From The Accidentals to The Steel Wheels, the folk and roots music festival has turned the rural Remus site this weekend into a ‘village’ of 10,000 very happy Wheatland devotees.
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The fast-emerging teen string band’s debut at the prestigious folk and roots music festival was everything organizers, attendees and the musicians themselves could ever have hoped for, with a rapt, standing-room only, overflow crowd hooting, cheering and rabidly applauding the trio’s wildly eclectic set of folk, gypsy jazz and indie-rock.
The birth of a true musical phenomenon is always a pleasure to watch, but this milestone performance by multi-instrumentalists and singers Savannah Buist and Katie Larson, with drummer Michael Dause, was a dramatic example of a band absolutely coming into its own right there on the Wheatland stage, energizing a diverse throng with its upbeat stringed magic and the gleeful exuberance of youth.
Afterward, the trio of 18- and 19-year-olds continued to soar amid the adrenaline rush of a life-changing experience, signing autographs and chatting happily with a long queue of adoring new fans who clutched their recently purchased Accidentals’ CD.
This particular chapter during the 41st annual Wheatland Music Festival, with 10,000 people gathered literally in the middle of nowhere on a rural patch of 160 acres in Mecosta County just outside Remus, was just part of the rich story of the event’s opening night, which featured captivating Main Stage performances by national acts such as Claudia Schmidt and Dean Magraw, Eden Brent and Virginia bluegrass/Americana powerhouse The Steel Wheels.
And by the end of the night, the dance pavilion was jammed with ebullient two-steppers propelled by Louisiana’s Bonsoir, Catin firing up the crowd with foot-stomping, heart-pumping Cajun cuisine.
MICHIGAN ACTS DELIVER AN IMPRESSIVE 1-2-3-4 PUNCH
But frankly, Michigan acts ruled the roost and electrified audiences all evening under the tent at the Centennial Stage, with Grand Rapids’ own Bennett – playing Wheatland for the second year in a row – following up The Accidentals with its own harmony-laden version of contemporary folk, and the trio pumped up its set this time around with the help of a drummer.
Michigan-born and Nashville-based singer-songwriter Rachael Davis – a Wheatland staple – kept those fires blazing with a who’s who band that included her husband, bassist Dominic John Davis, Traverse City guitarist Joshua Davis and keyboard player Mike Lynch among others, performing swing-, folk- and Americana-fueled songs, some of them from her brand new EP, “Bandbox Jubilee.”
The evening closed with musical fireworks of the blues variety, as the all-star Madcat Midnight Blues Journey (Ann Arbor’s Pete “Madcat” Ruth, Fennville’s Mark Schrock, Lansing’s Drew Howard and South Lyon’s Mike Shimmin) turned up the amps and dialed in the jams.
Davis told me that once you’ve been baptized in the musical waters of Wheatland, you can’t wait to get back every year.
“This is the village I was raised in,” said Davis, 35, who has attended every Wheatland since her father brought her to the festival when she was one month old.
When she arrived at Wheatland on Friday, she told her young son, Virgil, that she was, in essence, home. “We’re here,” she said. “Our whole village is back together again.”
The village that is Wheatland brims with this sort of family-driven affection and reverence, from the grinning crowds that warmly applaud the stars on stage to the late-night campfire jams that stretch into the woods like never-ending, pastoral open-mic sessions.
This is a festival with spotty cell phone service at best, a festival which doesn’t offer wi-fi and chuckles at the very thought of such a thing, and no one really seems to care.
WHAT MAKES WHEATLAND WHEATLAND? HAPPINESS AND THE UNEXPECTED
I asked several musicians – some of them who were there just as attendees – to cite the one thing that makes Wheatland stand out for them. Their answers were different and yet reflected the same adoration for a musical institution that’s now been embraced by multiple generations of roots music fans.
“The energy,” said Bennett violinist Nick Rolls.
“The people,” said Grand Rapids singer-songwriter Eric Engblade, a Wheatland diehard.
“Everybody’s happy and you meet someone new every year,” said West Michigan multi-instrumentalist and singer, Cherie Lynn Hagen, another Wheatland veteran.
“Walking around late at night and not knowing what you’re going to run into,” said musician Josh Walters, who’s attended 20 Wheatlands.
Even first-timers, aka Wheaties, feel the love almost instantly, with “Happy Wheatland” greetings coming from every passerby on the festival grounds.
“Happy Wheatland to every one of you. I just learned that phrase but it’s showered over me ever since we got here,” Steel Wheels guitarist Trent Wagler told the crowd. “It’s so great when you find your people and that’s what we’ve found here.
And with fans enthusiastically demanding an encore at the end of the night, he added: “We do a lot of festivals these days and not many of ’em stack up to what you’ve got here.”
Correction: Perhaps none of them.
The live music, workshops and dance sessionse continue today and Sunday at Wheatland, with performances by Grammy winner Rodney Crowell, Sarah Jarosz, Billy Strings & Don Julin and others. Get the full, downloadable schedule and more about Wheatland in this Local Spins story. And check out photos from the final day of Wheatland online here.
WHEATLAND’S OPENING DAY: THE LOCAL SPINS PHOTO GALLERY
Photos by Anna Sink
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Copyright 2014, Spins on Music