Local Current Blog

Mid West Music Fest 2015: Winona welcomed a colorful cast of musical characters

Har-di-Har. Photos by Molly O'Connor for MPR.

Approximately 6:30 p.m. Saturday evening in a grassy patio behind a bar in downtown Winona, patrons busted out kubb.

“This game is nonsensical,” I said.

“That’s the best kind of game,” replied a long-haired gentleman in a leather jacket, a natural at the stick-throwing Nordic lawn sport.

The saxophonist for People Brothers Band teamed with the bar’s owner to challenge a woman who kept a lit cigarette in hand during tosses, a well-traveled guitarist for blue-grass band the Wide Awakes, and me.

Guitarist Mike Munson assumed the outdoor stage in sneakers.

Across the street, Minneapolis rapper Botzy introduced himself to the cavernous back room at Broken World Records.

“I’m gonna play a track that’ll bring you up, then one that’ll push you back a little,” he said, with aid from Minneapolis musician Bae Tigre and Dig Mode on beats.

Three blocks away, at the UMC church, Koo Koo Kanga Roo’s all-ages dance marathon unfolded in front of the altar decorated by a yarn-on-glass backdrop (engineered by a local school), dancers young and old crowding the pews and aisle. A boy wearing a Koo Koo t-shirt hid under the stage, as adults danced rumba and sang about bodily functions. (The band’s latest release has the self-explanatory title Gross.)

Saturday night at the Mid West Music Fest (MWMF), now in its sixth year, was in full swing.

During Communist Daughter’s set at the Historic Masonic Temple, Johnny Solomon paraphrased wife/singer Molly Moore: “We should buy a house in Winona.”

Commenting on the town’s rustic buildings and shabby factories nestled in verdant bluff country, the bassist for Teenage Moods, in a precautionary yellow poncho, exclaimed, “It’s so romantic!”

Sure, the fashion’s different during the fest. Later that night, Jack Klatt lingered in sheep’s coat and fedora off-stage at Ed’s No Name Bar, explaining the fixation he’s had with playing Sioux Falls lately. Still, he’s a regular in Winona.

During Gabe Barnett & Big House Rounders’ set, a tie-dyed Gregg “Cheech” Hall, who’d finished up a set on the patio, nudged into me and apologized.

“You’re fine,” I offered.

“I know,” he said, walking outside to hear Munson.

This year’s festival had its additions. The buzz Saturday morning at the riverside Boathouse Patio (during folksters My Grandma’s Cardigan’s “King of the World” rendition over a poutine-and-Irish coffee brunch set) was about how anyone survived Friday’s back-to-back at Broken World Records: the People Brothers Band’s mobile Kermesse segued the boisterous crowd into the hit-by-a-bus Black Market Brass (who arrived in what appeared to be matching sanitation worker outfits, the trumpeter sauntering to the microphone between songs to cagily ask if Winona was ready for this).

Friday night also saw the debut of a new MWMF venue, the VFW, which had been decorated with police-tape and ice buckets of beer. “There are some 80-year-old WWII vets in here who are going to be cranked up,” said an observer. Some regulars stayed on, though, mixing with the weekend adventurers.

Mostly, things were pretty normal. The Acoustic Café—a sandwich shop in town—hosted folk musicians, allowing for customers to sip soup while watching a bluegrass rendition of the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B.” At the Eagles Club, a family sold homemade Greek food out of potluck vats while a man in ponytail and a wolf T-shirt mystically danced to Beet Root Stew.

What’s apparent is how MWMF is not that different from a regular weekend. More people point to the tugboat pushing a crate downriver. But, mostly, it’s just Winona. Downtown buskers. Mexican food trucks. The guy on 6th Street at dusk twirls fire ala-Burning-Man. Steampunks await orders in the window at Toppers. People hunt down music.

Saturday the reporter bumped into festival founder Sam Brown, crossing the street.

“Who should I see?”

“Go see Botzy,” he said, the same way Sam would on an October weeknight.

Late Saturday night at Ed’s, during Land of Blood and Sunshine’s set, a server/barista in town put up her hood and leaned against the back wall.

“I feel like I know everyone here,” she said. “It’s all the regulars.”

By morning, the rusted vans, cowboy hats, and vintage flower dresses would be gone. Winona’s always welcomed transients—musicians, students, adjunct faculty. Most river towns are like that, harbors for whatever sticks wash downstream. In Winona, though, people who pass through tend to come back.

In the lean bathrooms at Ed’s, as the Heavy Set took the stage, show posters advertised the slate of coming gigs—soon it’ll be summer, and the bar will celebrate an infamous steamboat (the Julius C. Wilkie) that years ago (or its replica) was propped up as ornament on the levee, only to be torn down (an eyesore) by the city, and now, fittingly, is remembered in a week-long celebration of music called Wilkie Days. There’ll be patio jams, patrons will sit around a glowing fire, and stars will be clearly seen on this man-made island city. There may even be kubb.


Photos, top to bottom: My Grandma’s Cardigan, Gravy Train, the Heavy Set, the Weathered Heads, Twins, Charlie Parr, General B and the Wiz

Christopher Vondracek is a writer living in Minneapolis. He’s published one poem about liquidated Amish furniture and is desperately trying to publish his book on Lawrence Welk. Photographer Molly O’Connor is a student at Winona State University.