Just imagine that the Donner Park shelter house is the community back porch today when Soldiers’ Joy String Band headlines the opening show of the summer’s Donner Park Variety Show monthly series.

Eric Jarboe, the group’s hammered dulcimer, fiddle and bass ukulele player, likes the laid-back, down-home concept.

“Music doesn’t always have to be so prepared and polished that you rehearse it for weeks and weeks,” said the player who does precisely that when he performs on tuba with the Columbus City Band and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. “With our group, we’re doing what a lot of people used to do on the back porch. And I think people still enjoy that spontaneity.”

The group will play a 45-minute set of folk tunes, hymns and other material after the show opens with the Columbus East High School’s Jazz Inc., followed by teen guitarist Jalen Pleak, country singer Charlie Moore and vocalist Luan Arnold. East’s jazz group has kicked off the series each of the past few years. John Foster, WCSI Radio morning host, will serve as master of ceremonies.

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The free event is marking the 20th anniversary of its revival, according to organizer and longtime local musician Tom Pickett. The Columbus Evening Kiwanis Club, WCSI Radio and Columbus Parks and Recreation Department sponsor the series.

The shows began in 1926 but reached a peak of popularity in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Area singers, musicians, dancers, bands and other performers entertained in an age before TV or air-conditioning. The shows ended for a number of years before Kiwanians revived them in 1997.

Pickett is happy to still see crowds of 200 or 300 people on nights when the weather is right.

“One thing is that these shows give young people a chance to test the waters with an audience,” Pickett said. “Others like the chance to perform just because they love music and love to entertain.

“And for other people, it’s a free, nice evening out where they get to hear styles of music they don’t often hear anymore. So, it’s really a blessing all the way around.”

Jarboe and weekend bandmates — Larry Wayt on guitar and vocals, and Jim Wendel on guitar, harmonica and vocals — plan to include such standards as “Amazing Grace,” “I Am a Pilgrim” and “Wabash Cannonball.”

“People definitely will recognize many of the tunes,” Jarboe said.

He added that he and his friends just celebrated their one-year anniversary as a group, playing for the sheer joy of it.

“I like the fact that music still is a release from the everyday pressures of life and a chance for some good, simple fellowship,” Jarboe said.

Some of the songs they have performed unfold more like an impromptu jam session.

“One person might start a song they like, and the rest of us just kind of jump right in,” Jarboe said.

Just like a back porch gathering.

Music and summer nights

What: 30th anniversary season of the return of the free Donner Park Variety Shows. Sponsored by Columbus Evening Kiwanis Club, WCSI Radio and Columbus Parks and Recreation.

When: 7 to 9 p.m. today. Same time July 22, Aug. 12 and Sept. 23.

Where: Donner Park shelter house near 19th and Lafayette streets in Columbus.

Admission: Free.

Today’s lineup: Columbus East Higgh School’s Jazz Inc; teen guitarist Jalen Pleak; country singer Charlie Moore; vocalist Luan Arnold; and Soldier’s Joy String Band.

Information: Tom Pickett at 812-372-6700.

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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.