Above: Derrick Manley performing at last year’s event. His band Zu Zu Ya Ya returns this year. Photos by Kevin Francis 

Weekend at Bertha’s Festival offers a nostalgic retreat

By JulieAnne Cross

Dwayne and Rich Todd are the founders of the second annual Weekend at Bertha’s festival, which descends on the otherwise quiet hamlet of Townsend from Friday, July 29 through Sunday, July 31.

Sure, one could look at Weekend at Bertha’s and think it’s just another concert weekend, but the Todd brothers, who are members of American futurist band Urban Shaman Attack, have bigger things in mind. And it all began during the pandemic.

“I drive a truck during the week, and when the pandemic hit, we were essential,” recalls Rich. “We thought, ‘Let’s throw a party for the people who have to keep working.’”

Molly Hatchet brought a hard rock vibe to the inaugural event in 2021, followed the next night by Live Dead 69/71. This band featured Grateful Dead pianist Tom Constanten, playing into the Dead-themed vibe that would characterize this year’s lineup.

Founders Rich (left) and Dwayne Todd say they are not trying to “chase dollars” with Weekend at Bertha’s, “just show people we can have a good tiime.”

This year’s headliners are Johnny Neel (Friday) and Midnight North (Saturday).

Neel, a Wilmington native and one-time member of the Allman Brothers Band, has had his songs recorded by the likes of Gov’t Mule and Travis Tritt. Widely known in the music industry as a songwriter, he rocks his bluesy shows with a powerful voice, funky harmonica, and skillful piano and organ playing.

Midnight North was named “Best New Act” in a Rolling Stone review of the 2018 Peach Music Festival. With a roster that includes guitarist Grahame Lesh (son of the Dead’s Phil Lesh), they perform folk and Americana originals, and Dead covers will naturally be part of their Bertha’s set. 

The Bertha’s lineup includes regional artists known for original music, and who also happen to have some Dead in their repertoire of covers. A silent disco will keep the late-night revelers entertained.

Recreating the Dead’s Kings Beach concert from 1968 will be the Riko and Whaler Collective. Move Me Brightly’s psychedelic light show rounds out the immersive Dead experience.

The weekend is named after “Bertha,” which is both a Grateful Dead song title and an element of the band’s iconography dating back to 1966. The namesake skeleton, wearing a crown of roses, graces the festival’s flyer.

However, labeling the Todd brothers as simply “Deadheads” throwing a concert would miss the mark.

Before the festival existed, the brothers set out to become a Diamond State chapter of the “Merry Pranksters,” a symbol of the 1960s counterculture movement. The Pranksters were known for communal living, road-tripping, art, and psychedelic road trips, as documented in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. Notable Pranksters include a band known as The Warlocks, which later became the Grateful Dead.

After meeting some of the Pranksters at a festival, the brothers had the idea to form a Delaware chapter.

Dwayne says their goal is to continue the work of the Pranksters “using art, music and events to turn minds on and to develop culture — they created change and had fun doing it.”

“It’s important that we didn’t just start a party group — [we] have community activities and engage with public,” he adds. 

The Diamond State Pranksters create participatory art opportunities, such as a “smile drive” (soliciting smiley-face art from passers-by, then rewarding them with a gold dollar coin) and a weekly drum circle near the Jasper Crane Rose Garden in Brandywine Park. They offered free festival tickets in 2021 to the area’s first responders.

Rich calls the group “neo-Pranksters,” and credits the originals and “their mission to make light of situations and have it be comedy.”

“You should be able to laugh, especially at yourself,” Rich says.

The brothers have distinguished themselves from other festival promoters in one more way: pricing. Day passes start at $40, and camping-inclusive general admission is $88 (with VIP treatment costing a mere $175), making this festival the definition of affordable.

When you visit the festival website or arrive at Firebase Lloyd (474 Fleming Landing Road, the festival grounds run by the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club of Delaware), you won’t encounter a wall full of sponsor logos. This festival is mostly self-funded. 

“We’re not trying to chase dollars, just show people we can have a good time,” says Rich. 

“We side more with spiritualism, not materialism, and that plays into our choices of who we hire and how we do it,” adds Dwayne.

Vendors, or as Dwayne calls them, “a traveling hippie mall,” include food, handmade clothes, tie-dyes and jewelry. No alcohol will be sold on the property. In fact, the rain-or-shine festival has a detailed list of dos and don’ts on its website, WeekendAtBerthas.com.