With 130-plus performances on six stages over three days, Local Spins makes the return of Festival of the Arts to downtown Grand Rapids an easier row to hoe for attendees with our writers’ picks for sets to catch.
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Talk about tradition: Grand Rapids’ Festival of the Arts has all that and much more.
Hosting the first Festival in downtown Grand Rapids in 1970, the volunteer-driven event has weathered all manner of ups and downs, including, yes, unpredictable weather — not to mention the COVID pandemic.
But the 2023 edition is back in full force this weekend, with more than 130 performances on six stages over three days starting at 5 p.m. Friday, along with food vendors, art, children’s activities, dance presentations and more.
The lineup boasts everything from the Festival debut of a new super-group such as the avant-jazz ensemble Space Bar (noon Saturday on the Clocktower Stage) to the fan-pleasing City Stage spectacle of rock’s Reverend Charles’ PotatoeBabies, which has been closing out Festival with its rollicking sets for many years.
Local Spins has its traditions, too, including recommendations for must-see bands and artists to catch, courtesy of its writers and music experts. Consider these just the tip of the melting iceberg when it comes to Festival’s offerings, with so much more to soak in over a weekend that calls for hot and sunny conditions. The full schedule follows the must-see picks.
Tempered (8 p.m. Saturday, Calder Stage) – Brand new pop-punk hailing from Grand Rapids is the upbeat, melodic and punchy Tempered. Frontwoman Súóng Nhú Pham turns up the heat as she serenades the crowd while effortlessly mastering the bass. Don’t miss this fresh wave of energy as the crew pumps up the mood.
Drink Their Blood (9 p.m. Saturday, City Stage) – It can often be challenging to find a truly unique metal act in today’s musical landscape, but this Kalamazoo crew surely does not disappoint. Heavy, industrious and haunting, the music speaks to our dark side but then is surprisingly uplifting as vocalist Ben Boggs charms the crowd with jazzy saxophone solos and warm banter between beastly ballads.
The Human Kindness Project (4 p.m. Sunday, diSuvero Stage) – A face that has been integrated into the Grand Rapids music scene for years shows up in a different form as singer-songwriter Tyler Kuiper takes the stage with original indie-pop tunes. Raw and unfiltered, Tyler shows up with a familiar taste of grunge and vulnerability to show us just how beautiful trans can be.
Y-Not (11:30 a.m. Sunday, Circle Stage) – Y-Not is a one-of-a-kind band of highly skilled musicians who demonstrate a profound love for their craft through their onstage chemistry. With melodies that fit together like puzzle pieces and positive lyrics about togetherness and unity, Y-Not fits in perfectly with Festival of the Arts’ mission to bring the Grand Rapids community together. Make sure to get out there early on Sunday because you don’t want to miss the opportunity to see this band.
Ficus (7 p.m. Saturday, Circle Stage) – Over the past year, Ficus has made a name for itself in the Grand Rapids psych-rock scene. With a versatile sound that ranges from haunting vocals to heavy riffs, Ficus’ lengthy onstage jam sessions and high energy are sure to attract any festivalgoer who happens to be passing by. There might even be some flute solos, but you’ll have to go see for yourself to find out.
Valentiger (3 p.m. Sunday, City Stage) – Valentiger brings a beachy pop-rock feel that couldn’t be more perfect for an outdoor set during the start of summer. A long-time staple of the West Michigan music scene, Valentiger is guaranteed to be a crowd-pleaser with their witty onstage banter and laid-back vibe.
School of Rock Grand Rapids (6:30 p.m. Friday, Circle Stage) – I come from a background in art/entertainment journalism and have written about other various school of rocks. The programming they do is phenomenal in teaching kids various instruments and how to rock. I’d be very excited to see what they have in store for their performance.
The Smokin’ Dobroleles (9 p.m. Saturday, di Suvero Stage) – I’ve been lucky enough to share the air at multiple music festivals and perform in a few of the same series this group has also performed in. However, I’ve never been able to catch them live and would absolutely love to. They’re an Americana group from Hart and their songwriting and stage presence is top-notch from what I’ve been able to catch online. I’d love to finally see them live .
Nathan Walton & The Remedy (9 p.m. Saturday, Calder Stage) – Nathan Walton and I shared a stage recently and he is as good a person as he is a musician. His strong vocals and songwriting prevail, and I’d personally be excited to see him with a backing band.
DESTINY PATROLIAThe Junky Swinger (7 p.m. Friday, City Stage) – A rockabilly style band with psychedelic twists. This band brings infectious energy to the stage with an exhilarating sound.
Heather Bartman Band (8 p.m. Friday, Clocktower Stage) – A female-led band that combines elements of country, rock and folk to create a sound for everyone to enjoy. Catchy melodies and pretty vocals.
The Fabulous Vans (4 p.m. Saturday, City Stage) – The Fabulous Vans have a funky and upbeat sound. They also boast a lively blend of different genres, including funk and indie-rock.
Pretoria (9 p.m. Friday, Circle Stage) – With a retro, vintage style and wonderful recent single, this five-piece Grand Rapids band features ideal ingredients for a fun live performance. Passionate, suave songs with poppy, malt-shop instrumentals make Pretoria a band of potential energy ready to be kinetic.
Drink Their Blood (9 p.m. Saturday, City Stage) – As the evening arrives on Saturday, so will a metal act where headbanging comes natural even on headphones. Not just brutal, Kalamazoo’s Drink Their Blood adds experimental, ambient and even brass aspects to the menu.
Evidence Jazz Group (1 p.m., Sunday, Clocktower Stage) – Thoughtful, simple jazz with refined details provides a wonderful backdrop for experiencing Festival. Latin sensibilities and quick tempos keep it from being dozy, and the four-man set constantly trades interesting solos.
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