This weekend’s debut of outdoor live music events in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo had music lovers basking not only in the sunshine and heat, but finally getting a taste of what the rest of summer 2021 has in store.
The resilience of West Michigan music devotees after 15 months of relative silence was on full display in Grand Rapids this weekend.
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Take Friday night along the Grand River just north of downtown: Hundreds of euphoric fans gyrated and bobbed in the sunshine and 86-degree heat to the infectious strains of jam band Desmond Jones and future-soul outfit Earth Radio at Canal Park as part of City Built Brewing’s first-ever “Friday Night Live” show.
The festival-like atmosphere for the free outdoor concert hearkened back to those pre-COVID pandemic days of yore when masks weren’t a thing and communal celebrations of live music were routine.
It was just one example from an early June roster of music that’s starting to look at least a little like June 2019. Here’s a recap from a few of those weekend shows.
SATURDAY: THE DEBUT OF FESTIVAL’S ‘EN PLEIN AIR’
To be sure, there was no confusing the traditional Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts with this weekend’s pandemic-inspired alternative: En Plein Air.
Festival of the Arts, forced into a hiatus due to the COVID pandemic, usually draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to downtown Grand Rapids for hundreds of performances by regional acts and dance groups on multiple stages, with art exhibits and sales, and dozens of food booths.
As a stopgap, Festival organizers created En Plein Air for 2021 — taking place the same weekend as the traditional Festival but with solo artists performing in 10 different downtown locations and “social zones,” along with numerous artists creating live art. (Festival also plans a second event with more elaborate band performances during ArtPrize in September.)
On Saturday afternoon, amid sizzling heat, the usual Festival throngs were absent but the instrumentalists and singers performing acoustically throughout downtown were clearly enthusiastic in uncorking their tunes for passersby and small groups of dedicated spectators. – JS
PHOTO GALLERY: EN PLEIN AIR
Photos by Anna Sink
FRIDAY: DESMOND JONES & EARTH RADIO AT ‘FRIDAY NIGHT LIVE’
After yet another day spent under the sweltering sun, homegrown Grand Rapids establishment City Built Brewing’s industrially rustic taproom in the Monroe North district was filling fast on Friday, preparations had already been made for the anticipated evening crowd and colorful chalk lines decorated the sidewalk — partitioning the left half for the beer line and the right half for regular foot traffic.
Tables were set up alongside Monroe Avenue NW, across the street from the east bank of the Grand River, with Grand Rapids neo-soul group Earth Radio gracing a small stage.
Blankets and chairs adorned a significant section of Canal Park’s lawn, along with makeshift dance floor. Although it was a warm and sultry night, with the sun lazily drifting down the cloudless sky, plenty of trees provided shade and pleasant breeze came off the water.
“You couldn’t have asked for better weather,” acknowledged Taylor Watson, bassist for the Grand Rapids jam band Desmond Jones, which was set to take the stage after Earth Radio’s set, all part of City Built’s inaugural “Friday Night Live” concert series that will fire up free live regional music every other week through September.
The spacious, open-air setting across the street from the taproom at 820 Monroe Ave. NW allowed for a large, spread-out crowd of more than 200 people at its peak. It also made other food and drink establishments in the area easily accessible for patrons allowed to carry and enjoy their drinks in the park.
The Grand River added another natural element to the diverse venue. “Anytime you can play music by a body of water,” Watson said, “you know it’s going to be a good night.”
The audience featured a mix of all ages and creeds, from older parents and their kids relaxing on the grass to young adults dancing by the stage in a way that wouldn’t have looked out of place at Woodstock.
Earth Radio launched the night with a 90-minute set of funky bass lines and impressive vocals from Hannah Laine, the group’s lead singer. Desmond Jones rounded out the night, keeping the crowd in good spirits.
“I’m just excited to be out of the house again,” remarked one parent, Daniel Lawlee. He said keeping his three children entertained at home was exhausting, so he couldn’t pass up the chance to finally see friends again, especially with the Canal Park playground so close by. “The music is an added plus.”
The concert series continues June 18 with the bluegrass strains of the Mark Lavengood Band. Lavengood also will host “Riverside Pick” sessions on the second and fourth Sundays of the month at 3 p.m. – By Parker Learman-Blaauw
PHOTO GALLERY: Desmond Jones, Earth Radio at Friday Night Live
Photos by Anna Sink
FRIDAY-SUNDAY: KALAMAZOO’S JUNE JUBILEE/CONCERT IN THE PARK
Kalamazoo’s June Jubilee returned this weekend via a reimagined weekend of family, fun, art and music fit for those dipping their toes back into the human interaction that was so missed throughout 2020.
On Friday and Saturday, the Arts Council of Kalamazoo hosted an entertainment stage which hosted local favorites, including Carrie McFerrin, Celeste Allison and Megan Dooley between the Friday and Saturday.
It all concluded Sunday afternoon with an energetic performance by Grand Rapids’ Cabildo on the Rotary Stage in Bronson Park, kicking off the annual Concerts in the Park Summer Series. From Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo, it all proved that live music is back. – Derek Ketchum
PHOTO GALLERY: JUNE JUBILEE WITH CABILDO, CARRIE MCFERRIN AND MORE
Photos by Derek Ketchum