'Giddy with anticipation': WashCo Fair performers eager to return
Before the pandemic, Charlie Hurley of the touring folk band The Rock Bottom Boys felt like the group was hitting a stride.
"We were like, 'Hey, look at us,'" Hurley said of the group's four shows in Texas in 2019. "Then, slap."
The pandemic ground everything to a halt for performers like The Rock Bottom Boys.
But events where touring groups thrive, such as the Washington County Fair, are coming back across the country, and performers are ready to show off for entertainment-deprived audiences.
The Rock Bottom Boys will be among the entertainers kicking off the festivities at the Washington County Fair, performing three days July 23-25.
This year, the fair is running with a 10-day format from Friday, July 23, through Sunday, Aug. 1.
The band is comprised of Hurley, known as "Lucky Coot" during performances, along with "Red" and "Henk."
Hurley only provided his bandmates' stage names, because "we never break character on stage if we can help it," he said.
The band plays classic rock and folk songs, as well as some new hits rearranged with bluegrass, vocal harmony-centric flavor.
But The Rock Bottom Boys are as much storytellers as they are musicians, with costumes and backstories involving unseen characters that come out during performances.
That's why the band depends on being able to do live shows in front of audiences.
"We are just giddy with anticipation at this point," Hurley said about the group's upcoming shows at the Washington County Fair, where it has been five years since they've played, and other events this summer.
Having performed a couple of shows already since events started to reopen, Hurley says coming back isn't as easy as people might think.
Bandmembers tried to stay distanced during the pandemic and do other things to stay busy, which left them lacking practice.
"We probably put in about 17, 18 hours of rehearsal, just to make sure we had all the chops down," Hurley said. "The first show was like, 'OK, that was hard.' By the second show, we were starting to remember things we say, like, 'OK, how do I introduce this song?'"
There was a time earlier this year when Hurley thought they might go another summer without much work.
In April, around the same time the Washington County Fair Board decided the fair would happen, bookings rapidly ramped up as COVID-19 vaccines started to be more widely available.
"It was all of a sudden, zero to 60," said Bridget Rountree of the puppet and costume-focused performance duo Animal Cracker Conspiracy, about bookings restarting in April.
Animal Cracker Conspiracy will be at the Washington County Fair all 10 days.
Rountree and her partner, Iain Gunn, will be stilt-dancing throughout the fairgrounds in handmade costumes based on the animals of South Africa's Kruger National Park, where the duo has traveled.
"It's a form of entertainment that's been around in America since the turn-of-the-century — it's called 'strolling,'" Gunn said. "We try to bring the real spirit of the animal but interpret it through a turn-of-the-century, American circus, P.T. Barnum lens."
Their act involves a lot of interacting with people walking around — another type of performance that the pandemic placed on hold.
Animal Cracker Conspiracy has also performed since events started reopening. Rountree described it as "shocking" to be back in crowds after the pandemic.
But she says audiences and fairgoers are hungry to be back out and soaking in entertainment.
"There's definitely a general excitement," Rountree said. "People want to be out."
At an event earlier this year, Gunn said he noticed that teenagers, a demographic that in previous years would often turn their noses up at the weirdness of Animal Cracker Conspiracy, have been excited to engage. He attributes the change to teenagers being cooped up for more than a year.
"I hope we don't go to the millennial angst and fear of the weird," Gunn said. "They're now like, 'This is awesome. Let's just all have a little bit of fun right now and enjoy our day.'"
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