Joe Natale Makes Every R&R Opening a Smooth One
It takes a village to create a village.
Just ask Joe Natale, who wrangles plywood, fencing, tents, electrical wires, water lines and a group of willing volunteers to transform Ninigret Park into a tiny town supporting the Rhythm & Roots experience over Labor Day weekend each year.
A carpenter by trade, Natale heads up the behind-the-scenes site work at five or six festivals up and down the East Coast. The attention to detail at Rhythm & Roots, however, serves as his personal standard. “It’s all the things that I look for in a festival, and all the things I try to change at other festivals.” The crew chiefs have years of experience, the port-a-johns are cleaned constantly, the dance floors are smooth, the food vendors have everything they need and the volunteers are happy to help.
Natale makes it possible for thousands of music lovers to enjoy the festival without a thought about what goes into making it all possible. “The biggest thing is knowing people’s needs before they need it.”
Natale offered a peek into how it all gets done. He arrives a week before the festival and starts planning for Job No. 1: erecting the kitchen to feed the 40 or so volunteers who do the pre-festival labor for eight to 10 hours a day. Electricity and water are needed before anything else.
By the Saturday before the festival, volunteers arrive. Ideally, the R&R supplies were strategically packed into the storage containers so that what’s needed first is easiest to grab. The tent, stoves and supplies for the kitchen are packed into a rental truck, unloaded and set up.
The back-and-forth unloading, combined with the inevitable trips to Wal-Mart and Home Depot, continue. While “everyone does everything” on the crew, some folks do the same jobs, Natale says. One volunteer puts together the dance floors every year, “and that’s a lot of lumber.” Natale oversees it all. “I have to solve all the problems that come up along the way.”
Since Rhode Island’s fire laws are some of the most stringent in the nation, the challenges are many, including erecting lighted exit signs on tents with no sidewalls. All the pressure builds up to about one hour before the gates open when the health and fire inspectors show up to sign off on the entire project. “It’s gut-wrenching, really,” he says, but R&R has never failed to open the gates on time due to a failed inspection.
Volunteers are eager, Natale says, but aging. College-age crew members are tough to find because school typically starts at the end of August, before Rhythm & Roots begins. Finding volunteers to take down the R&R village is even more difficult. (Anyone interested in volunteering can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.) He notes that one site crew benefit is there’s little work to be done during the festival itself unless there’s a storm.
Natale also enjoys the music, of course, naming Steve Earle, Della Mae and Caroline Chocolate Drops as a few of his favorites over the years. Cajun music is not really his thing, though. “Once I hear that accordion for an hour, it sounds exactly the same for the next three days,” he jokes.
Like every other Rhythm & Roots fan, music is only a part of what brings him back. Natale has developed friendships with the vendors and customers, and the festival is a reunion of sorts. “It becomes a family thing.” After many years of volunteering, Natale is paid for his labor, but he adds, “Nobody gets rich off these things that’s for sure. You’re doing it for the love of the music and for the love of the life. Really, I would say it’s a family-friendly atmosphere with something for everyone to enjoy.”