This year’s Blissfest has gone online for virtual performances through Sunday. But the in-person, 39th edition of the Michigan festival may have been the most memorable in history. Relive it at Local Spins.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This weekend also would have featured Lansing’s Common Ground Festival, which due to COVID-19 won’t take place again until July 9-10, 2021. Revisit Local Spins’ coverage of last year’s festival here: Common Ground launches with sweaty, crowd-wowing sets. And scroll down for the Blissfest 2019 photo gallery
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There’s an energy and a communal charm oozing from northern Michigan’s Blissfest that’s long made it a favorite of the state’s music lovers and the musicians they come to see.
“Bliss has always been a highlight if you’re from northern Michigan. Many of us have been going since we were kids, so it’s a pretty special thing to be up there on stage,” said keyboard player, guitarist and singer Josh Hall of the Boyne City funk, fusion and jam band Galactic Sherpas.
Blissfest was supposed to unfurl for the 40th time this weekend. While COVID-19 forced organizers of this year’s 40th annual festival to replace the in-person event with online live-streamed performances and master classes that run through this weekend (details and schedule online here), many Bliss devotees will also be reveling in memories from a 2019 festival that could go down as the best in history.
That assessment came from many attendees surveyed by Local Spins about the 39th annual Blissfest held July 12-14, 2019, just outside Cross Village in northern Michigan, with headlining sets by Sam Bush, Canned Heat, Amy Helm, Martin Sexton and Steve Poltz, and more than 100 performances by regional stars on several stages.
The weather was magnificent, too, adding to the upbeat, communal flavor of one of Michigan’s most beloved, longest-running roots music festivals.
Local Spins asked a few Michigan performers to list their Top Three highlights from that special 2019 weekend of Bliss, with images by Local Spins photographer Anna Sink below.
JIM SPALINK (An Dro)
1. The Blissfest Camaraderie – We felt privileged to be invited to perform and rub elbows with so many fellow musicians with disparate music tastes. Celtic music is a pretty specific genre, and it was validating to be included in the fold. We felt a little like long lost cousins at a family reunion. All warm and fuzzy.
2. The Hospitality — Blissfest hospitality is second to none. The love and appreciation for all music shows by the quality beverages, food and transportation provided enthusiastically by the volunteers and sound guys.
3. Kinobe & Global Junction, Eagle Spirit Dancers and Last Gasp Collective — All of the bands were really good, but the three that stood out for us were Kinobe and Global Junction, with a tasteful alchemy of traditional African instruments with modern musical sensibilities, Eagle Spirit Dancers, with their sincere and moving performance of Native American music and dance, and the lush virtuosity of the Last Gasp Collective.
JENNA OLSON (Political Lizard)
1. Silent Disco Saturday and Sunday night – The Silent Disco was exciting and unique for the obvious reason that all the music is played through synchronized headphones, so to everyone without the headphones it just looks like a bunch of people dancing to no music. It was also great because you have the option to switch between three different DJs at the same time. It was so fun to see people of all ages dancing silently together.
2. Political Lizard’s acoustic set at Song Tree on Saturday – We all stood around a room mic and performed stripped-down versions of our full band songs. Miles Ferguson played a cajon handmade by Roger VanTill, which really brought the songs together. Playing our songs in a soft and sentimental way was something we’ve never done and it meant a lot to us.
3. The Closing Ceremony on Sunday night – Seeing everyone that makes Blissfest what it is come together and sing “Don’t Worry Be Happy” was such a calming and beautiful moment. There was also a soul-piercing rendition of “Amazing Grace” played on the flute, leaving everyone teary-eyed. There is such a strong sense of community and compassion at Blissfest and the closing ceremony reminded us to take that kindness everywhere we go through life.
“I was busy getting from one set to another this weekend and didn’t see a lot of full sets of music, so a couple of my highlights are sets I played myself. But I’ll also say one of the best things about these festivals is the chance to connect with friends new and old, all around the hearth of great music.”
1. May Erlewine Band’s Second Stage set – May’s Saturday afternoon set at Blissfest has become something of a tradition it seems, and this crowd is one of the most appreciative I’ve ever witnessed. And of course, May delivers with the depth of her songs and her presence as always.
2. Joe Hertler and the Rainbow Seekers on Main Stage Sunday afternoon – It was awesome to see these guys get into songwriter mode for this set, and the sun-washed crowd was loving it. Joe’s songs are great, and the band’s energy is infectiously positive.
3. Max Lockwood Band’s Saturday set — We finally were able to bring The Insiders together to play some original music after 18 months of tightening the screws on all of Tom Petty’s greatest songs, and it was a blast. We brought in Justin Dore and Sam Cooper to round out the band, too. I love getting to play music with this group and am so excited for the future.
GREG MASTIN (Galactic Sherpas)
1. Chris Michels Band – The Chris Michels Band was incredible.
2. Canned Heat playing the Main Stage on Friday night – Canned Heat has still got it. Great performance. Engaging and entertaining.
3. The Blissfest Crowd – So kind, so happy, living in harmony if only for one weekend a year. Love the smiles and shared appreciate for music of all kinds.
1. Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers closing down the Second Stage on Saturday – This was my favorite set of the weekend. The energy from the crowd was palpable, and after two years of nationally touring together, the band put on an extremely tight show, with each tune seamlessly flowing into the next. The horns, the backup singing and, of course, Joe’s magic cape, all lent to a fun festival moment to be remembered.
2. Getting to play the Main Stage on Sunday afternoon — This was my first-ever Blissfest performance, so playing the Min Stage was a highlight for me. I also took a lot of requests over my four sets of the weekend. Inevitably, festivalgoers always pick different tunes than I would, so that was a fun departure from my usual, scripted set list.
3. Seth Bernard and Johnny Iron on the Second Stage Saturday afternoon – Another favorite moment and unexpected Bliss surprise was Johnny Iron and Seth Bernard joining forces to cover Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.” Bernard has always been one of my favorite Michigan guitar players and the tone/licks choices on that tune were killer.
ANNA SINK (Local Spins Photographer)
Local Spins photographer and Blissfest veteran Anna Sink also cited several highlights from the weekend in northern Michigan: “Best Bliss I’ve ever had. Community vibes are very strong.”
1. Seth Bernard and Jordan Hamilton’s Sunday night set on the Main Stage – Seth Bernard and Jordan Hamilton made me cry again at their closing set. They gave communal respects to the Great Lakes and native peoples just like during their set at Camp Greensky (earlier this summer).
2. Solar-powered Michigan Stage – Due to that, the power cut out three times during the All-American Funk Parade’s set on Friday night. The response? The audience immediately lit up the band with phone lights while the band continued to rock out. It was so magical!
3. Sam Bush’s set on the Main Stage Saturday night – Sam Bush’s bluegrass-driven set was so compelling, with his over-the-top mandolin jams, that it was impossible not to be drawn in from wherever you happened to be at the time. The 67-year-old musician was just ripping on his instrument during the lengthy, eye-popping jams.
PHOTO GALLERY: Blissfest 2019
Photos by Anna Sink