Across New England, festival-friendly bands are emerging from dank basement spaces, prepping danceable sets of heady, fragrant songs to sprinkle on sun- and fried-food-seeking crowds.
The Alpaca Gnomes, a seven-piece band from Bridgeport playing the Meriden Daffodil Festival Bandshell Stage the afternoon of April 30, seem custom-engineered for this sort of thing. Formed seven years ago by bearded singer and guitarist Benny Mikula and two interlocking trios of musicians, the pointy-hat- wearing collective grows its fanbase — called "gnomies" — with each gig.
"It starts out with a bunch of your friends supporting you, and it spreads," Mikula says. "We've played plenty of shows where nobody knows us and by the end they're wearing the gnome hats. The support really comes from the friends, and then the audience becomes your friends. It's about building relationships."
The Gnomes play hip-swaying, country-tinged rock, with big hooks and oversized personality, landing somewhere between Zac Brown and Dave Matthews. Mikula's voice and acoustic guitar take center stage, with Kimberly Nordling-Curtin's violin and Chris Barry's stinging guitar weaving lines over rumbling grooves, laid down by the rhythm section of drummer Mike Gargano, percussionist Matt Summ, bassist Martin Amidon IX and keyboard player Tim Stone, the band's newest member.
The two-day Daffodil Festival — April 29 and 30 at Meriden's Hubbard Park — is one of the best annual events in Connecticut to hear a concentrated dose of local talent. The Alpaca Gnomes join 29 other bands, including headliners Kal David, Lauri Bono and the Real Deal, and Christine Ohlman and Rebel Montez. View the full music lineup at daffodilfest.com.
Mikula, Gargano and Chris Barry originally played in a Black Rock-area band called Spiral City until Barry moved away. Mikula and Gargano met Nordling-Curtin and Summ at a party. Gargano knew Amidon IX. When Barry moved back, "we put everybody together," Mikula says.
Figuring someone, somewhere had a band called the Gnomes, Mikula and company added Alpaca.
"We had a vision of a gnome riding an alpaca, as though that's how we got to the gigs," Mikula says. "It's silly but it works; it stands out. Who doesn't love gnomes?"
Mikula started playing the guitar at 22. "I played sports and stuff like that," he says. "I took the mindset that I could come home from whatever job I had that I didn't like when I was 50 and sit on the back porch and play whatever song I wanted to play. I wasn't trying to be Jimi Hendrix. I just wanted to play chords and write songs and play music I liked by other artists."
Singing in a heavy-rock band helped Mikula overcome his stage nervousness; he now plays all week long: solo, in duos and trios with different Gnomes, and also with the full band.
"It's been a full-time job for several years now, and I still don't think of myself as a guitar player."
Early on, the Alpaca Gnomes played long, three-hour cover sets, with Mikula's original songs scattered throughout.
"We wanted our friends to come out," Mikula says. "We wanted to have fun and play music. You also want to be creative and express yourself, so we put the originals right there in the middle."
Friends liked the originals. Several years ago, the Gnomes hastily recorded a self-titled debut for a simple reason: to have something — anything — to offer at shows; those songs are now well-known to Gnomies.
"We were playing Soupstock Music and Arts Festival in Shelton, and we had nothing," Mikula says. "We had our songs but we didn't have any merch. We hustled the songs we were playing and got them onto an album, so that we had something to sell."
"Welcome Home," a new album due out this spring, finds the Gnomes taking their time, crafting tracks slowly and with purpose. "We've been playing these songs for a good little while now before we committed them to a recording," Mikula says. "We want to make sure that the songs are right."
Community is the central theme of the title-track, which opens with some spoken-word: "We're not here for a long time, we're here for a good time. Welcome home." Over a deep-pocketed beat, Mikula makes clear: home is where you run into friends, regardless of geography.
There's an unmistakable family-friendly vibe — maybe it's the hats — to Alpaca Gnome shows; kids and parents dance freely in front of the stage, while elderly listeners also get into the spirit.
"When we play at somewhere like Captain's Cove in Bridgeport on the deck in the summer, there's a 90-year-old woman dancing in a gnome hat, and then there's our kids running around with gnome hats," Mikula, a preschool teacher, says. "It's definitely for everybody, no matter what we play."
Fairfield County is the Gnomes' home turf, but their influence is spreading. This winter, they performed in Worcester, Mass., and Teaneck, N.J., and also played the Palace Theater in Stamford. Leading up to the Daffy Fest, the Gnomes spent an evening at Infinity Hall in Norfolk on April 14.
Still, the Alpaca Gnomes are still finding their scene; there's no one band they meld with or genre to lump them into. They've crossed paths with the Kazoo Crew Family Band, from Waterbury, and also with Cousin Earth, a progressive, ukulele-wielding band from Brooklyn, N.Y.
"It's a tricky road to navigate," Mikula says. "We definitely call Black Rock home, because of all the support we've gotten from the various venues. ... Everybody wants to be respected as musicians and you want your creative songs to be heard."
The gnome hats, meanwhile, just sort of happened. But they're here to stay.
"It isn't something that was planned," Mikula says. "It became another fun thing."
THE ALPACA GNOMES play the Bandshell Stage at the Meriden Daffodil Festival at Hubbard Park on April 30 at 2:45 p.m. More information on the festival here.