to support.

She, too, was thrilled with the festival and the turnout.

"I don't know if it could have gone much better for a first year," Giddens said in an interview before taking the stage Sunday for her final performance, an improv interplay between banjo and dance.

Giddens played and sang at the first national festival that Greensboro hosted in 2015.

She gained national prominence as a founding member of the African-American string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

She has since gone on to record solo albums, including the 2017 "Freedom Highway," and now travels the world to perform. 

In October, she won the “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.

The prestigious fellowship honors Giddens for “reclaiming African-American contributions to folk and country music and bringing to light new connections between music from the past and present.”

Giddens won't leave town right away. 

She will speak from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at her alma mater, UNC-Greensboro. Giddens did graduate level work in vocal performance there.

She will join a panel with Francesco Turrisi, a pianist and percussionist who performed with her in Greensboro, and Omar Ali, dean of UNCG’s Lloyd International Honors College.

They will speak on “Bilal’s Songs: Mixing and Re-Mixing the African Diaspora and Islamic World." It will be held in the Elliott University Center Auditorium and is free and open to the public.

Grossmann said she hopes that Giddens will serve as the festival's guest curator again.

"We are very fortunate that this year, out of all the things she chose to do, especially since being honored with the MacArthur grant, that she chose to be part of this," Grossmann said. "If she can fit it into her calendar, we would love to work with her again."

If festival organizers asked her to return as guest curator, "I sure would think about it," Giddens said before going onstage Sunday.

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Greensboro native Rhiannon Giddens performs at the North Carolina Folk Fest on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 in Greensboro, NC. (Jay Westcott/News & Record)

"Trying to prepare for this while I had a full touring schedule was difficult," Giddens added. "But I definitely feel like I gained a lot by doing it ... I don’t want to commit to anything right now. We’re not finished and they haven’t even asked. But I would think about it, for sure, if they ask me."

Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 336-373-5204 and follow @dawndkaneNR on Twitter.