Mid West Music Fest LaCrosse Does It Again

Photo Courtesy of Joey Gergen

MWMF bookends Minnesota’s summer music season.  Winona rolls in the spring and LaCrosse in the fall.  Not that there aren’t plenty of things to do musically the rest of the year.  But because these two weekends incorporate large outdoor stages for some of the acts.  That’s a risk in a shoulder season.  Anybody from this neck of the woods knows the weather can be hit or miss.  Tough weather hit Winona in April.  Beautiful weather graced LaCrosse in September.

I’ve written extensively on both MWMF Winona and all the cool things happening down in the Southeast corner of the state.  However, I’d never made it down to the LaCrosse side of the festival.  Maybe that’s because MWMF used to run on back to back weekends.  I love the river drive and make it often.  However, running down simply to turn around and do it again has stopped me.  The split format seems to work a bit better because it doesn’t require that kind of commitment.  Plus, it allows promoters to tap some of the best bands in the area more than once.  

LaCrosse has a completely different feel from Winona and I found myself needing to adjust.  The music is just as fine.  Nearly 70 bands spread over indoor and outdoor venues.  The festival footprint may actually be smaller than that of Winona.  You walk out of one venue and the next one is usually within a block or two.  That’s super convenient and lets patrons chase their favorite bands.  Or find a new place to hang out.

Two distinct contrasts between the host cities struck me.  The first is a bit ironic.  LaCrosse seems smaller, more intimate.  The venues were never maxed out as they often are in Winona.  No need to get to a venue early or waiting in line.  Just going by ticket sales, there’s no question Winona is the bigger event.

Running counter to that is the fact that LaCrosse is a much bigger city.  The downtown area is busier.  More dedicated venues, restaurants, breweries and coffee shops.  There’s ultimately some potential for this site to become the bigger one down the road.  The infrastructure is in place to support it.  I can’t recall the last time I spent an extended period of time prowling that rejuvenated river city but it was sure worth it.

Driving into town, I passed the minor league baseball stadium.  A banner proclaimed Stone Temple Pilots and Soul Asylum.  I laughed it off.  Although I just got through calling LaCrosse a bigger city, who in their right mind would schedule a show like this one on the same weekend?  Maybe that contributed to my feeling that there weren’t as many people in festival venues.  It just struck me as competition for rock and roll dollars and eyeballs.  Which is not to criticize anybody!  Maybe there just wasn’t the communication there should have been.

The second contrast was that Winona feels like it leans more toward MN bands.  LaCrosse taps WI.  Although there is no shortage of either in both locations.  I cover music in MN.  So putting together a list of who I want to see in Winona is a bit easier.  LaCrosse is a bit more of a discovery process.  That’s a good thing.  Bands come and go.  So if you’re not constantly adding new ones to your list of favorites, one day there will be nothing left for you to see.  Yes, people.  Even Keith Richards will one day bite the bullet and then where will you be?  If you want to be one of those grizzled, veteran music fans like Front Row Paul Engebretson, you’ve got to keep checking out what’s coming up the pipe.

Friday started off with a bang.  After parking nearby, I made my way to the Riverfront Stage to pick up credentials and catch Twin Cities’ favorite Kiss The Tiger.  The sun was settling red behind the river. I found myself pondering why so many music fans from that area regularly come to the Cities for concerts.  Yet so few travel south.  My conclusion is most Twin Citians don’t know what they’re missing.  We Minnesotans always head North.  It’s the big woods.  Clear lakes.  Family cabins and resorts.  What’s not to love?

But I also grew up in a small Mississippi river town and know well their simple charms.  There’s a pace, friendliness and accessibility to be found that simply does not exist in urban America.  And might I mention it costs a lot less to access those charms!  When you couple the fact that LaCrosse sits smack dab in the middle of what’s known as the Driftless Area that encompasses the river from Winona down to Decorah, it’s just good for the soul.  The fact of the matter is that those majestic river bluffs, eagles and beautiful old 1800s architecture can hold their own with Superior’s North Shore any day of the week.

KTT’s Meghan Kreider informed the fans that this show kicked off a short and hectic Midwest swing from Chicago to Denver.  It got me thinking how symbolic that effort was for everything MWMF is trying to do.  It’s a showcase for bands that people need to know.  Bands that are close to breaking in a life changing manner.  Bands like Bad Bad Hats, KTT, The Shackletons, Durry to mention just a few.  It’s also bands that have already traveled that road.  From the Mark Mallmans, Pony Smiths and Haley Bonnars to Polica and S Curry.  Perhaps more importantly, it’s bands coming up the pipe.  Either they’re still developing their chops or music is simply a part of the person, rather than a heavy mantle.

Photo Courtesy of Joey Gergen

That makes for a potent and pure kind of musical experience.  Nobody on the bill would dream of mailing it in.  Every artist knows their crowd is populated by their peers.  MWMF is a homecoming.  These are working bands.  They don’t get to go see their favorite area bands nearly as often as the rest of us do.  If they end up sharing a bill, they might become friends or keep up with what friends are doing.  But that’s about it unless something like MWMF comes along.  So have no doubt, bands at MWMF always bring it.

After a quick bite, I managed to sandwich in sets from Night Moves who was gorgeous under the lights, Casey Virock’s new Porcupine line up, The Shackletons channeling The Dirty Nil, Mark Mallman with Pony Smith kicking it up a notch and Immaculate Beings on another space trip.  It was a beautiful night of music and I was weaving around like some drunk by the end.  Despite not touching a drop I was exhausted.  But I will say that the Porcupine/Shacks/Mallman line up in Popcorn Tavern was off the chain.  What a great punk rock venue!  Those bands blew it up.  

Saturday seemed a different vibe.  A bit quieter.  More focused on singer/songwriter fare.  As mentioned previously, a bit more Wisconsin based with fan favorites like People Brothers Band during prime time.  I arrived at the Riverfront Stage when it kicked off, hours prior to the indoor venues getting into the swing of things.  Again, a lot of what MWMF is and what it’s trying to accomplish crystalized as I soaked up the sun.

Mike Munson is one of those guys who can sit alone on a stage and fill it.  Suffice to say, he’s the most underrated guitar player on the scene.  A terrific songwriter in his own right.  That fuzzed out, deep blues guitar style is perfect for those who dig Jack White or Dan Auerbach.  Or for those of us who go back even further in the blues, you can trace that tap root.

I hung around for Big Mouth Brass.  My Rochester friend Becca Cowley-Combs plays sousaphone in that group of band teachers and music professors.  The sun was shining.  Kids ran free on the grass.  Paddle boats chugged past.  All the girls were in the last of their summer clothes.  The guys made sure to wear their favorite rock t shirt.  Before Buddy Holly plugged in his electric guitar, bands like BMB were how folks got their rock on.  The only thing that was missing from this sublime slice of Americana was the ice cream.  A generation ago, part of the experience would have been the ice cream social.

What’s changed is us and sometimes I wonder if it’s evolution or devolution.   Yes, there was ice cream to be had within a couple of blocks.  Forget chocolate or vanilla.  The choices are endless.  The focus is on premium quality, so it costs an arm and a leg.  It’s sold to be consumed rather than offered free to bring people together.  I kind of missed watching all those kids with melty cones and faces.

Midwest Music Fest does Good.  Good for community.  Good by actively supporting a vibrant arts scene.  Good by paying bands that deserve it.  Most of all, good for people of all types who love live music.  Seriously.  Where else are you going to go where it costs you literally a dollar a band?

If you’re a MWMF veteran, you never look at the line up.  You just mark down the dates.  They’ll be back in 2023 and the whole affair will be a bit bigger and bit cooler.  But it won’t try to re-invent itself because it works so well as is.  Stay tuned and make a plan to road trip down to The Driftless Area next year.  You’ll be glad you did.