The Upper Peninsula offers a remote but unique setting for a surprising variety of music festivals, worthy of a trip across the bridge. Here’s a look at this U.P. experience, with previews of upcoming events.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For a recent example of Upper Peninsula’s special musical magic, check out Local Spins writer Enrique Olmos’ take on last weekend’s Farm Block Reunion festival held in the far reaches of the Keweenaw Peninsula, 500 miles from Grand Rapids. It’s Farm Block 2022 Revisited, only at Local Spins.
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Anyone crossing the Mackinac Bridge into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula almost instantly feels transformed by the natural beauty, remoteness and escape-into-the-wilderness milieu.
But the post-pandemic U.P. also has become a hotbed for summer music festivals, offering a diverse assortment of entertainers – many of them overlooked by under-the-bridge events – lighting up outdoor stages throughout the 16,000-plus square miles of the peninsula, including blues, country, rock, classical and various forms of roots music.
Starting with last month’s Hiawatha Traditional Music Festival. founded 45 years ago in Marquette, the roster of U.P. music festivals has become a lengthy one, with gatherings such as the Dam Jam in Calumet and Folkfest Manistique to the just-concluded WoodTick Festival in Menominee County and Farm Block Reunion in Allouez on the Keweenaw Peninsula.
Camping is allowed or actively encouraged at some; others take place in city parks. Stylistically they range from blues to rock to folk, even classical at the Pine Mountain Music Festival, which takes place for a week in June at various locations in Crystal Falls, Marquette and Houghton.
Late summer might be the sweet spot for music-loving vacationers, with this weekend’s Grand Marais Music and Crafts Festival taking place at Grand Marais Community Center Ballfield.
The Aug. 11-13 affair features a variety of bands, including Whiskey Ryan, The Reveal, Soulshine, Tarnished and headliners Daydreamers and Kyle Jennings. Thursday evening’s show with Iron Daisy is free; gates open at 5 p.m. for shopping the 20-plus craft vendors and numerous food vendors.
Adult weekend passes are $55 at the gate; get details online here.
THE INTIMATE, DIVERSE AND REMOTE CHARM OF PORKIES FEST
The Porcupine Mountains Music Festival Aug. 26-27 at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Ontonagon will feature Celtic band Jig Jam, New York’s colorful Slambovian Circus of Dreams, jamgrass band Armchair Boogie, the heartland rock and soul of Aeriel Posen, bluesy Americana musician Luke Winslow-King and numerous others.
It’s the first Porkies Fest in three years due to the pandemic with lead organizer Cheryl Sundberg noting the hiatus “afforded us time to reflect on how far we have come since the first festival in 2005” and how to move forward.
“We wanted to come back fresh and strong,” Sundberg said. “If we were to make changes, this was the opportunity. It was decided to return as a two-day event and to keep the focus on quality performance on stage. … Organizers are so excited to be bringing back the festival, refreshed and ready for the long haul for years to come.”
Supported by the Michigan Arts and Culture Council, the festival rolls out as an eclectic celebration amid a unique setting – the Winter Sports Complex ski hill and chalet area – of mostly rootsy music, with the Busking Barn offering an acoustic stage for amateurs and professionals alike to play in an intimate setting.
Although Sundberg conceded that “routing performers to our remote area can certainly be a challenge,” she said the location also adds to the uniqueness.
“The festival stands out by providing an intimate outdoor experience, with record attendance to date of 1,750. There is so much room to spread out and relax,” she said.
“One will never be packed in a surging crowd of thousands here. The musical styles presented on our stage are widely varied, and the performers selected are always top-notch.”
MARQUETTE AREA BLUES FESTIVAL RETURNS IN EARLY SEPTEMBER
Marquette, meanwhile, also is home to another of the U.P.’s biggest music festivals, the Marquette Area Blues Festival.
Taking place Sept. 2-4 at Lower Harbor Park in downtown Marquette, the event got its start in 2003 when local blues enthusiasts formed the Marquette Area Blues Society.
“I’m really happy about the lineup. It was a hard year to sign bands,” said festival director Mark Stonerock, who started as a volunteer at the first festival. He noted some artists still are not touring due to COVID, while others are trying to make up dates that were canceled the past two years.
A free Friday night concert will feature the popular Wisconsin band The Jimmys (“The crowd keeps asking for them,” Stonerock said), with Blues Award bass player of the year Biscuit Miller headlining the show. Saturday’s headliner is Carolyn Wonderland and Sunday’s is Vanessa Collier. Numerous local and regional acts perform throughout the day and evening.
Each U.P. music festival has its own personality, said Jack Conners, a veteran musician and sound engineer from Traverse City who’s done live sound for a number of these festivals over the years.
The Marquette Area Blues Festival, for example, is “tucked into the downtown at the harbor. It’s a nice setting,” he said, while WoodTick is “in a field in the middle of nowhere” that’s only accessible by a two-track.
What they have in common? Celebrating the sound of voices and instruments in harmony, with an appreciative audience reveling in the unique environment of Michigan’s U.P.
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