Mid-June has come and gone, and it was my great pleasure to attend the Northern California Pirate Festival in Vallejo. Having attended this festival each of its three years, I’d love to say that I’ve witnessed it grow into something fantastic, but in this rare case no growth was necessary – never have I seen an event so much hit the ground running as this. The 2009 season proved every bit as worthy an event as its two predecessors as the waterfront park was again converted into a full-on pirate festival for two days during Fathers’ Day weekend.
The first thing that stands out about NorCal is its curbside appeal. While this isn’t a feature many festivals boast, NorCal manages to set a new standard with two enormous ship’s masts that mark the festival entrance. Depending on when you arrive, there might even be a boisterous scalliwag yelling from the rigging. Upon entering the festival proper, the grounds are filled with what must be hundreds of piratey vendors – clothing, weapons, piratey arts and crafts as well as pirate-themed teas and T-shirts. Taking it all in required several passes, as did the food court, which always boasts a variety rarely seen. Maybe it’s a California thing, or maybe NorCal stands alone, but never before at a pirate festival have I seen artichoke hearts, duck and quail, or fried oysters (although the more usual turkey legs and chili dogs are of course available as well.)
Entertainment throughout the day consisted of music by The Pirates Charles )who I still maintain to be one of the best live pirate bands currently in the circuit), shanty legends Skip Henderson and the Starboard Watch, Queen Anne’s Revenge, Mr. Mac, The Roving Tars, and of course Bay Area natives The Seadogs. Non-musical acts included weapons demonstrations by The Brotherhood of Oceanic Mercenaries, and it was also a real treat to finally catch Captain Jack Spareribs’ show, which – get this – is actually really, really funny (Jack Sparrow lookalikes always make me uneasy – as do puppets.)
One of this festival’s other great (and fortunate) assets is the remarkable diversity of its attendees. Sure, there are the normal folk and pirate reenactors – but I’m talking about the vast number of people that find new and creative ways to merge the pirate genre with whatever strikes their fancy. This year alone I saw pirate punks, Pirate Elvis (the ONLY pirate king, imo), pirate zombies, pirate mermaids, pirate sailors, and even a gay pirate bunny. And yes, there were indeed airship pirates, which is rapidly becoming a gristle in my craw, so let me clarify for those of you that need it…
At an event such as NorCal, Airship Pirates are fair game. But this does NOT mean all steampunk is piratey. Steampunk elephant hunters, bug exterminators, or undead railroad conductors have nothing to do with pirates – take that psuedo-victorian sci-fi lark elsewhere.
Oh, lest I forget, Saturday night included a new addition to the festival – an afterparty. Held at “The Cantina”, a local mexican restaurant, the first few hours featured music DJed by none other than myself, with The Pirates Charles taking the stage later on to close out the evening in a truly splendid fashion.
To me, the NorCal Pirate Festival remains one of the best in the business. Even the editor of No Quarter Given, Jamaica Rose, who’s likely been to more pirate festivals than anyone on the planet, once told me she places it handily in the top three (alongside Gasparilla and Pirates in Paradise.) Non-pirate types will likely get their fill in one day, but those of us a bit more hopelessly addicted to the subject can flesh out the weekend by getting some one-on-one chat time with such pirate luminaries as Skip Henderson, the reenactors of Tales of the Seven Seas, the crew of Pirates Magazine, pirate artist Richard Becker, and many other folks you’ve likely read about. It’s definitely worth the trek to attend, regardless of where you’re hailing from – just be sure to pack lots of sunscreen.