Before Saturday, I’d never spent any meaningful time in Winona.
But I felt more than welcome as the Mid West Music Fest began its 10th annual run with more than 20 hours of onstage performances Friday and Saturday in the Minnesota city of 27,000. (It continues two weeks later with a two-day run in La Crosse.) And I want to go back.
I parked at about one in the afternoon in front of what was, technically, a friend of a friend of a friend’s house, where an attic mattress awaited. First impressions of the festival were smooth: Winona State University faculty playing a jazz set, super nice volunteer staff members, and, in the words of MWMF administrative manager Sam Zierden, “stinking beautiful weather.”
Zierden, who’s filled that role for three years now, says the festival has always been a two-city affair. Organizers wanted to strengthen the connection between the river cities, and both communities have been supportive. She said the towns are known for being a haven for artists, especially ones traveling between Minneapolis and Chicago, providing venues for gigs and places to crash for a night.
You don’t need to see to believe
More than 100 faces pointed at the stage late Saturday afternoon inside a 126-year-old retail space as Annie Mack’s voice soaked into interested ears and apathetic couch cushions inside Burke Music House. The words and delivery from the north Minneapolis native and Rochester resident prickled my skin in the best ways, and also miraculously inspired a Minnesota crowd to clap and snap on beat, more than once.
They were fitting rarities in such a unique space. “It’s like a big living room,” Mack said after her set, which included her husband, Paul O’Sullivan, on acoustic guitar.
According to venue owners T. Sean and Shaune Burke, the Minnesota Women in Music Showcase served as a soft opening for the renovated building, which featured performances from Mack, Aby Wolf, and Humbird.
The Burkes live in a 5,000-square-foot home above the music house. In 2014, they hosted Ruth Moody (one-third of the Wailin’ Jennys) and the Bills (which includes Ruth’s brother, Richard Moody). The Burkes brought those musicians downstairs, proposed the idea of a music venue, and received positive feedback. So they turned what began as a store for pianos, Victrolas, and more into a listening room and private event venue. On Saturday, it hosted an attentive crowd and three intimate shows.
Mack said she felt honored to share the space with the other performers. She said MWMF offers a variety of attractions. Organizers aren’t afraid to take chances with acts, and the event features up-and-comers alongside seasoned professionals. One of the latter turned a lodge theater into a church after the sun went down Saturday.
Fraternizing with a living legend
The sounds of steel strings and stomps bounced through the stairwell as I entered the only MWMF venue outside a four-block radius downtown.
Charlie Parr was strumming and bellowing alongside three supporting musicians (percussion, bass, and mouth organ) in the Masonic Temple theater. The Austin native (now based in the Duluth area) played his style of contemplative blues for the crowd spread between the dance floor and balcony.
During a lively rendition of “I Ain’t Dead Yet”/“Funeral Road Blues,” Parr asked to receive gifts normally reserved as post-mortem favors: a nice suit, flowers, a band to play his favorite songs. He reminded listeners of mortality with “Over the Red Cedar”/“Outlastin’ You,” and proposed patience with “Cheap Wine.” Parr also offered pieces of somewhat deadpan philosophy with “True Friends.” They’re hard to find, he explained, and, “To get one you gotta be one.”
I felt like I made a few new ones Saturday, even if the conversations were usually one-way.
Relationships, onstage and off
The Bad Man played an afternoon set on the main stage in Levee Park. At one point, singer Peter Memorich asked the crowd what the deal was with the giant tarps on the bridge. After a typical Midwestern non-response, one onlooker did offer an explanation for Bridge No. 5900: It’s a time machine. (It’s getting painted, or at least that’s what the state is telling us.) Later, the band played another set under the tent outside Island City Brewing.
A few hours earlier, Tacky Annie took that stage and gave the crowd a sizable helping of their sweet art-pop. Between songs, singer Rachelle LaNae mentioned how Dirt Train was scheduled to go on after Tacky Annie’s set, but that band couldn’t perform Saturday, as its lead singer, Tucker Jensen, died less than two months ago.
Like much of the Upper Midwest music scene, LaNae was clearly affected by his passing, and her tribute was one more example of the camaraderie present in that community. The Mid West Music Fest has become a pillar in that support system, and thousands of attendees last weekend were better off because of it.
If you plan to skip part of Art-a-Whirl (something I can’t exactly endorse), below are a few recommendations for Phase 2 of MWMF, courtesy of my brain and Sam Zierden’s more informed perspective.
New Primitives: 5 p.m. May 17
Ruby Boots: 5:30 p.m. May 17 and 11 p.m. May 18
Luthi: 10:30 p.m. May 17 and 18
Banditos: 11 p.m. May 17
MWMF Jam: 11:30 p.m. May 17 and 18
Vintage and makers market: 1-7 p.m. May 18
The Parenting Place Art Factory: 1-4 p.m. May 18
Dreadhead C: 2:30 p.m. May 18
J Council: 4:45 p.m. May 18
Sea Saw: 7 p.m. May 18
The Last Revel: 9:30 p.m. May 18
Wheelhouse: 10 p.m. May 18
You can find more info and a complete schedule here.