This weekend’s Mid West Music Fest, in Winona, was an epic event. The weekend started early with Wednesday night shows by Dessa at Broken World Records and Apollo Cobra at Ed’s No Name Bar in celebration of the festival’s fifth anniversary; festival organizers actually kicked Dessa’s show off by singing “Happy Birthday” with the crowd.
From the very start of her set, Dessa demanded to be taken seriously. After her opening song, she explained her feminist stance and alerted us that she wanted “total silence or you’re a misogynist” as she took her jacket off. Her ability to switch from flowing rap lines to belted choruses (what she referred to as going “from rap bangers to ballads”) kept the audience enthralled, but even during quieter parts of her songs she leaned in close to the crowd members as if she had a secret to tell them. That type of intimacy, along with her vocal pride in being an independent artist, made it clear just how personal Dessa gets.
After her set, I hopped across the street to Ed’s No Name Bar to catch the middle of Apollo Cobra’s disco-rock jam. The contrast couldn’t have been more stark: the first lyrics I heard upon entering the bar were “just shut up, I wanna make out with you.” Donning white lab coats, the band were a quirky bunch who proved disco is not dead, as audience members old and young danced on the fog-filled floor.
Above, top to bottom: Dessa, Apollo Cobra. Photos by Janie Maki.
Thursday night, the first show I caught was the last half of the Ultrasounds’ set at Ed’s No Name Bar; the quartet joked with each other between grungy songs with the perfect amount of dirty guitar and floor tom to start my night.
A quick jog a few blocks downtown got us to the Levee Park Stage, where psychedelic rock group Carroll filled the tent with jangly guitar and reverb. Later in the night we made our way to Acoustic Cafe to see the Belle Jar, whose chill, folksy sound was topped with great fiddle harmonies and the friendly atmosphere of the coffee shop. The group couldn’t have come off as more sincere, and leaving the show was tough—but I had to make it to see Lizzo.
Lizzo headlined the Levee Park Stage with fellow GRRRL PRTY member Sophia Eris, and despite the sound system being a little too quiet at first, she got the crowd rowdy when she mentioned it was her birthday weekend (the rapper turned 26 on Sunday). Featuring a guest appearance by Manchita of GRRRL PRTY for performances of the group’s singles “Wegula” and “Night Watch,” Lizzo’s high-energy show ended on a sentimental note, with the artist almost in tears from the audience support on her birthday weekend.
Electronica artist Dosh’s show at Broken World Records started playing to an anxious audience 20 minutes later than scheduled, and while his spacy synth auras drew the crowd like a magnet, he didn’t quite get them dancing—at least while I was there.
At Ed’s No Name Bar, I was greeted by Mark Mallman doing a high kick while pounding on a keyboard just before spitting on the floor beside him. Mallman’s stage presence and full throttle set had the crowd entranced, and I’m unlikely to soon forget his eyes popping out as he screamed “Nightmares” into a microphone.
My Thursday night ended at the Cloud 9 Union Theater where the Click Track were playing a well-rehearsed set full of synchronized hits and transitions from semi-rockabilly to danceable bar rock. Their sound is wide and varied, but tight throughout; unfortunately, Mallman and Dosh’s shows seemed to have attracted much of the crowd, and the band played to a mostly empty venue. Still, they kept high energy and good spirits, giving away CDs to the loyal few with the humble words “we’re not used to giving away CDs because we’re not that good.”
Photos above, top to bottom: the Ultrasounds, Carroll, Lizzo, Dosh, Mark Mallman, the Click Track. Photos by Janie Maki.
On Friday afternoon I first saw the Old Fashioneds at Ed’s No Name Bar, where Mike Munson (who played solo the previous day at the Winona Art Center) joined with Sarah Johnson for a killer set with a vintage crooner vibe. The mix of Munson’s impeccable guitar skills and Johnson’s smooth voice provided a great relaxed atmosphere for a sunny afternoon.
Following the Old Fashioneds were the Fattenin’ Frogs, whose romping harmonica riffs and soulful vocals brought a great energy to classic American rock and roll and traditional songs; a highlight of their set for me was their rendition of “Wade in the Water.”
Afterwards I stumbled across Moth Mountain, a folk-rock duo who played at the Acoustic Cafe. Frontman Joe Dawson has a deep speaking voice made for radio (with which he told dry one-liners between songs), but throughout the set Dawson sang anywhere from a baritone to a falsetto, showcasing his great vocal range.
I was finally able to make it over to the Masonic Temple for Twin Cities wunderkinds Bomba de Luz, who opened with a stripped-down cover of Jeff Buckley’s “Lover You Shouldn’t Come Over” featuring only lead singer Lydia Liza and guitarist Evan Slack, after which the rest of the band joined in for some higher energy songs. Though they’re a young group, they have a mature sound and had great chemistry together on the Masonic stage.
Back at Ed’s No Name Bar, Twin Cities-based Ali and the Scoundrels boasted a solid mix of originals and covers in the vein of classic soul hits, complemented by solid horn hits and tight grooves that made it impossible to sit still for their performance.
Down the street at the Eagles Club, Gabe Barnett and the Big House Rounders huddled around a single microphone to play a set with a pioneer folk sound. Later, I headed to the Levee Main Stage to see General B and the Wiz, who had one of the tightest performances of the weekend—it’s clear that the group rehearses their shows, not just their songs, as their seamless transitions and easter eggs (such as a quick homage to La Grange) demonstrate. Frontman Quincy Voris’s vocals do great justice to the blues-influenced indie rock genre, and the fun that the group had on stage translated easily to the crowd (the free cookies handed out by Quincy before the show didn’t hurt, either).
Caroline Smith’s show at the Masonic Temple was also a highlight of the festival, and her love for the audience shone through with her words “it’s all about you tonight.” Her group’s sound was fullest when Smith wielded her reverb-laden guitar, but it was also impossible to argue with their more spacious R&B tunes.With great backup vocalists—and even a guest appearance by ex-backup singer Lizzo, whose birthday is shared by Smith—and a tribute to Kendrick Lamar’s “B—h, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” the crowd ate everything up.
Blues rock favorites the 4onthefloor provided plenty of slide guitar riffs and hollering to finish the night off at the Levee Main Stage, with frontman Gabriel Douglas dedicating the single “I’m Drunk on Tuesdays” to the owner of Ed’s No Name Bar.
Horseshoes & Hand Grenades closed at Ed’s, which was packed elbow to elbow by voracious fans of the upbeat bluegrass group, singing about timeless themes: love, drinking, and life on the river. The band, huddled around one microphone, was so close that there were several times I thought one of the singers would get a fiddle bow in the eye.
The last show of the night was back at Cloud 9 Union Theater, where Porcupine was playing. Their odd mix of filtered and clean vocals from a white spherical mic and a standard one—along with their tight jumpy rhythm—had much of the crowd dancing, and Megan Hanson of the Ultrasounds actually ran in circles around crowd members (myself included) with a friend, unable to contain their excitement.
Photos above, top to bottom: the Old Fashioneds (photo by Janie Maki), the Fattenin’ Frogs (JM), Moth Mountain (photo by Paul Schmitt), Bomba de Luz (PS), Ali and the Scoundrels (JM), Gabe Barnett (JM), General B and the Wiz (JM), Caroline Smith (JM), the 4onthefloor (JM), Horseshoes and Hand Grenades (JM), Porcupine (JM).
Unfortunately, school and work obligations kept me from getting downtown for the festival until around 10:30 on Saturday night, when the first band I saw was Farewell Milwaukee, sporting southern rock roots and a killer combination of electric organ and lap steel guitar.
Over at the Eagles Club, jam band the Weathered Heads played a well-rehearsed set accented by great saxophone and a tight rhythm section for an age-diverse crowd; they had a computer set up in the corner for fans to take selfies.
Jillian Rae’s show at Broken World Records got the crowd moving with a mix of pop and bluegrass, Rae’s fiddle work crossing between the two genres.
We Are the Willows closed the festival for me at Ed’s No Name Bar with a unique orchestral indie rock sound made whole by solid strings players and frontman Peter Michael Miller’s high vocal range. The band’s positivity really capped off the weekend, as they encouraged the crowd to give hugs and “tushie squeezes” to MWMF volunteers. One line from their song “Minneapolis” said it best: “I should’ve spent more time with you.”
Photos above, top to bottom: Farewell Milwaukee, Weathered Heads, Jillian Rae, We Are the Willows. Photos by Paul Schmitt.
Paul Schmitt is a literature major at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. He’s inspired by bass lines, metafiction, and lengthy mealtime conversation.