Local Spins asked Desmond Jones drummer John Nowak to reflect on highlights of last weekend’s Cowpie Music Festival. Here’s his take on the beloved affair, with photos by Anna Sink and Nathan Purchase.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Local Spins asked Desmond Jones drummer John Nowak to offer up a first-person account of his experience at last weekend’s Cowpie Music Festival on Shagbark Farm in Alaska, near Caledonia. Here are his Top 10 reasons to love Cowpie, along with photo galleries by Anna Sink of Local Spins and Nate Purchase of Psychedelic Eyes Photography. (Desmond Jones performed several times over the weekend.)
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I’ve got the Cowpie Blues.
You know that feeling when you get home from something awesome and already want to go back? Yup, the Cowpie Blues.
Fitting for a music festival that started as a blues festival more than 15 years ago. Cowpie has since transformed into one of the most impressive summer festivals in Michigan, boasting a talented and eclectic lineup, artist and performance workshops, theme-inspired artwork, and a sense of family and community that penetrates your soul until you are shouting “HAPPY COWPIE!” without even thinking about it.
As both a performer and attendee, this past weekend left me grateful to be a part of the West Michigan music scene and eager to go back next summer. These are 10 of the many aspects of Cowpie that made the weekend special.
1. The Cowpie Family: After the Galactic Sherpas closed out the Frontier Stage on Saturday night, a choked-up and freshly-shaven Farmer John Crissman told the late-night crowd just how much they meant to him. “Every single one of you is awesome. Keep partying, look up at the stars and keep spreading the love.” The positivity and family-friendly environment of the festival starts at the top and trickles down to every attendee, including the children who danced to the music, played with bubbles, and enjoyed workshops such as a shadow puppet show. Whether it was your first year at the festival or your 16th, you were welcomed and showered with love.
2. Motown Theme: This year’s Cowpie theme was Motown. With a 2018 slogan of “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing Baby,” bands covered Motown songs all weekend long. Motown-inspired artwork and a scavenger hunt were all over the farm. Personally, we in Desmond Jones had a great time learning “Just My Imagination” and “Get Ready.” Hannah Laine (Earth Radio) joined us on stage to sing the smooth Smokey Robinson hit “Cruisin”.
3. Cowpie Burn Squad: Saturday night at Cowpie was lit. LITerally. For the first time, organizers put together a late-night fire performance that wowed festival-goers for more than an hour. Sarah Harrington, Amber Goodwin, Jenna Kaltenberg, Andrew Mcvicker, and Abram Sudan were among some of the performers who used a variety of flaming instruments and wands to the music of the Galactic Sherpas. This was the first festival fire troupe performance I’ve seen, and it was so awesome and beautiful I actually cried.
4. Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper: I had my mind blown on multiple occasions over the weekend, but this fiddler from Indiana took the cake. Inducted into the Fiddler Hall of Fame this year, he brought his world-class band to Alaska to perform for a pasture full of eager bluegrass fans Saturday night. Cleveland played with Bill Monroe when he was 9 years old and Alison Krauss at the Grand Ole Opry by the time he was 14. His album was nominated for Best Bluegrass Album at the 2018 Grammys: He joked to the audience about being in the same parking lot as Bono. Makes me want to practice my instrument!
5. A Beard for a Barn: One of the festival’s most anticipated events had nothing to do with music. It was the shaving of Farmer John’s iconic beard. The opportunity to shave his beard was raffled off, all proceeds benefiting The Barn for Equine Learning, a non-profit organization which seeks to offer unique learning opportunities and counseling through the healing power of the horse. A crowd gathered to watch as Melophobix played an impromptu beard-shaving song. If you’re wondering, Farmer John is just as handsome with a clean-shaven face.
6. Workshops: Friday and Saturday had workshops all day for festival goers to learn from. At my “Power of Music” workshop we talked about music therapy and sang Raffi’s “Down By the Bay.” Guitarist Jake Kershaw lead a workshop called “Blues Rock 101,” Michael Cleveland answered questions from curious fiddlers, and Mike Winstruck of Hippie Garden led an informative discussion on didgeridoos. My personal favorite workshop was “Good Things Brewing” led by employees of One Well Brewing Co. (Kalamazoo). Have you ever had a jalapeño-flavored beer? I have!
7. Ultraviolet Hippopotamus Late-Night: The Frontier Tent was packed for UV Hippo’s only set of the weekend on Friday night staring at 12:30 a.m. The popular hometown progressive improv band played original favorites like “North Coast” and “Hey Tommy” along with Beck’s “Where It’s At.” UV Hippo has been a regular act at Cowpie, and their fans showed up strong donning band T-shirts and singing along. As a drummer, I relish any opportunity to watch Joe Phillion slap the skins. Especially when he’s wearing a cool hat and vest.
8. Free Range Camping: One of the worst things for me about big music festivals like Electric Forest or Bonnaroo is the close camping quarters. I love meeting my neighbors and having a good time, but when it comes to organizing campsites, meeting with friends at the gate to get plots next to each other, and fighting over territory — I’m over it. Our campsite had almost 15 people, five tents and multiple cars arrive at different times throughout the weekend and there was still plenty of room near us. You can set up wherever there is space, and being a cattle farm, there’s plenty of it. Tree lines, grassy fields, you name it. There’s room for everyone at Cowpie.
9. Friends: With a lineup full of local bands, you are bound to see some friends from Grand Rapids and within the greater Michigan music scene. I had so much fun hanging out backstage with members of Melophobix, Paddlebots, Fauxgrass, The Zannies, Quantum Fleek, Act Casual and Winnow. The camaraderie is real. Outside of musicians, I ran into so many fans and people who go to shows in the area. We’re so lucky to have this local music scene, and weekends like this remind me how awesome it is to be a part of this community. Thank you to everyone who provided music and to everyone who listened.
10. Support Local: Local music, local food trucks, local beer, local ballet, local art, local cows, Local Spins, YOU NAME IT! This is a festival for locals, by locals. It feels GOOD to support these businesses and artists. It’s admirable how far Cowpie goes to make sure it endorses and supports the community it operates in. Second-year attendee Lea Oliver said: “It’s an amazing festival put on right in our backyard. You’ll find a lot of great things to explore at Shagbark Farm. It’s beautiful. Come check out Cowpie: You have to experience it for yourself.”
John Nowak is a 25 year-old musician from Grand Rapids who loves Ringo Starr, Twix bars and making noise with Desmond Jones.
PHOTO GALLERY: Cowpie 2018 by Anna Sink
PHOTO GALLERY: Cowpie 2018 by Nathan Purchase (Psychedelic Eyes Photography)
MORE LOCAL SPINS COVERAGE OF COWPIE IN WORDS, PHOTOS AND VIDEO:
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