Now in its third year, the Mid West Music Fest brought concertgoers to downtown Winona for three days of concerts across 15 different venues. I had a chance to attend approximately half of the festival, arriving for the the later part of Friday night and staying through Saturday evening, and was impressed by the variety of acts on display and the high standard of quality maintained on stages large and small. In my brief time there I made it a goal to see as many new acts as possible, especially those from the Winona and La Crosse area, and managed to hit over a dozen shows.
Overall, I left with a very positive impression of the festival. The venues were all close enough together that it was easy to navigate between the spaces and bounce between a lot of different shows. A wristband covered entrance into all but one of the shows (Greg Brown’s concert required a separate ticket, which made sense given that it drew an entirely different audience than the rest of the festival), and there was only one instance where a venue had reached capacity and I had to wait briefly to get inside. Festival founder Sam Brown says that their attendance this year was over 3,000 people, doubling last year’s crowd of 1,600, and that he plans to return again for another round in 2013. After discovering so many new acts in such a small window of time this past weekend, I’ll definitely be back next year.
Here are some of the highlights from my first Mid West Music Fest experience (more photos here):
DJ Tommy LAH and DJosh: What a way to kick off the festival. What started as a pit stop at Dibs for food before heading out to the venues ended up serving as my introduction to Winona’s all-ages dance scene, as dozens upon dozens of teenagers filed up to the second-floor music venue to take part in a manic dance party thrown by young dubstep duo DJ Tommy LAH and DJosh. Their set was a miniature spectacle — roughly 100 high schoolers dressed in vintage raver gear (furry pants!) crammed together to bounce and flail to serrated remixes of Rihanna and Skrillex while the DJs took turns leaping off the stage and into the crowd. The whole thing was happening upstairs from a quiet cafe that served vegan sandwiches, creating a startling yet amusing dichotomy.
Emma Mae Spring: At first blush Spring, who is based in Morristown, Minnesota, comes off as a typical soft-spoken coffee-shop folkie, but there was something especially endearing about her original material — especially a song called “Nerd Love” that had lines like “Would you walk me home if I had too much to drink/If I were Zelda, would you be my Link?/I hope so.” Her cutesy rendition of the Offspring’s “Kids Aren’t All Right,” complete with back-up vocals from her friends in the audience, was satisfying as well.
Click Track: This young power-pop duo out of La Crosse looked a little nervous as they climbed up on stage, dressed in coordinating business suits, but once they picked up their instruments and fired up their first song they came bursting to life. Lead singer Ryan Conrad and drummer Nick Elstad played tight and fast, sometimes adopting a garage style and sometimes leaning more toward three-chord punk. Conrad seemed to be channeling Billie Joe Armstrong when he grabbed a megaphone, but I preferred the songs where he sang straight into the mic — he has a great range and sense of control, and is already taking some risks with his melodic structures despite the fact the band doesn’t even have an album to their name yet. I’ll be keeping an eye out for a release from these guys — for now, they say their first music video, “Dangerous Children,” should be online soon.
Breakaway: It’s a good thing Breakaway was booked to play the quietest room in Winona, the Masonic Temple, because solo artist Joe Kujawa’s voice demands stillness and reverence. Kujawa describes himself as a “freak folk” artist and feels a kinship to artists like Zola Jesus, whom he covered during his set; he’s also a capable lyricist and songwriter in his own right. Armed with only an acoustic guitar, Kujawa filled the empty spaces of his songs with arpeggios and scales, showing off the full range of his hefty, sometimes harrowing voice. At times his delivery was operatic, bordering on theatrical, while at others he was so earnestly expressive that it was impossible to turn away. Breakaway just released a new full-length, Nothing Like a Metaphor, which has more electronic and experimental elements than his live show, and it’s available for sampling here.
Greg Brown: It had been almost a decade since I’d seen Brown perform, and this was an ideal setting. With the drizzly, grey night growing colder and colder outside, Brown charmed the audience with his lyrical storytelling while guitarist Bo Ramsey warmed the room with the coos of his electric guitar. Brown opened with a stirring song about his “Old Bones” and followed it up with the title track of his latest album, “Freak Flag,” pausing between songs to rave about the food backstage and grumble about his failed attempt to make a poetry board game. Much like the Masonic Temple, the Somsen Auditorium on the university campus proved to be a calming respite from the more chaotic energy downtown.
Bomba de Luz: Back at the Masonic, I was happy to finally catch this quartet of Central High students from St. Paul live. I’ve been listening to their self-titled debut EP quite heavily since it came in the mail here at the Current, and have found myself especially drawn to lead singer Lydia Hoglund’s elastic, euphoric voice. As I anticipated, she was a force to be reckoned with live and quite a skilled guitar player to boot. Though the ensemble could use a little fine-tuning — they sounded muddy at times, and almost drowned Hoglund out in an attempt to lock into a Latin jazz groove — they were nothing if not ambitious, and were probably one of the most technically adventurous bands of the whole festival. I’m eager to see where this band goes next, and thrilled by the possibilities of their collective potential. Hoglund says they already have a second album in the works so we won’t have to wait long.
Kimya Dawson: I’d seen Dawson perform before, but never quite like this. By the time she took the stage the Masonic Temple had filled with people, but instead of standing in the open space people opted to sit cross-legged on the floor like it was storytime hour. Dawson had organized her set list so that her cutest, most kid-friendly material came first, including a song written by her five-year-old, Panda, and she waited until she had soothed the crowd into quiet elation before pulling out her downright devastating material. It was difficult to stay emotionless during the later part of her set, especially when she following a cover of Eyedea’s “Smile” with her own ode to death and loss, “Walk Like Thunder,” and at times the experience became almost overwhelmingly visceral — a testament to her power as a performer.
Enemy Planes: This Minneapolis quartet is made up of members of Pictures of Then, who have moved away from garage-indie rock toward moody, electro-tinged pop. After a lengthy soundcheck (the band started playing about 40 minutes after their scheduled start time, and seemed displeased with the sound throughout their set despite no obvious problems), they fired up a set of songs that sounded dark, tight, and refined. During the show I tweeted that “Mpls needs another band using a vocoder like I need another hole in my head” — though Enemy Planes use vocal manipulations in a fairly subtle, harmonic way, their overall sound reminded me so much of other Twin Cities acts (especially Solid Gold) that it was hard to stay engaged during their set.
Apollo Cobra: On my last stop of the fest, I found Winona’s favorite Twin Cities band. With the venue filled to capactiy, the scene at Ed’s No Name Bar was incredible. Earlier in the week, the crowd at Ed’s would spread out into a side room, the main room, and outdoors on the patio, but for this closing performance the entire crowd squished together in front of the stage to create a sweaty, screaming mob. Most of the audience was clearly familiar with Apollo’s funky tunes and would yell out their appreciation at the beginning of each new song, and the band obliged by tearing through their own material and snippets of songs like Electric Six’s “Danger! High Voltage” right up until bar close. There were certainly bigger names on the bill of this year’s MWMF, but in the eyes of a lot of local fans it seemed that Apollo Cobra were the real headliners of the festival — it was a fun and furious way to close out the weekend and it certainly ended my trip on a high note.