Venturing eight hours from Grand Rapids, Local Spins editor John Sinkevics recently immersed himself in the magical charm of a remote U.P. celebration. Here’s his take on a Michigan gem, with photos, video.
SCROLL DOWN FOR VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS, PHOTO GALLERY
Support our coverage of
West Michigan's music scene
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 recent tour of the U.P., I decided to sample 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 for the past six years 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.
For more about the Porcupine Mountains Music Festival, check back later this week for an RSVP Music Chat podcast with festival director Cheryl Sundberg, exploring the unique challenges of assembling an outdoor music event in the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTO GALLERY: Porcupine Mountains Music Festival (8/24/19)
VIDEO: Day 2 Highlights from the Porcupine Mountains Music Festival
Copyright 2019, Spins on Music LLC