Keep the oxygen handy, then, because it’s too late for her to turn back now.
Vitamin D (aka Denice Witkowski), contractor by day and festival mastermind/community activist in her spare time, is the creative force behind Womyns Fest, one of the longest-running free women’s festivals in the Philadelphia area. For the last decade, it has showcased various styles of music at the Rotunda, 4014 Chestnut St., with lineups featuring acoustic acts, rock, punk, world music, hip-hop, jazz, Celtic, poetry, dance and performance artists while raising money for worthy causes and screening film shorts.
Yes, we know what you’re thinking: Festivals are a dime a dozen, and all of them promise to be the most eclectic event going. But Vitamin D said Womyns Fest sets itself apart from other local festivals.
“The one thing that’s different about Womyns Fest opposed to most of the festivals that do happen is that it’s more of a showcasing of a huge mix,” she said. “I try to get eight to 15 acts. It’s really diverse. There are so many different things and it’s quick. You can see 20-minute sets of so many different varieties.”
Vitamin D has promised to make its 10th anniversary a truly special occasion by performing on stage this year for the first time with her newly anointed band, The Vitamin D 3, which includes out performers Steph Hayes and Chrissy Tashjian.
“It’s scary,” Vitamin D said about the prospect of being in the spotlight instead of behind the scenes. “I was going to perform acoustic and then I went over to Chrissy’s and she threw an electric guitar at me and said, ‘Play this.’ I kind of liked it. So then, I knew Steph played bass and [Chrissy] is playing drums. It’s kind of fun now, but I was really scared to play. But I promised everybody that I would. Now I want to play because these guys are so good. It just makes it easy because I have them behind me. If I mess up, they’ll just keep playing.”
Hayes said she’s excited to finally see Vitamin D perform songs she has written over the last 15 years in front of a live audience.
“I’ve always heard her play,” she said. “She’ll pay at parties a little bit but she gets kind of shy. She writes all the time. She’s always telling me about songs. But she’s never gotten it together to play in front of people because she doesn’t like being on stage. I think this is monumental for her and I’m proud that I can help out doing these songs. It took a life of its own. I’m really psyched about it.”
The Vitamin D 3 collectively agrees that their sound is 1960s-influenced pop-rock.
“It’s what I would have written if I wanted to be a musician,” Vitamin D said. “I would have wanted to be a rock musician. But I kept telling myself there’s no way. I have trouble playing in front of people. Doing it is going to be pretty exciting, I guess.”
Performing with the Vitamin D 3 means Hayes and Tashjian will pull double duty at the festival, as they are also performing with their other groups. Actually, Tashjian, who is relatively new to the festival, will be on triple duty.
“My main project is Dangerous Ponies,” she said. “Then, my main project that I was so into for a long time, The Naughty Naughty Nurses, we haven’t played for a long time. We recorded an album that a lot of people really want to hear. So we’re going to release it at the festival. We’ve been jamming and having a good time.”
Hayes, a seasoned veteran of the Philadelphia music scene and no stranger to the festival, will perform with her former Stargazer Lily cohort, Susan Rosetti. She’s a little fuzzy on how many Womyns Fests she has played.
“I don’t know because I remember performing pretty drunk a few times,” Hayes said. “I’ve done most of them.”
“I think she missed maybe two of them during some particularly crazy moments,” Vitamin D added.
Hayes said the festival’s varied lineup is one of the main reasons she keeps coming back every year.
“There’s always a nice diversity among the artists that are performing,” she said. “The commonality is women artists, but Denice books a broad range of women artists. There’s not one particular thing to expect, which is really cool. There’s been Middle Eastern music, belly dancers, rock bands, punk bands, acoustic artists and medieval music. It’s been all kinds of interesting stuff, so you never know what you’re going to get.”
That turned out to be very true, as Hayes didn’t know that she and Rosetti were also going to be featured in the short-film portion of the festival until Vitamin D mentioned it.
“There’s going to be a five-minute film of their song, ‘Train Song,’ that I edited because I do film too,” Vitamin D said.
“I’m going to be taking a lunch break when that happens,” Hayes said.
Vitamin D added that lesbian filmmakers submitted most of the shorts for the film portion of the festival. She said she has always included gay artists in the festival, but in recent years has put extra effort in trying to include transgender performers.
“I try to reach out to the transgender community a lot because I got asked by them why there aren’t any trans artists playing,” she said. “Because none of them ever asked to play and I don’t know any except for this girl A.J. Shanti, who is going to be playing. She identifies as trans. I don’t identify one way or the other. I think everyone has their own voice of who they are and they bring that to the show. They identify, speak out about who they are and then it all comes together in one room. There are a larger percentage of lesbian women that have performed over the years.”
With the variety of the acts, the frequency of the set changes and the other various artistic elements of the festival to keep track of, Vitamin D admits she has had to become quite the efficient taskmaster.
“After 10 years, it’s more like routine,” she said. “You know what it is and you know what you’re going to do. People know you too in the community. They know you’re showcasing bands. I‘ve got to get 12 groups on stage within five hours. Everybody is equal. The last two or three groups are a little bit larger so they get a few more minutes compared to the acoustic acts. But it’s pretty much equal. Everybody gets paid the same.”
“If it takes you 20 minutes to set up, you should play 20 minutes at least,” Hayes quipped.
“If it takes you more than 20 minutes to set up, you’ve lost your slot on one of my productions,” Vitamin D shot back. “I’m really tight like that. Because I’ve been such a drill sergeant from the very beginning, it does get easier for me because everybody knows when they come back, I’m always like, ‘All right, you’ve got two minutes to break down.’”
Tashjian knows from first-hand experience that Vitamin D means business when it comes to set changes.
“The Dangerous Ponies are a seven-piece band and Denise was like, ‘You have 10 minutes to get on the stage and get everything together,’” she said. “And there’s seven of us and we all have instruments. I was amazed that we got it done in time.”
“That’s why they’re playing last this time,” Vitamin D added. “I think with a little encouragement, most bands can move that quick.”
After organizing Womyns Fest and performing in it, Vitamin D could be forgiven for taking a long and well-deserved rest, especially considering she also organizes the Philadelphia World Peace Festival. But she begins planning for the following year’s festival as soon as this year’s events are over.
“I’m always starting the day after the last festival is over, looking for someone for the next festival. I go out and I look for new material and see new acts. I’m looking all the time. It’s not as difficult as one would think for me. I have a lot of energy.”
Hayes, who is an artistic workaholic in her own right, applauds Vitamin D’s efforts to keep these events thriving and vital to Philadelphia’s arts scene.
“I love how Denice keeps her finger on the pulse,” she said. “I can’t keep up these days, but it’s so cool to see the new energy coming through, because I remember being in that spot where the music world of Philadelphia was kind of new. Now I’ve seen a lot of things come and go so I’m in a different place. It’s really cool to watch the young kids and all their youthful exuberance not yet quashed by the evils of the business.”
“I feel like I’ve been playing music for a long time and I am still young, but I have quashed at moments,” Tashjian added.
Vitamin D said she ultimately would like to expand Womyns Fest’s audience and move the annual event to a larger venue.
“I would like to have a bigger event at some point where we could make it into a weekend event where people could play on a large stage out in the country,” she said.
Womyns Fest, featuring The Vitamin D 3, Kelly Carvin, Naughty Naughty Nurses, Steph Hayes, The Tara Lynne Band, A.J. Shanti, Emily Bate and Peek-A-Boo Revue, among other performers, runs from 3-11 p.m. March 8 at the Rotunda, 4014 Chestnut St. For more information, visit www.vitaminproductions.us or call (215) 462-3405.
Larry Nichols can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.