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Mid West Music Fest: Minnesota's booming mini-SXSW keeps it local

Chastity Brown at 2015's Mid West Music Festival

Chastity Brown at 2015's Mid West Music Festival

Minnesotans come out of hibernation each spring looking for activity. Some go to the ballpark, others start cleaning up the cabin, and local music lovers look forward to festival season. 

Thanks to some ambitious folks in Winona, Minnesota, the Mid West Music Fest is entering its 7th year of bringing live music to the riverside college town about two hours southeast of the Twin Cities.

Set to go down April 28-30 and featuring roughly 75 midwestern bands — including Bad Bad Hats, Jeremy Messersmith, Heiruspecs, Romantica, the Lowest Pair, and Fury Things — MWMF is set up like a small-scale South by Southwest, where attendees hop between venues throughout town.  

MWMF 2016 kicks off Saturday in La Crosse, Wisconsin, with a pre-fest party featuring 4onthefloor, Farewell Milwaukee, Mike Munson, and Tabah. City Pages caught up with event organizers Sam Brown and Parker Forsell to learn about the inspiration behind their nonprofit endeavor and what sets it apart from larger-scale regional fests.

City Pages: How did the the city of Winona respond to your idea back in Year One?

Sam Brown: They were quite responsive. Everyone thought it was a great idea, but no one thought I could do it: “I’m going to have 75 bands coming to town over two days and this will happen four months from now. You’re meeting me for the first time.”

Black-Eyed Snakes at the 2015 MWMF

Black-Eyed Snakes at the 2015 MWMF

I was kind of an introvert before that, hanging by myself a lot. When I started organizing it became it became a very social thing for me where I met Parker, the Convention & Visitor Bureau, the other festival organizers in town. It was pretty ambitious. The first year we flew under the radar.

Parker Forsell: The city has been pretty supportive. There’s more permitting now with the tent stage and vendors. It’s more organization at the city level.

SB: The first city request I had was to put sandwich boards on the sidewalks at the venues. It’s grown to asking for liquor licenses, street closures, all this stuff.

CP: Why did you choose to focus on multiple local and small venues?

SB: Part of it was my experience living out West with other festivals in coffee shops and smaller spaces. I am a big fan of the intimate venue rather than big, outdoor festivals. I grew up in Red Wing and I have a small-town mentality.

When I grew up, if I wanted to play a show, I had to do all the work to organize it. There wasn’t a place to just play. Because it is building community through music and the revitalization of downtown, I want people in the seats of the local coffee shops and galleries and making the town feel alive. Mid West Music Fest really makes Winona shine.

PF: There is this intention to support music from the Midwest and hold up Winona because some of the best music is being made in the Midwest. It isn’t just Portland and places like that.

Minneapolis-St. Paul is one of the best music communities in the country. We wanted to highlight that in our small community: bring all these bands that are not normally playing in a rural area and connect them to the local music scene, which is pretty robust for a small town.

We’ve been able to connect a lot of musicians and we’ve seen artists from our town become names in the Twin Cities now and they’re on bills with bigger bands. What makes us different than the other festivals is we’re primarily focused on Minnesota and Midwest talent.

We sprinkle a couple from elsewhere, but it was never the intention to be a festival that brings in all these national acts.

We hear from people that it’s exciting to be able to walk from venue to venue. The musicians like to come down because they see a bunch of their friends playing and only have to walk a couple blocks. It’s a community reunion thing for them.

It isn’t just one show that you’re seeing. The whole point is that you’re venue hopping and catching all kinds of different bands, genres. It might be cooler to see a band in one of these venues versus one that you’ve been to a bunch of times in the Twin Cities.

SB: When you’re at the fest, you pop in for 10-20 minutes on a band, move across the street and it’s another atmosphere going on. It’s really magical.

CP: How does festival organization happen year to year? I imagine with the college population there’s a lot of staff transition.

SB: In the early years it was really tough. College students leave. I started to branch out to more residents. It’s been a really good experience working with Parker and more established residents in Winona. We still have a lot of college student help, but also people coming back year to year.

Farewell Milwaukee play at this weekend's pre-festival LaCrosse dates

Farewell Milwaukee play at this weekend's pre-festival LaCrosse dates

PF: We have some paid temporary positions that are during the festival and we’ve created some connections with the music business program at Winona State, working with students. That is a real big challenge year to year.

Mid West Music Fest

With: Jeremy Messersmith, Charlie Parr, Erik Koskinen, Heiruspecs, the Cloak Ox, Bad Bad Hats, General B and the Wiz, Gospel Machine, Fury Things, Murder Shoes, the Lowest Pair, Farewell Milwaukee, and many, many more.

When: April 28-30. 

Where: Various venues and stages across Winona, Minnesota. 

Tickets: $15 1-day passes, $35 2-day passes, $50 3-day passes; more info here