Mid West Music Festival 2013 Day Two: We Are the Willows, Caroline Smith, and more

Mid West Music Festival 2013 Day Two: We Are the Willows, Caroline Smith, and more
Photo by Erik Thompson

MWMF Day Two With We Are the Willows, Chastity Brown, Halloween, Alaska, Caroline Smith & the Goodnight Sleeps, Click Track, and the May North Winona, Minnesota April 19, 2013

Thursday night at the Mid West Music Fest was suited for checking out each club in downtown Winona, and Friday's strong lineup at Ed's No-Name Bar proved impossible to resist. Sadly, the planned outdoor block party had to be moved inside due to the chilly April day, but that just made the performances that much more intimate.

Starting with the May North at 5 p.m., the day continued with tremendous sets by La Crosse/Winona's Click Track, a new lineup and sound for Caroline Smith & the Goodnight Sleeps, plenty of new songs from Halloween, Alaska, and a stripped-down trio for Chastity Brown's riveting performance that closed out the night, before We Are the Willows brought the evening to an end across the street at Broken World Records.

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Mid West Music Fest 2013 Day One: Astronautalis, Retribution Gospel Choir, and more

The May North drove down from St. Paul that morning, with frontman George McCorkell endearingly admitting that while he was shoveling and packing the van that morning, he forgot to bring shoes with him, so he was stuck wearing his Sorel boots during the show (and their upcoming show in Iowa). But that only added to their decidedly Minnesota charm, as the bluegrass quintet got the day started strongly with a rousing set featuring the contributions of Jeff Swanner's upright bass, Stephanie McCorkell's fiddle, Matthew Byrnes's banjo, and the deft dobro work of Chris O'Brien. The 35-minute set drew mainly from their terrific recent record, Interstate Lives, with George revealing that this was their third time playing MWMF, and "it seems to be getting better every year." The set ended with a lively take on "Make It Home," featuring an exquisite fiddle solo from Stephanie, as the group launched day two of the festival in a spirited fashion.

The LaCrosse by-way-of Winona rock trio Click Track were next, and their strong set featured catchy, exuberant garage-rock with a classic bent, with the group even throwing in a spirited cover of Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" for good measure. "Dangerous Children," which the group also made a video for, was a fun, Clash-like romp that got the crowd dancing a bit, while "Driving Through Downtown" had a recent Modest Mouse-esque quality to it. All in all, it was an enjoyable set by a proficient area band who brought some dedicated fans out to the show, and gave us all some animated rock to listen to as the drinks began to flow.

Ed's had reached capacity by the time Caroline Smith & the Goodnight Sleeps took to the stage (with a line to get in stretching down the block outside). And the lucky fans who were able to get in were treated to a sultry, smoking set of mostly new songs by Caroline, who was accompanied on vocals by the Chalice's Lizzo and Hannah von der Hoff of Sexcat. The ladies heated up the club with their soulful vocals, adding a distinctive, Ronettes-like flair and playfulness that only added to the charm and spirit of the songs themselves.

Older tracks like "Tank Top" and "Tying My Shoes" also took on an added vibrancy with this new lineup, with bassist Jesse Schuster and keyboardist Charlie Smith adding their own flourishes to the new arrangements. After a string of sizzling new songs, Caroline led the group through a provocative take on Beyonce's "Why Don't You Love Me?" which just about brought the house down. "We can't do another one," Caroline apologized sweetly as they left the stage to a rousing, well-earned ovation. "That was our encore, though." The group is in the process of recording a new album featuring contributions from plenty of Twin Cities heavy hitters (which is being produced by Jake Hanson as well), and hopefully Caroline doesn't make us wait too long to hear these hot new numbers again.

But Caroline wasn't the only artist to debut some new songs at Ed's on Friday night, as Halloween, Alaska also treated us to a sampling of what they've been writing and working on as of late. The past few times that I've seen the band, they've been without drummer Dave King, who thankfully was there this time around, adding his inventive rhythms to their intoxicating sound. Old classics like "Dance By Accident," "Empire Waist," and "Analogue" took on a more edgy, imaginative texture, especially alongside the new songs on offer. James Diers's occasional jokes for some reason didn't resonate with the well-lubricated crowd. He offered everyone "Volume discounts for our compact discs on sale. Are you guys familiar with dying media? Well, gather round the fire, kids." But with new material on the way, Halloween, Alaska will have plenty of new songs to sell us (and play for us) sometime soon.

Chastity Brown was up next, and though she typically performs with a four-piece backing band, on this evening it was just guitarist Robert Mulrennan and DeVon Gray accompanying her, which gave her songs a more intimate, personal touch. Most of the songs played came from the excellent Back-Road Highways, but Brown and Co. offered up one simmering, bluesy new song that is proof positive that the band is working on new material. The set overcame some nagging sound issues as well, with Brown's charming stage presence and soulful music drowning out any technical difficulties.

Brown also justly gave some credit to MWMF founder Sam Brown, and praised what she has witnessed around Winona. "There have been some great Minnesota musicians playing on this stage and others around town today. And, as an outsider from Tennessee who has come late to the Minnesota music scene, I've never been so fucking proud of Minnesota music." Toward the end of the riveting performance, a rousing version of "After You" had everyone feeling lifted, as the crowd sang and danced along as the set swept to a close.

Across the street at Broken World Records, with the blissful sounds of live music filling all corners of downtown Winona, We Are the Willows brought the night to an impassioned end, delivering songs both new and old to their fans gathered in the club. Their string-laden pop numbers sounded lovely as the evening stretched on well past midnight, with Peter Miller providing some keen insight into his material, including a batch of new songs that are inspired by letters that his grandparents wrote to each other.

Older songs like "Minneapolis" and set closer "A Funeral Dressed As a Birthday" also soared, with the subtle strains of the cello and violin blending fluidly with Miller's guitar. And while the last set of Night Two didn't have the emphatic punch of Astronautalis's closing performance on Thursday, We Are the Willows closed out in a poignant, moving manner that bodes well for their forthcoming new album.

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