The 46th edition of this much-admired Michigan music festival rolled out last weekend with a hefty slate of national and regional roots music stars. The recap by Local Spins’ Ricky Olmos, with photos by Anna Sink.
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On a rather blustery Sunday, Tim O’ Brien stands at the foot of Main Stage at Wheatland Music Festival, a towering fortress made of timber and stone that is, at the moment, filled with music and love.
After a wave of applause O’Brien, a seasoned bluegrass songwriter from West Virginia, looks out over the audience and then beyond. Sprawling fields give way to a treeline that wavers in a rigid breeze.
“I kind of like this fall weather,” he proclaims. “It brings on a wistful feeling.”
Throughout Wheatland Music Festival’s 46th musical celebration in Remus (an hour north of Grand Rapids), attendees saw a diverse range of weather. Friday’s inaugural festivities were plagued by scattered showers until nearly 8 p.m. From there, the rain held off and temperatures dropped to autumn-like lows for the rest of the weekend.
Friday sets included Linda Gail Lewis & Robbie Fulks, Red Squirrel Chasers, Dead Horses, K. Jones & the Benzie Playboys and a riveting first-time Wheatland performance from Escaping Pavement.
The Detroit-area collective was magnificently energetic, an effort that was equally reciprocated by one of the rowdiest crowds at Centennial Stage.
The Americana-folk act rocked and rambled, shared song-leading responsibilities, and covered “I Want to Sing that Rock and Roll” by Gillian Welch.
“Oddly enough, I usually get nervous when I’m doing something I know could potentially be really important or when we have a really big crowd in front of us, but on the Centennial Stage I wasn’t nervous at all,” said Emily Burns, who fronts the band alongside Aaron Markovitz.
“Maybe it was just the way you could feel the audience’s immediate acceptance of us or the good vibes running throughout the fest. But whatever it was, it took us all over and made for probably the most memorable show we’ve ever done. It was a true honor for all of us to get to be on that stage playing for that crowd.”
ENTERTAINING SETS COVERING DIVERSE STYLES
Other impressive Friday evening sets were delivered by West Michigan’s own Roosevelt Digs and The Journeymen on the Centennial Stage, and New York’s Hazmat Modine and The Mammals on the Main Stage.
Hazmat Modine displayed some truly unique instrumentation that included harmonica, tuba, trumpet, saxophone and a number of other instruments. And The Mammals closed the night with a beautifully delicate set of hushed songs under a star-strewn sky.
After the lunch hour on Saturday (or breakfast for some), Wheatlanders were greeted by a soulful eruption curated by the Jones Family Singers, a traveling troupe of gospel vocalists and musicians from Texas. The sizeable band ushered in a wildly entertaining set that included soul, funk and jazz.
Drifting into the evening hours, Michigan super-group May Erlewine & the Motivations gave their own soulful performance, which included a well-received plethora of popular covers from various danceable decades. Other Saturday evening performances included Alasdair Fraser & New World Assembly, Freddy & Francine and a nightcap set on the Main Stage by Chicago bluegrass band The Special Consensus.
The festival’s third and final day boasted the usual scenes: families sitting down to a simple-but-hearty breakfast under a tented roof; a joyful picking circle made of new and old friends; a group of festival-weary children determined to make every last minute of pop can hunting count.
Mike Weatherly of Muskegon sits in a chair next to his camper. His long gray hair is still lush and wavy in his 70s. When asked why he and his wife keep returning to the festival, he responds warmly.
“The people. It’s just a fun community for a weekend. Everyone helps everyone. There’s only a few times like that in a lifetime where you get to enjoy being with so many other people.”
CLOSING THINGS OUT WITH MEMORABLE MOMENTS IN A ‘GORGEOUS SPOT’
Then there were the final performances, a kind of commencement for the weekend’s graduating Wheatlanders.
Centennial Stage included an open mic, a community sing-along and a harmony sing-along.The Main Stage was graced by the likes of a gospel hour, The Jones Family Singers, Special Consensus, Forest Huval, the Kids Hill Parade and Alasdair Fraser & New World Assembly. A particularly ethereal performance was crafted by The Quebe Sisters, a modern Western swing band comprised of archtop guitar, upright bass, three fiddles and lush harmonies.
Tim O’Brien and his band then took to the stage. The group performed through the wind and chilly air to provide a distinctly beautiful moment for the bundled-up Wheatland crowd.
Between sets, sunshine reached through the clouds and across the festival grounds. Warming everyone up before sending them off, De Temps Antan stomped and strummed the crowd into a sort of musical oblivion.
While spectating from side stage, Patrick Sauber from Los Angeles sips bourbon from a plastic cup and relaxes after his set playing banjo and guitar with Tim O’Brien. He sums up his first Wheatland experience.
“I’ve heard about it (Wheatland) for years and years,” he says while De Temps Antan’s pulsing traditional Quebec music spills from the towering stage.
“My dad has played here quite a few times over the years. He signed his name on the wall backstage. It’s good to be here. It’s a gorgeous spot.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Wheatland Music Festival 2019
Photos by Anna Sink and Ricky Olmos
Copyright 2019, Spins on Music LLC