As the concertgoers trickled into the Leesburg park, swinging their coolers and clutching their lawn chairs, the main act was tuning up and getting settled.
The guitarist plucked his strings and examined the hammered dulcimer. The drummer, a man from the Bronx, N.Y., who goes by the name Jagoda, was setting up his African djembe and Egyptian dumbek. And the pianist-harmonica player eyed the height of his seat, adding a telephone book to give himself a boost.
Moments later, the folk quartet known as Howard Levy, Paul Reisler & A Thousand Questions began playing, and the chatter simmered to a relaxed silence. It was one of those sublime summer nights when live music served both as a community bond and the soundtrack for a setting sun that colored the sky with streaks of orange, red and violet.
The performance was part of the Bluemont concert series, a decades-old tradition in Northern Virginia that has cultivated a discerning following of aficionados as well as folks who just want live, outdoor music without the parking hassle and expense of a major venue.
Typical of the dozens of families parked on faded blankets and bedsheets were Keri Fair, 33, her husband, Courtney, and two children, soon joined by the Linhardts, longtime friends from western Loudoun County.
"This is a tradition," said Tara Linhardt, a musician herself. "We've been coming here on and off since high school."
From Wolf Trap to community squares, outdoor concerts are a staple of summer evenings in the area. The Bluemont concerts, which feature folk to rock to salsa, run through the end of the month in many of Northern Virginia's small towns, including Warrenton, Middleburg and Leesburg, where musicians play against the backdrops of courthouses, village greens and closed side streets. Admission is $5.
In Leesburg, the historic courthouse plaza typically serves as the concert stage, but because the building is being renovated, this summer's performances are at Freedom Park, next to a middle school. The change has resulted in smaller audiences. The band plays in front of a snack bar designed to look like a barn, and on the horizon are new, gleaming white townhouses.
But on a recent Sunday night, the assembled crowd of old-time Loudounites, newcomers and even some people from the District still filled most of the available grass. Among them were a federal prosecutor from Cleveland Park, an America Online engineer from Ashburn and an air traffic controller from Leesburg.
Children ran around haphazardly, throwing Frisbees on the adjacent sports fields named after local Little League coaches and climbing the football goal posts. Young parents lounged in fold-out lawn chairs, the kind with cup holders, while the older set brought metal chairs with strips of plaid backing. One young couple, sprawled on their stomachs on a blanket, napped and nuzzled when no one appeared to be looking.
The band played to the crowd -- showing off its connections to the area with occasionally sorrowful and serious homegrown lyrics. One song was about a man near Charlottesville who committed a murder and has been seen spending his post-jail days waving to motorists alongside Route 29; another was about a road widening in nearby Rappahannock County.
"It's about preserving the crooked and narrow, and I'm not talking about the political system at the moment," said Reisler, a Rappahannock resident, prompting sympathetic claps from the audience.
Amy Speace, the group's vocalist, said she recognized a former classmate from Amherst College in the crowd. It was the man, she said, who was yelling "Speacemonster!" from the back. That was Daniel Banyas, the AOL engineer from Ashburn, who spent part of the evening standing on the adjacent football field with one eye on his children and the other on his old college friend clutching the microphone.
Others said they'd come because they are fans of folk music or of specific band members. Levy, the harmonica player, is a Grammy Award winner who played with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones; Reisler was the co-founder and leader of a popular folk band called Trapezoid.
One major devotee on hand was John Lee, 26, a guitarist and harmonica player from Oakton who had learned that Levy was playing and was able to get a lesson from the master before the show. "He invented a way of playing chromatically on a diatonic instrument," Lee said nonchalantly while watching Levy play the harmonica. "He invented this strange way of using his mouth to create new notes. Like, there's no one that can do that."
Lee stared straight ahead, grinning slightly as if he couldn't believe what he was witnessing. "He's playing classical music on that thing," he said. "I don't know if all the people here know who he is. It's like seeing someone famous."