They’re eight hours and worlds apart, but both of these Michigan festivals boast uber-loyal fans. So with COVID scuttling this weekend’s events, Local Spins takes a look back at last year’s celebrations.
EDITOR’S NOTE: If not for the coronavirus pandemic, festivalgoers in Sidney, Ontonagon, East Tawas and a few other Michigan communities would have been waking up today to the second day of their respective music festivals.
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To tide fans over until 2021, Local Spins revisits its coverage of the 2019 Willowsong Music Festival and Porcupine Mountains Music Festival in words and photos.
WILLOWSONG FESTIVAL 2019: Welcoming, diverse, ‘as good as it gets’
A unique, comfortable, inviting environment. Late-night jams around a blazing fire pit. One of the first Michigan shows by Grand Rapids-area fave Nathan Kalish & The Lastcallers in a year. And an impressive lineup of regional acts representing a host of genres.
The third year of the Willowsong Music Festival on Eric and Jo Raby’s farm just outside Sidney (about an hour north of Grand Rapids) not only reveled in splendid weather after shifting from late September to late August for 2019, but also a communal experience with intimate performances.
Local Spins asked some of the performers to list their Top 3 highlights of the weekend in Sidney, with photos by Anna Sink.
KYLE RASCHE (Chain of Lakes)
Willowsong 2019 was about as good as it gets on every level. Eric and Jo’s farmstead accommodated their growing festival with such charm and character. The sunsets this year were epic.
1. Hospitality – No one takes better care of musicians and artists than the Willowsong folks. “Artists Row” behind the stage was such a warm, community atmosphere. We all felt loved and appreciated.
2. The Fire Pit – The Willowsong fire pit is quickly becoming the face of the festival. James is a master fire-keeper and the nightly burn is such a cool tradition. For me, there isn’t a better place to party than the fire pit at Willowsong.
3. The Stage – Kevin Fein and Eric Raby built a great sound system and ran a smooth stage operation all weekend. The mix – for both the performers and the audience – was perfect for every band, and everyone was a pleasure to work with.
Honorable Mention – Churchill’s hole-in-one on the first hole of the disc golf course.
1. Stars and Fire at Nighttime – Such big sky and a fire to match. One of the best outdoor moments I got to witness this summer.
2. Staff and Their passion for Music and Hospitality – I’m a sucker for family and respectful environments. The staff did this naturally to the musicians and the attendees. The sound crew and announcer were very good, down to earth, and accommodating. Thank you.
3. Diverse Lineup – Any time I get to hear a diverse range of music in a short amount of time I feel that I walked away from a music festival with new perspective. That is a value I can’t put a number on.
BRENT SHIREY (Valentiger)
1. Hospitality – The whole crew is super-friendly and personable from top to bottom. The sense of genuine community is strong with this one. And while taking care of everyone and the smallest details, they keep it running tight as a drum.
2. Jordan Hamilton – Jordan’s set was intimate and refreshing; endlessly entertaining, all from a single performer. Cello, loops, expressive vocals. Always great to discover something new.
3. The Fire Pit – The shape of the pit is pretty similar to a the icon for a power button: almost a complete circle with a walkway allowing access from the outside to a center island. If you’re not mesmerized by the sheer size of the fire or the power and heat of that amount of wood being consumed simultaneously, then just watching the pit boss masterfully coax the fire should do it for you.
1. Aerialists – The aerialists silhouetted against the evening sky was an incredible view.
2. Escaping Pavement – Escaping Pavement set the bar high as the opening act on Saturday.
3. The Last Gasp Collective – Kalamazoo’s The Last Gasp Collective drew people up to the stage like human magnets.
Honorable Mention: Eric and Jo curated a show full of diversity and variety.
Purchase tickets for Willowsong 2021 here: https://www.willowsongmusicfest.com/tickets
PHOTO GALLERY: Willowsong Music Festival 2019
Photos by Anna Sink
PORCUPINE MOUNTAINS MUSIC FESTIVAL 2019: A goosebumps experience unlike anything else
Traveling eight hours from Grand Rapids, Local Spins editor John Sinkevics immersed himself in the charms of this remote U.P. celebration for the first time in August 2019. Here’s his take on a Michigan gem, with photos, video.
It’s not that Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is another world.
It’s just that it’s unlike any other region in the state, and frankly, unlike any other place on the planet – remote and spectacular natural beauty with an inviting, friendly and unusual charm.
After all, where else can you find Lake Superior’s majestic Pictured Rocks, the goofy Mystery Spot and the Lakenenland Sculpture Park, an entertaining and mind-boggling display of artwork created from scrap iron, aka “junkyard art,” that’s yes, accessible by snowmobile.
So, it’s not surprising that the Porcupine Mountains Music Festival would also be unlike any other music festival anywhere.
On a 2019 tour of the U.P., I sampled the 15th anniversary festival held smack dab in the middle of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park near Ontonagon – which, with the exception of Ironwood, is about as far west as you can get in Michigan without plunging into Lake Superior or becoming a Cheesehead in Wisconsin.
Put it this way, Ontonagon is 515 miles or an eight-hour drive from Grand Rapids.
By comparison, it’s an hour from the Wisconsin border and just a three-hour-and-45-minute ride from Green Bay (hence the Cheesehead reference).
Consequently, most of the festivalgoers I chatted with at the Porkies fest last weekend were from Wisconsin or Minnesota, not Michigan, and some of them had attended the event several years in a row.
Even so, set in the U.P. park’s Winter Sports Complex, the three-day festival has a “Pure Michigan” vibe while showcasing an eclectic blend of national, international and local performers playing Peace Hill, aka, the main outdoor stage.
‘YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO GET’ (WAR & TREATY TO MELODIME)
The 2019 edition featured the likes of Vancouver, Canada, bluegrass and world music outfit The Paperboys, California Americana band Dustbowl Revival, Windy City singer-songwriter Chicago Farmer and Michigan faves The War & Treaty, The Crane Wives and May Erlewine & The Motivations, among others. (There’s also an all-acoustic, un-electrified Busking Stage and a small indoor stage that’s part of the ski lodge.)
“Every year, I say our lineup is the best we’ve ever had. I love all of them,” said Cheryl Sundberg, festival director and a volunteer from the first event back in 2005.
“Our mission is to present a festival that is not a single-genre festival. We want to put the focus and emphasis on music and quality music and we want people to hear different sounds: bluegrass, blues, R&B, folk, Zydeco, world music. You never know what you’re going to get here.”
That may be true in terms of musical diversity, but return attendees know what to expect when it comes to the milieu: rootsy, homey and kind of like a family picnic with 1,750-plus people who bring their own lawn chairs, coolers and beverages to the party.
And as Sundberg noted, fans “won’t be sardined-in next to 10,000 people; you’ll have space” amid the beautiful scenery.
On the day I visited with a group of Lower Peninsula trolls (you know, friends from below the bridge) who had never immersed themselves in the Porkies quite like this, the eclectic nature of the affair was on full display.
There was the earnest and often political folk of Chicago Farmer, the catchy, harmony-laden country-rock of Virginia’s Melodime, the “multi-cultural” dance-inspiring allure of The Paperboys, and finally, the soul-fired, uplifting, high-energy charisma of The War & Treaty.
Led by the Albion duo of Michael and Tanya Trotter, The War & Treaty has rightly become a national phenomenon, and the touring band led by music director and Michigan native Max Brown has become a tight, driving force.
Even more impressively, much of the group’s closing set at the Porcupine Mountains Music Festival featured poignant, emotion-rending new material – songs that most fans had never heard but still left them fully engaged on a cool-but-delightful summer evening in a picturesque-but-remote location.
SPOTTY CELL SERVICE BUT SPECIAL MOMENTS GALORE
It was the kind of set that forever leaves a mark on the memory cells.
“Each moment is so special,” Sundberg said. “When I hear music that’s quality, it gives me an adrenaline push, it gives me goosebumps and it gives me joy that is unparalleled in life.”
Well said (though some of those goosebumps might actually pop up due to the chilly nights in northern Michigan).
Still, the unparalleled quality of those special moments is further enhanced when that music unfurls in a place like the Porcupine Mountains where, frankly, I never got the Wi-fi to work and my cell service was spotty at best. Ok, non-existent.
Some performers, Sundberg insisted, fully embrace the cellphone-impaired nature of the U.P. hinterland and the quiet time it provides. And they certainly appreciate the unique atmosphere.
“We know it’s a good experience for them because they tend to linger. They get done and they don’t want to leave. They linger as long as they can, and then they tell their friends on the touring circuit they need to go to the Porcupine Mountains.”
Confirmation of that came when I bumped into one of the performers in the merchandise area, a singer who had journeyed more than 1,100 miles from home.
“I had no idea what to expect,” said Emily Scott Robinson, a singer-songwriter with fetching tunes from Greensboro, N.C., who opened the festival’s main stage on Saturday.
To buy tickets or donate to the 2021 Porcupine Mountains Music Festival: http://www.porkiesfestival.org/tickets.html
PHOTO GALLERY: Porcupine Mountains Music Festival (8/24/19)
VIDEO: Day 2 Highlights from the Porcupine Mountains Music Festival
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