Local Current Blog

Mid West Music Fest 2015 preview: Who to hear in Winona this weekend

The Weathered Heads perform last year at the Mid West Music Fest. Photo by Janie Maki for MPR.

Winona was recently called (on this blog) a town where “music and adventure [are] undoubtedly akin,” where “a day-long trek through the woods [is] incomplete without Bob Dylan’s ramblings, Frank Ocean’s crooning, or Jimi Hendrix’s electric wails played on a mobile-phone speaker.” Then writer Alex Miller talks about a pass-the-err-guitar session out on the beach while singing harmonies under the moonlight as barges hauling scrap metal crawl up the river.

Okay, I’ve embellished. But it’s a beautiful tribute and fitting to revisit on the eve of the Mid West Music Fest, a Winona original.

I’ve taught in Winona since 2011, and I lived there for four years. I’ve tried to start a movement around the hashtag #tinymtnvillage (iconic Sugar Loaf towers over 500 feet above the town). I’ve spent a night on a rickety boathouse. Got lost jogging in the bluffs. Met an ex-girlfriend at the weird gazebo thing. I’ve talked to the Pirate. I’m sorta local. So sorta-local that when the Tapes n’ Tapes guy played Jefferson’s downtown and said, “You walk eight blocks in that direction it’s a lake. You walk a few blocks in that direction, it’s a river. This place is awesome,” I knew enough to know that the lake is actually a closed-up river channel.

ANYWAY, Winona’s most sonically “representative” music festival may actually be the lesser-known, but equally let’s-go-down-to-the-river-and-jam hootenany “Boats n’ Bluegrass” in the fall. But MWMF is still the best stream to the turgid rapids of the Winona music scene, and fans wanting to experience this river/hill-folk/organic farming/professors-playing-in-bluegrass-bands life for a bit, rather than seeing the bands they can always see in Minneapolis, should check out the following:


Mike Munson (9 p.m., Broken World Records): Munson was just a guy in town—stocking-cap, beard, working at the Co-op—and then every Sunday night for, like years, he took the stage at Ed’s No Name Bar and would play stone-sober, pre-war blues songs about his neighbors spray-painting their van black. His audience would be…whomever. Sometimes just me, a bartender, and a few locals. Now he’s getting out and playing regionally. Hymie’s lists hisLive at Ed’s at #10 on their favorite local records of 2014. His duo, the Old Fashioneds, plays 11 a.m. Saturday on the Boathouse Patio (not an actual boathouse but a restaurant near the river).

Charlie Parr (Midnight, Broken World Records): A “Charlie Parr for President ‘08” poster hangs behind the bar at Ed’s No Name Bar. Born in Austin (Minnesota). Lives in Duluth. Winona is Parr’s realm. The first time I saw him was late January when the heater crashed in the bar, leaving a huddled crowd holding mugs of beer in mittens as Parr sat on a chair on stage and artificially warmed the room with boot-stomping, finger-picking old-timey jangles. He’s releasing an album through Red House next week, and may have opinions on what Lazarus did after he was raised.


Kelly Blau (12 p.m. Boathouse Patio): Blau’s a regular in a cadre of Winona State jazz musicians who started playing Thursday nights at Ed’s a few years ago. Smart, tight, groovy solo guitar. No BS. A kid who’ll carry his guitar down the street on a Tuesday afternoon—that kind of thing.

General B and the Wiz (8 p.m., Broken World Records, back room): This guy’s mustache would fit in on the east end of Winona circa 1973, playing pull-tabs, wallet wearing through his thinly-fraying denim. And that’s who his music is for—loud, rawkish, degenerate bourbon-swillers. Also these kids (though now playing out of Minneapolis) went to school down the road at Luther, so their harmonies are tight.

The Ultrasounds (9:45 p.m., VFW): Three gals (plus a husband) hang out at the coffee shops/bars in Winona and frequently gravitate to the stage, putting on bawdy shows. They’ve been making music for years under different sounds and nom de plumes; Ultrasounds are fun, punchy garage pop who got a heads-up here last year and the year before that.

People Brothers Band (10 p.m. Broken World Records, back room): Not exactly sure who these guys are except they hold a festival in the CSA-farming hills of western Wisconsin each summer and bring their polished, raucous road-show over from Madison every few months to blow the bar’s ceiling off with dance, funk, R&B, and rocking soul. Downtown Winona shuts down when they play—people talk about them, for weeks, like the coming of locusts or some shipment of salted pork from the mainland.


The Weathered Heads (6:30 p.m., Historic Masonic Temple): Students from Winona State and Saint Mary’s playing industrial-strength wash-machine funk-rock. Musically, sort of like an outboard parked between boathouses in the scene (few beards, maybe more collared-shirt than flannel). But they’ve got intelligent musicians (filled with music majors) and bouncy energy in reserve. They released an album in February (at Ed’s), have been tearing up bars in college towns from La Crosse to Duluth, and, if anything holds true from last year’s gig at the Eagles, will throw the sweatiest show of the festival.

The Heavy Set (10:30 p.m., Ed’s No Name Bar): I want to say this guy drove a truck in Winona for a few years before relocating to the Cities. If he didn’t, at least he has that kind of wanderer credibility. He (Jake Ilika) started playing every Wednesday night at Ed’s, a gorgeous voiced baritone, one of those deep-in-the-boot guitar-players, who also seems to have emerged from the barnswallow hootenannies held out in the coulees. Talented kid. Also a beard. Probably flannel.

Jaybone Bell & Restless Light (10:30 p.m., Eagles Club): There’s a sense that Don Draper didn’t understand the Beatles, and simultaneously I’m not sure the totality of what JB&RL generate—RV-television-saga-inspired jazz-grass? Two things I do know: I’m pretty sure they’re the band I’ve seen over the years with the painted guitar, hatted front-man with a great voice who brings in a small army of WSU kids and drum-circlers and 2) They will devour you.

Beet Root Stew (9 p.m., Eagles Club): No band more aptly suggests Winona. Let’s go to the board: 1) Is there a Pink Floyd cover? Yes, there’s a Pink Floyd cover. 2) Is there a washboard? There is a washboard. 3) Is there a crotchety, truck-driver-style singer with undiscovered talent? Yes and yes and yes. Beet Root Stew is like Charlie Parr’s house-band that he never asked for—who won’t leave his living room, or yours, until about 6 a.m.

p.s. Just go to Market Street Tap, which has the best jukebox this side of Memphis. Also, there’s karaoke Thursday nights at Steiny’s on the west end. And the view from Latsch Island at moonlight can’t be missed.

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.