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Rain drenched but didn’t quench CarolinaFest

Thousands pack uptown for DNC’s welcome party

CHARLOTTE, N.C. These were the sounds of CarolinaFest up and down Tryon Street Monday afternoon:

The massed horns of the Johnson C. Smith University Marching Band blasting out Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration,” while musicians paused at Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. to let the crowd savor their enthusiasm.

The whisper of paintbrushes in Legacy Village, as kids spontaneously added to murals.

The raspy friendliness of a volunteer stopping passers-by to ask, “Are you registered to vote at your current address?”

And finally, the dandelion-light voice of James Taylor as he sat on the main stage at Trade and Tryon streets, wearing a tan cap, Carolina blue jacket and navy Obama shirt.

“The rain can’t keep our enthusiasm down,” he vowed. “We’ve come here with a mission in our hearts.” After he began “You’ve Got a Friend,” the skies wept harder than ever.

And that was the day: part joyous strut, part educational experience, part get-out-the-vote labor among volunteers of the Democratic National Committee, and partly just a chance to prove Charlotte knows how to show out-of-towners a good time.

“We have fallen in love with your city,” said Tony Pierce, as he posed beneath the Bechtler Museum’s Firebird sculpture for wife Julie to take a photo. These two delegates reached Charlotte only 24 hours before from California’s Simi Valley, but they had already decided “the city is fabulous.”

There were polite voices of dissent, too: anti-abortion protestors with signs; a street preacher who warned that Jesus was the only way to avoid the eternal lake of fire meant for most of us. They seemed not disruptions so much as parts of the fabric of life in a diverse city. The general mood was orderly and amiable, even during the repeated fitful drizzles and bouts of heavy rain.

Two Anthonys kicked off the mainstage events at The Square shortly after noon.

Anthony Hamilton sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” with soulful respect, as an American Sign Language interpreter illuminated his words, and Mayor Anthony Foxx set civic pride alight by recalling the 2008 election of Barack Obama: “I never thought, four years later, that we’d have invited people from all over the country to downtown Charlotte.” (Yes, he said downtown.) “You’re standing at an old Native American crossroads ... in a city that has come a long way, because people were determined that it would.”

Janelle Monae then kicked up the musical temperature a notch, rapping with ferocious energy about freedom, before Jeff Bridges and the Abiders brought us gently to Earth. Bridges, who looked like a cross between The Dude in “The Big Lebowski” and Wild Bill Hickok, has come to town to promote the organization No Kid Hungry and speak Wednesday at the EpiCentre, after a screening of the documentary “A Place at the Table.”

Legacy Village, next to the Gantt Center near Stonewall Street, became a public park and marketplace. You could play hoops, sample local produce, learn about healthier living.

An artist’s tent included a skyline mural with portraits painted on the spot by Charlotte’s Stephanie Burke; on the other side, citizens were asked to paint images or words that explained their visions for the Queen City. (Love and light rail had about equal prominence.)

Charlotte’s John Hairston also invited passers-by to dip into his palette and express themselves in a long, unnamed piece that had room for a funky Queen Charlotte with a face like an African mask and the gateway to Ballantyne. “Anybody can paint,” he insisted. “It’s just a matter of how determined you are. Determination makes all the difference.”

Up on Tryon Street, each block had a vision of its own: first came civic and social organizations, then foods that were fast-fried or slow-cooked. Next was convention-themed commerce from saucy buttons to canvases of a thoughtful Obama, then the block leading to Trade Street and the largest of three stages.

Yet just as much pleasure could be had from casual conversations. You might have met Charlotte’s Elena Botella, 21, a Duke University student and N.C. delegate.

“People think of delegates as party veterans, but there are as many this year under 35 as over 65,” she said. “It makes sense for us to work on the party platform, because we’ll be living with it.”

Or you might have bumped into Pat Roelke, the New Jersey transplant who came to Charlotte in 2009 and first voted 44 years ago. The DNC volunteer was registering people and said proudly, “I even registered one Republican today. We are not exclusive!”

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