The rain couldn’t stop the music.
Clad in raincoats and ponchos and with umbrellas spanning overhead, the crowd stretched across the grassy field of Bailey Park in Winston-Salem’s Innovation Quarter. Heavy clouds rolled across the sky, just above the tops of old brick tobacco chimneys, but the weather was hushed behind the roar of the crowds, behind the wailing guitars and thunder of drums.
May 25 marked the opening night of the Gears & Guitars Festival in downtown Winston-Salem. The weekend-long event brought performances by national acts Cold War Kids, Blues Traveler and Jason Isbell, in conjunction with the Winston-Salem Cycling Classic. Hundreds of cyclists raced through the city-wide course for the annual four-day competition, but it was the evening events that brought the weekend’s sweet release.
With the anticipation of nostalgic headliners Blues Traveler on Saturday night, the crowd sat through the scattered rain. Some took shelter under thin branches of maple trees or under the beer tents, while hundreds more embraced the wet for a chance to get next to the stage.
Fans sang along at full voice as Soul Asylum played “Runaway Train.” Blues Traveler kept the audience dancing through the night, playing their catalog of hits that span their 30-year career. And yet the nostalgia could only carry so far past the hits the majority of the crowd knew. All seemed to be constantly building to the weekend’s main event of Jason Isbell on Sunday night.
Four-time Grammy winner and former member of Drive-by Truckers, Jason Isbell and his band the 400 Unit filled the park to near capacity. Fans held parties in nearby apartment buildings facing the park, and as the night rolled on, windows opened and balconies shook under dancing feet several stories high, overlooking the raucous crowds that stood cheering below.
Since beginning his solo career, Isbell has released six records, two of which won Grammy awards for Best Album. Isbell’s music is deeply rooted in the folk tradition of country-rock. His songwriting neatly aligns with Neil Young and Ben Howard yet pushes forward with deeply passionate and heart wrenchingly powerful vocals. Isbell is married to singer, songwriter and fiddle player Amanda Shires, with whom Isbell performed before his band took the stage behind him. The crowd’s applause and cheers bellowed among city buildings; the near electric energy emanating from both performers stirred the air of the festival to something beyond a simple musical performance, but rather, gave a glimpse into the power of music.
Fans were in tears as they sang word for word along with Shires and Isbell, happily exchanging the view through cellphone screens for the real thing. Rows of bright-colored lawn chairs sat empty across the hill as the crowd stood to dance and sing and moved closer to the stage.
The rain was dried up towards the end of the night, and in a nearly picturesque scene, the moon glowed warm and pale as the music carried on late into the night. And while each day of the festival saw a brilliant array of performances and attendance numbers topping previous days, it was Isbell’s set that made sitting through the rain worthwhile.
It was a moment of art’s perfection for Winston-Salem. For three consecutive years the festival has grown considerably in size, with 2018 recording record numbers for the event. Sports blended with music, bringing something special to the heart of Winston’s expanding downtown scene.