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Rose Arts Festival returns to Norwich after a nearly 20-year absence

Norwich — Jim Carpenter has some fond memories of the Rose Arts Festival.

He remembers opening for Charlie Daniels, back when a massive circus-like tent enveloped Chelsea Parade for the event. He remembers coming late for a Stevie Ray Vaughn concert, carrying his guitar behind the stage, and exchanging a nod with B.B. King, who was leaving the stage.

"It was magical," he said. "It's great to see that they're keeping it going."

Now, nearly 20 years after the storied festival left Chelsea Parade, Carpenter was back on stage, playing with his new band, The CarLeans, and Norwich residents again filled the green to celebrate the revival of the Rose Arts Festival on Saturday.

As the Americana-tinged tones of The CarLeans grew Saturday morning, so did the crowds (and the heat) circling the nearly 100 vendors, organizations and activity booths to visit at Chelsea Parade.

Dozens filled a large tent to learn how to paint a rose bouquet, hosted by Norwich-based Art House. An older crowd decked out in summer hats took to a croquet field, while vendor Maryann Gatheral talked with customers about the owls she'd fashioned out of smooth rocks gathered from local beaches and bedazzled bowling balls, an artistic recycling of the retired equipment from her husband's bowling haunt. 

Many parked themselves in lawn chairs to enjoy a range of diverse musical performers, from Viva La Hop, a hip-hop group with jazz and funk roots, to the folk and blues stylings of headliner Montbleau.

Attendees were happy to have a summer festival in their own backyard, a place to run into neighbors and friends.

"Nothing else in Norwich currently has this feeling," organizer Kelly August said.

August had fond memories of cheering on her dad and his six siblings as they ran the Rose Arts festival road race when she was a kid.

After returning to the city in 2004 to find the festival had slipped away, August began the quest to revive it. In January, she and the organizing committee began working to make the one-day festival a reality, and they teamed up with Jason Wallace, owner of and booking agent for Norwich's Strange Brew Pub, who she said put in an "unreal, amazing effort" to make the broad range of live music possible.

In order to make the festival accessible to families, she said it had to be free and the vendor fee had to be low. The committee also did outreach to all of the distinct ethnic groups that make up the city's populace.

She likened the effort to giving the first push to a boulder on top of a mountain; once it got rolling, "people really got on board," she said.

She and fair organizers were pleased with the turnout. And early Saturday morning, August said, they already had started talking about next year.

"People don't want to see it go," she said. "I don't know if they ever did."

n.lynch@theday.com

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