The War and Treaty had taken the stage Saturday night at Master Musicians Festival, and everything appeared headed toward another packed headliner show that night, with this year's guest Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. People were jamming to the duo's soulful sounds and the parking lot at Somerset Community College was filling rapidly.
"I was in the middle of the crowd when I looked up and saw the clouds," said TIffany Finley, Master Musicians Festival (MMF) board president.
The ominous cumulus prompted Finley to go backstage and discuss the situation with Isbell and his manager. Still, "we thought it was going to pass us," she said.
Then -- BOOM.
"We saw the lightning. We cut War and Treaty off, and encouraged everyone to get to the other side of the sound board," said Finley. "Then it just kind of opened up."
At close to 8 p.m., a torrential rain ripped through Festival Field, forcing thousands of people to try and immediately seek cover from the storm. Earlier in the day, with oppressive heat in the 90s, a light summer rain might have felt good to the average festivalgoer; now, wet, shivering bodies were squeezing together underneath a limited availability of tents and shelters.
"No one was expecting it to be that bad," said Finley.
Indeed, weather reports had suggested MMF would be able to get its business in before storms hit more in the wee hours of Sunday. Instead, the rain arrived early, and forced an unprecedented decision: the cancelation of the rest of the festival on Saturday night.
It's something Finley hadn't had to do in her 10 years of being at the helm of the MMF board, and no one could remember such a decision being made at any point in the past; there was one MMF in the event's early years where a storm forced people inside at SCC, but that turned out to be a more festive "make lemons out of lemonade" situation that MMF veterans remembered fondly.
This situation, on the other hand, was just plain frightening.
"As festival president, it really, really hit that we were responsible for all those people's lives," she said. "Holding a festival is all fun and games until ... It was a really scary moment."
However, "our board really took charge and we did what we needed to do to keep everybody safe," said Finley. She recalled realizing that often the tents need to have their roofs poked to get standing water off when it rains the night before a festival. Such a heavy amount of rain coming down on the tents so fast with so many people underneath could present a potential disaster.
"I started thinking about all those people underneath there and started looking for something to poke the tent with," said Finley. "Come to find out, the rest of the board was already on it. We were encouraging people to help us. It was a pretty wild time."
A time made even more wild by the wind that threatened to pick up the tent and rip it away. But the storm eventually eased, and decisions had to be made. Finley said she spoke with Somerset Police about evacuating the field, and also talked with Isbell and also with the company that oversees the festival's audio equipment, some of which was damaged in the storm.
"No one felt like it was a good idea to turn the electricity back on," said Finley.
That alone would have made it difficult to carry on, but with forecasts showing another storm as a possibility that night, all parties decided it was best to cancel Isbell's appearance, which would have been the capper to a full day-and-a-half of music at Festival Field.
"Even though it didn't hit us, how would we know?" said Finley.
"We couldn't make the announcement (that it was cancelled), we couldn't turn the electricity back on, so I personally went to each tent and (told people there)," she added.
A number of people in the SomerSessions tent, a new venue for more intimate performances in a far corner of the field, had no idea it was as bad as it was up on the main midway.
"It wasn't as bad down there," said Finley.
A substantial number of people came primarily to see Isbell, and voiced displeasure on social media about not getting to see the act play, seeking refunds or mentioning legal action. Ticketbuyers purchase passes either for Friday, Saturday, or both days, and not for an artist exclusively, however.
"A lot of people buy tickets to see Isbell, but the festival has grown to where you come to see artists to make it big," said Finley. "You don't walk into a movie when its 90 percent finished and then complain about the ending."
And while the "negativity" was upsetting, the opposite was even more uplifting.
"The outpouring of messages and on Facebook, posts from people who used to be involved in the festival and people who played here coming to our defense and making sure we know that as an organization we are appreciated and loved and they support us no matter what -- that was really overwhelming," said Finley.
Some people even complained to Isbell on Twitter; the Americana artist Tweeted in response, "Wasn't my decision to make. The festival's sound equipment is not usable after the rain and hail, so they sent us home. Definitely wish it had not stormed!
Finley noted that no one was as upset about the outcome as the MMF volunteers and board themselves, who wanted to see Isbell as much as anyone.
"It's super disappointing, and obviously we booked him back in October," she said. "We couldn't couldn't believe how lucky we got to book him that early. Things went so easily this year. It felt too good to be true."
And ultimately, that's how it turned out -- too good to be true. At least for Isbell. The rest of the festival, though hot, was on pace to reach scorching attendance numbers.
"Ticket sales were going great," said Finley. "It was a little more spread out this year because there different tent go to. But the numbers were looking good. I think had we had the extra two hours, we would have been just as crowded as in one of our bigger years."
Finley said that organizers were "pleasantly surprised" by the addition of the SomerSessions venue -- though there were worries people might not even find it, "You couldn't get in the tent," she noted -- and the SCC information and festival necessities booth and City of Somerset water bottle refill station were both big hits in their first year.
"I go to a lot of music festivals, and you see a lot people who are not really nice sometimes and welcoming," she said. "That can really make a huge difference in your experience.
"The fact that we have people sitting there with anything you could ever want, everyone was so complimentary about how hospitable we are," she added. "Just the bands themselves, they just loved it here. So many compliments about how well we take care of them and we make them feel like the stars they they are or will be."
Some of the highlights of the two days at Festival Field included the announcements honoring McNeil Music Center's Maria McNeil as Music Educator of the Year, and the presentation of the MMF Lifetime Achievement Award to piano instructor Pauline House of Keyboard Klassics in Somerset.
"I'm glad that I've had a small part in bringing music to this community -- not just music, the arts," said House on Saturday following the award presented to her for her accomplishments.
Finley said organizers are still "assessing the situation," and looking at "all our options" and various policies, and expect to make a formal statement on the 2019 festival soon.
Meanwhile, would they think about trying to bring back Isbell next year to give this another shot?
"We would always welcome Isbell back," she said. "It's something we'd have to figure out, but if given the possibility, of course."