Now in its fourth year, Winona’s Mid West Music Fest continues to expand into new venues and pull in acts from the surrounding region to create a city-wide sampling of new music.
It was only my second year attending the festival, but already the year-to-year improvements were noticeable: More of the shows were presented in a closer proximity to one another, making it easy to hop between shows and catch up to a dozen sets in an evening, and the organizers did an incredible job of making sure everything ran on time and without hiccups despite the less than ideal weather outside.
As with last year, the center of the hive was Ed’s No Name Bar in downtown Winona, clearly a band and fan favorite and the venue that had the best draw throughout the week. Bar owner Ed Hoffman himself was on hand throughout the festival taking in new music and overseeing the action at his space, as was MWMF founder Sam Brown, who was clearly energized by the turnout and success of this year’s festival.
That’s the thing about MWMF: The doorman at one venue might end up being the bass player you’re watching perform at the next, and the whole event has such a community-positive vibe that it’s hard not to feel like a temporary resident of Winona while hopping from place to place. Honestly, about the only thing this festival needs is more people, and they are on track to continue expanding as they head into their fifth anniversary celebration next year (MWMF 5 is already booked for April 24-26, 2014).
Here’s an overview of the bands that jumped out at me this year, with photos of all 28 of the acts I managed to catch this go-round.
Neon were by far my favorite new discovery of the festival. The quartet of high school seniors from La Crosse, Wisconsin gave an incredibly polished performance (not to mention one of the longest of the festival, outside of the headliners) that showcased songs off their forthcoming EP, Electric Thoughts, work from their 2010 debut full-length, and telling covers from influential acts like the Smiths, Oasis, Dylan, and the Stones.
The band formed when its members were in 7th grade and have been performing in La Crosse for five years, and that time spent together on stage showed. Lead singer Nick Maas has a commanding voice and stage presence, and his chemistry with guitarist Matthew Clark was particularly noticeable. At times, the band was channeling the best elements of Britpop—layered and jangly guitars, minor chord progressions, slightly sneered vocal lines—while during other songs they reminded me a bit of ‘90s alternative bands like Sugar. Like most young bands, they wear those influences on their sleeves, but they clearly have the songwriting chops and band dynamics required to hone their own sound.
Above all, they had an impossible-to-describe, undeniable spark that set them apart from so many other bands I’ve seen lately. With only a few months left of high school, I’m hoping they’ll venture out of La Crosse soon and start playing shows in the Twin Cities and beyond; I suspect they wouldn’t have much trouble finding a larger fanbase that connects with their sound.
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Caroline Smith and the Good Night Sleeps brought their expanded lineup to Ed’s Bar on Friday night and introduced Winona fans to their brand-new soul sound, and it only took a few bars for the crowd to be won over. The band was scheduled to perform outdoors at Ed’s Block Party, but the chilly, drizzly weather forced the music indoors; a few songs in, so many fans were pushing their way into the bar to catch the performance that a line stretched out the door and down the block.
“I’m nervous,” Smith admitted toward the beginning of her set, explaining that it was only their third show with her new bandmates and new songs. But you’d never have known that she was the least bit uncertain. Bolstered by powerhouse vocalists Lizzo (The Chalice) and Hannah von der Hoff (formerly of Sexcat), Smith’s new songs ditched the cutesy vocal nuances in favor of all-out belting, and with all three women showing off the full range of their pipes it was hard to know who to watch. The vocal trio really shined when they stacked harmonies on top of one another and punctuated the melodies with little sighing swoops and hand claps, creating an engaging give-and-take with the audience that hearkened back to ‘60s Motown groups like the Supremes.
Afterwards, Jake Hanson (who was at Ed’s to perform that night with Halloween, Alaska) said that he’s been hard at work producing Smith’s new record, which will capture her new musical direction. The album is being mixed now, and is expected to be out either later this year or next spring.
Ruben are so well respected by the MWMF organizers that they are one of the only bands who has played all four years, and I’m glad I finally got a chance to catch them this year. This band out of Stillwater is just plain fun, channeling ’60s rock and soul influences and layering vocal harmonies to create an old-school party vibe.
Lead singer Sam Ziemer spent the majority of the time in the spotlight, and his Van Morrison croon proved a worthy centerpiece, but his bandmates also showed they have some serious chops—especially Catie Larson, who stepped up to the mic to deliver a spot-on rendition of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” that had the whole crowd swaying along.
The band already has a record out (their 2010 release Carry Me is available on their Bandcamp), and Ziemer announced that they are getting ready to release a new album, I’m Just A Ghost, this summer. For now, sample a track off their 2010 release below, and tune into the Local Show this Sunday night for a premiere of one of the tracks off that new record.
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The Ultrasounds provided me with my second chance to see husband and wife duo Megan and Todd Hanson in action during MWMF, having seen them early in the evening on Thursday night when they performed as My Private Eye. While My Private Eye found them dabbling in driving, New Wave inspired power pop that occasionally reminded me of BNLX, the Ultrasounds was a more straightforward rock band and came equipped with a secret weapon: ferocious drummer Amber Fletcher (pictured), who ditched the kit about eight songs in and picked up a guitar. Fletcher moved between the two instruments with ease and was also an engaging singer, leading the band through their catchiest songs.
What a difference a year can make. This was my second time seeing Click Track, and they’ve grown from a charmingly ramshackle indie duo into a tight, hard-rocking trio with ’80s and Britpop influences; at times, their songwriting reminds me of mid-2000s Minneapolis favorites the Alarmists. They were also one of several bands to flip the fog machine on at Ed’s before the sun went down, a testament to the band’s dedication to the setting the mood regardless of their time slot.
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Ralphed was everything one could hope for in a punk-influenced garage band: They were loud, they were fast, and they whipped the small crowd of onlookers into a swirling frenzy. Dibs Cafe was one of the hardest draws of the festival, with only a handful of attendees in the audience at each show I caught there, but Ralphed did their best to reach out and engage the crowd with their accessible yet scoffing songs. I was especially drawn to the band’s lead singer, whose voice and delivery reminded me at times of a young Frank Black.
Shoe Shop: A young, clean white boy blues band from Winona that channels influences ranging from Eric Clapton to Jason Mraz. Their lead singer Ethan Huffington’s soulful voice had me wondering how he would fare on one of those reality shows like NBC’s The Voice.
Claudia Schmidt: The Red House Records folk artist had the Masonic Temple crowd in the palm of her hand as she sang, told stories, and led the crowd in inspired sing-alongs.
Hill County Destroyer: A bluesy bar band with a killer light show, this trio offered up gritty, grimy country rock in the vein of the 4onthefloor and Crankshaft.
Astronautalis: The Minneapolis-based, world-traveled rapper battled a sub-par sound system and eventually won over the more rock-inclined crowd with his endearing stage presence and unparalleled energy.
Tour Funk: An acoustic duo with killer vocals; their accessible original tunes explored topics like heartache and hard times, which blended nicely with a soulful cover of Nirvana’s “About a Girl.”
Austin Weatherhead: One of the youngest performers of the festival, the 12-year-old guitarist and singer played a selection of covers, including Jason Mraz’s “Still Looking Up.”
Category U: This young duo was just plain fun. They began their set with a dramatic, operatic rendition of “Eye of the Tiger” before moving on to a selection of their own catchy, poppy material.
Hyphon: A La Crosse MC with a quirky sense of humor. He performed most of his set backed only by a stuffed bunny rabbit wearing headphones, and proved to be an engaging presence despite the fact that he was nestled in the corner of the front bar at new venue Broken World Records.
Chastity Brown: The powerhouse soul-folk singer and her band delivered a searing set, commanding every corner of Ed’s Bar.
Apollo Cobra: Clearly one of Winona’s favorite acts, this funky Minneapolis pop band whipped up the crowd and kept the party going right up until bar close. The capes only added to the superhero effect that they have on the town.
Riflebird: Though they are still quite tentative on stage this new Winona quartet showed promise, especially when the two sisters in the band harmonized their tender, sweet voices.
Savannah Smith: An Eau Claire native currently living in the Twin Cities, Smith wielded only a ukulele, heartbreaking lyrics and her huge voice to draw in a substantial crowd at Broken World Records. I, for one, was kicking myself for waiting all this time to finally see her live.
Eli Glor: A Winona-based troubadour and bluesman in the vein of Charlie Parr. His slide guitar playing was the perfect complement to the vintage aesthetic of the front room of Broken World Records.
Reina del Cid: Another act I can’t believe I had to drive all the way to Winona to finally see live. After witnessing their engaging, guitar-driven set of folk-rock at MWMF, I’m marking every Monday night down on my calendar and making a point to finally catch them at their ongoing Amsterdam Bar and Hall residency.
Hang ’em High: The perfect way to wrap up the festival. This loud, fast, head-banging glam metal band would be perfectly suited to play a bill with Twin Cities rockers like the Japhies or the Goondas.
More Photos by Ben Clark: