By Jack Spencer
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By Rob van Alstyne
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When it's time to ditch the Cities, the southern Minnesota college town of Winona is a gorgeous getaway with limestone bluffs towering over the mighty Mississippi River. For music enthusiasts, this weekend's Mid West Music Festival (MWMF) adds even more enticing scenery and sounds to justify the two-hour drive.
Now in its fourth year, the festival will feature more than 100 artists from the region, who will perform on more than a dozen stages in downtown Winona as part of the three-day event. All of the welcoming venues are within easy walking distance of each other, creating a communal, music-inspired atmosphere that courses through the downtown area of the city through the three days of the festival. This year's familiar faces include Minneapolis rapper Astronautalis, jam rock staples the Big Wu, folk experimenters the Pines, Duluth psych-rockers Retribution Gospel Choir, soul-imbued roots act Caroline Smith & the Goodnight Sleeps, and electro-pop group Halloween, Alaska.
"We've always believed that it's important to try to get out and play some of the other towns in Minnesota," says BNLX singer-guitarist Ed Ackerson, who had a great time playing MWMF last year. "I grew up in Stillwater, and it was such a huge deal to me as a kid when I got to see original rock bands play there — it was a rare and cool thing."
The Mid West Music Fest takes place Thursday, April 18, through Saturday, April 20, at various venues in Winona; check the full lineup at midwestmusicfest.org.
The person who made this cool thing less rare is festival director Sam Brown, who was stationed in Winona with AmeriCorps beginning in 2009. Brown needed to come up with a summer service project, and in February 2010, he hatched an idea for a music festival that would put money back into the local arts scene for the city's 27,000-plus residents. Backed by an initial $2,000 donation from the Winona Fine Arts Commission, a branch of the Winona City Government, the event — originally a two-day affair in July — featured performances from Dessa, Rogue Valley, and many others. The festival has donated over $20,000 to seven area nonprofits during the past three years. Attendance at MWMF nearly doubled from 2011 to 2012, with 3,000 music fans taking part last year.
In addition to giving Winona bands exposure, the MWMF has tapped Kimya Dawson (whose the Uncluded side project is signed to Rhymesayers Entertainment), Tapes 'n Tapes, the 4onthefloor, Haley Bonar, Toki Wright, and countless others to fill out their lineups. Festival organizer Adam Wiltgen, a former Twin Cities resident, confirms that the overwhelming majority of artist submissions they receive are from Twin Cities-based acts. "I know how difficult it can be sometimes to simply get out of the metro area with all of the events that are constantly going on," he says. "That makes the support we do have up there all the more valuable."
Production director Jim Trouten oversaw MWMF's sound during the festival's first few years, which presented some distinct challenges since some venues don't host any music during the rest of the year. "It's all in a day's work," he says humbly, and credits Ben Assef, the festival's technical manager, and the legions of local volunteers who turn out to help. "[They] can turn a pasture into a festival, can turn a small storefront into a venue, and a gymnasium into a rock concert."
One of the cultural hubs of the MWMF is unquestionably Ed's No-Name Bar, which last year hosted an expansive block party. Chris Koza, Charlie Parr, and The Voice's Nicholas Mrozinski and the Feelin' Band played its parking lot stage, and Apollo Cobra closed things down indoors. The bar's owner, Ed Hoffman, is happy to play such a prominent role in the ongoing success of the MWMF, with his dedicated staff working double shifts throughout the weekend to handle the influx of activity.
Hoffman says this festival has proved to be a catalyst for local pride, especially for the arts community.
"In the past, there had always seemed to me there existed a sort of defeatist attitude here," he says. "We never got the droves of Twin Cities tourists that Red Wing, Stillwater, the North Shore, or lakes area got, and our downtown commercial/historic area was on the ropes. But somewhere in the last decade, I feel we turned a major corner. People are beginning to recognize that Winona has as much art and natural beauty going on as anywhere else in the out-state without feeling touristy at all. Winona is real. Winona is fun."