Midwest Music Fest Pushes Through The Showers. Day 1


The only thing that can dampen a great festival is the damp! Winona feels like summer in San Francisco. This year’s rendition of Midwest Music Fest has been geared toward the hearty. Then again, it is still April in Minnesota. By no means a wash out. But there’s been some scrambling to move acts inside and out of the elements. For those who came prepared, with Gortex and layers, MWMF has again offered up a bushel of busy charms.
I love the drive coming down the Mississippi at this time of year. It may not be green yet. However, for those who love the great outdoors, this major US flyway is chock full of migrating birds and nesting eagles. So I planned plenty of time to make the drive in a leisurely fashion.
It’s fun getting onsite a bit early. Watching volunteers still setting up and getting organized. There’s a palpable bit of anticipation. Lots of glances at the radar loop and prognostications. Meeting up with friends. Seeing the bands check in. Street clothes. Can these really be the budding rock stars we’ll see under the lights shortly? They look just like us.
And that’s one of the appeals of MWMF. It’s a music community homecoming of sorts. A wonderful mix of artists, pure fans and volunteers. It takes all kinds to make a family.

After grabbing credentials I immediately ran into Front Row Paul strolling down 3rd Street. Well, of course I did! It takes commitment to be in position to man the rail, show after show. Like The Shackletons sing: “Nobody gets in front of Front Row Paul!” It’s always wise to consult with FRP to see what’s on his radar because it usually reaches well beyond your own.
Then AHef, fellow TCM reviewer doing triple duty. Hosting a Save The Boundary Waters booth, reviewing shows and handling merch for one of the headliners. Connecting with Markus and his cameras; representatives from The Current. Before the first acts even hit the stage, it feels like Home.
I managed to get to 11 bands in the next 7 hours. Could have caught even more but the inclement weather curtailed a bit of wandering up and down the streets. And it became pretty obvious real quick that a lot more festival goers were adjusting some plans to get to the inside venues. A couple acts were already a whole lot of band in a smaller space, so it required getting somewhere a bit early to stake out a spot.
That’s way to much to try to intelligently discuss so just some quick impressions, both of bands and set ups. First up was Scrunchies and their raucous punk energy. Already a good crowd pushing to the front of No Name Bar. I sidled in behind Front Row Paul and looked forward to an epic day. Off to a good start.
A quick trip back toward the Levee Complex with a stop at the newest addition to the Fest, Peter’s Biergarten, to take in some Druzy Rose. These folks were part of the MWMF pre-party over at Thesis Beer Project in Rochester a couple weeks back. I liked them there. I liked them even more on Friday.
The Biergarten has enormous potential as a performance space. Set between a pair of three-story brick buildings is a vacant lot. Covered with a sports turf, picnic tables, beer truck and pergolas. Next year I’d love to see them push the stage back a bit into the parking lot. IAsingle cable run above the viewing area could allow for some type of protected quasi tent that could protect both artists and fans from the elements. Not that the deepening drizzle really had an impact on those who saw shows there until later in the evening.
A bit of a different state of affairs walking back to the Levee Stages down on the river. The temperature moved into the low 60s but the wind was funneling up the Mississippi between those bluffs. It was blustery and the light rain was moving a bit sideways.
The Levee complex encompasses two stages and was scheduled for a handful of major acts. The Main Stage was covered but the Side Stage was fully open to the elements. So Elizabeth Moen’s beautiful harmonies were delivered from the former while Faith Boblett’s show on the open stage was cancelled. That was a shame. Plenty of people more than happy to brave the elements. But there’s just too much electronic equipment involved and not many rock and rollers are into the idea of electrocution.
One of the things that’s so cool about the Levee complex is that barges are sliding by right past the stage. I’ve seen my share of stages set up near a railroad track. It makes for some interesting visuals but sure doesn’t add anything to the sound. But just like kids pulling the horn signal to the train, members of Moen’s band did so with the barge, which obliged. If you grew up on a major Midwestern river, there’s a great charm.
Over to catch Lapdogs at The Biergarten. This is a new band in the Twin Cities and I ran into another crew of familiars out to support them. I thought the musicianship in this three piece was first rate. Smooth and loose. Lots of jazz stylings with complex rhythms and an interesting juxtaposition of bass and lead guitars.
Time to grab a sandwich and sit for a spell. Then a couple tunes from the ubiquitous Mike Munson at the Eagles Club. He’s a great songwriter and never fails to deliver the goods. Another of the artists who kicked things off at the Pre-Party in Rochester.
Back outside for Products. A band new to me but recommended. They came off edgy, irreverent and harmlessly anti-social. I started to feel this CBGB kind of Velvet Underground vibe to the band. As Peter’s Biergarten projected artwork and photographs on the brick wall along the south side of the space, a vintage photo of the New York’s Chelsea Hotel lobby came up. I thought that about summed it up.
Last night there were two headliners who have made a name for themselves outside the Upper Midwest. Bad Bad Hats was the first of those and I headed back to The Levee where I ran into one of the members of Loud Mouth Brass. The rain was now coming in a bit sideways, so we hunkered in front of the sound tent.
Here’s the thing about Kerry Alexander and BBH, when she sings Nothing Gets Me High, she means it. Literally. She’s never had a drink. She eschews drugs. She just seems the ultimate smart, quirky, girl next door. Kerry is a gifted songwriter, and that band has always been able to get so much out of three pieces without flash. Bad Bad Hats is the epitome of the old adage that great songs just sing themselves. You don’t need to do a lot to make them fly.
So my favorite aspect of watching a band I’ve seen umpteen times last night was the visuals. Kerry was clad in a bright red coat, lightning bolt on her guitar strap with the wind and rain whipping her long blond hair. She looked the rock star as the stage lights made the rain sparkle. The whole thing combined to make me smile.

You could tell that the mood was beginning to shift to an indoor kind of vibe. People were getting chilly. So I figured if I was going to try to get into No Name Bar for some acts later in the evening, I better get there before I ended up being one of those waiting on the street.
First, however, a quick swing down to Island City Brewing where Mae Simpson was holding court with her big, bawdy 7-piece band. I’ve written extensively about Mae, previously. I think she’s one of the real up and coming bands in the area. Hard to believe this bunch came together just 4 years ago. There’s a lot of polish and the catalog now allows the band to go the distance. I love the fact that a band can nearly move you to tears with simple little ditties like Monsters. And then break stuff to pieces as they funk you up with saturated horns and percussion.
Kiss The Tiger moved from the Levee complex over to No Name Bar. Doubtless, a lot of folks planned on catching them, so I wasn’t surprised when I walked up to find a line that stretched a block. Thankfully, I rode the coattails of a couple musicians past the line and in. From the cold and damp to something more akin to a sauna. KTT and Meaghan Kreider were turning up the heat.
Since I had The Shackletons down as the last band of the evening, I figured it made sense to stay right where I was. Hearts To Gold was another band with whom I was not familiar. Getting sandwiched between Kiss The Tiger and The Shackletons is asking a lot. But the band was loud, fun and barged down the rock and roll highway.
As a testament to how well the folks at No Name handled their business, I looked up to see The Shackletons locked and loaded 15 minutes before their published start time. When was the last time you were in a venue with 7 or 8 young bands in the line up and things didn’t fall badly behind schedule? Nice job, guys!
Some bands fit a particular venue like hand in glove. The Shacks and No Name are one of those match ups. Colin Campbell mentioned that starting an East Coast tour in those packed four walls was as good as it gets. He said it felt like their bar. And everybody got to share it. Sweat flew, folks danced and by the end of the set I, like most people at MWMF, was wrung out.
When I hit the sheets I was physically exhausted. Lots of walking, outside elements and dancing will do that to you. But there’s still a day to go. Day 1 of Midwest Music Fest was a whirlwind. It was a challenge. And there was more good music to discover than one person could possibly explore.