“I hope it’s awesome,” said Winona guitar-slinger Mike Munson in between songs during his set on the third floor of a dimly-lit ballroom. Moments prior, a man and woman wearing matching Turf Club sweatshirts informed Munson of their engagement earlier on in the day. “I’ve had a great time being married. It’s probably one of the smarter things I’ve done.”
Outside, festival founder Sam Brown was dodging raindrops while venue-hopping, encouraging people who were armed with umbrellas to walk down a block to check out Matt Monsoor and his loop pedals at the Root Note.
Inside the café, Mankato-based Good Night Gold Dust finished arranging their equipment on the fog-filled stage. Following an introduction from one of the owners of the coffee house, the electro indie-pop rockers’ synth sound came alive, but not before lead guitarist Colin Scharf had a few words to say: “Even in the rain, this is a lovely city.”
Meanwhile, Minneapolis Americana singer-songwriter Frankie Lee and company kicked off what would be an hour-long performance in the lobby of the Charmant Hotel, where guests happily listened to Lee’s folky vocals and harmonica licks from the comfort of leather-cushioned chairs. “I love this river town,” said Lee, as he swapped out an acoustic guitar for an electric. “I love it.”
At the Cavalier Theater, Prince-approved Pho took the stage in front of a modest crowd. However, by the time the seven-piece group ended their first song, the entire theater was packed and concertgoers were out of their seats — front and center — on the dance floor, moved by Minneapolis funk.
That all happened during the first weekend of the Mid West Music Fest (MWMF), as La Crosse, Wisconsin welcomed over 50 regional artists — including the Twin Cities’ Black Market Brass, wrapper Toki Wright, funk rockers Frogleg, and one-man entertainer Heatbox — on April 14 and 15, marking the event’s second year across the river. The diverse lineup not only had a strong showing from Minnesota musicians, but also from Wisconsin natives Trapper Schoepp, GGOOLLDD, Dusk, Midnight Returns, and many others.
MWMF, sometimes described as a miniature SXSW, will return to its roots in Winona on April 28 and 29, when even more musicians will flood into ten different Island City venues. The artists on the bill for this year range from up-and-coming artists like Tabah, Jay Smart, Tony Peachka, Lydia Liza, Reina del Cid, Gaelynn Lea, and Sleeping Jesus to more seasoned rock and folk artists like Adam Levy, Blackfoot Gypsies, Dead Pigeons, Charlie Parr, and everything in between. The complete Winona lineup can be found here.
“The Mid West Music Fest brings out the best in downtown rural community settings, and people come out for a great time,” said Sam Brown, who founded MWMF in 2010. “It’s great to see and converse with fellow musicians as they discover the potential these relatively small micropolitan centers have.”
Similar to the La Crosse venues, the Winona venues offer festival attendees opportunities to see some of their favorite musicians in extremely intimate settings, settings that are not usually routine stops (like hidden coffeehouses) or permanent fixtures (a pop-up tent near the Mississippi River). The MWMF experience doesn’t stop after hearing one or two musicians, explained Parker Forsell, the festival director.
“On any given night, you’d go and see any one of these bands,” said Forsell. “They’re all headliners — so most times you’re only able to see one at a time. During the fest, they’re playing blocks away from one another, so you have the chance to go from venue to venue to see them perform where you otherwise wouldn’t be able to.”
But festival attendees aren’t the only ones who have fun hopping from venue to venue. In fact, according to Forsell, the artists do too. “These guys are all friends with each other. That’s why they love coming down here: because they can see each other and hang out.”
Kicking off the Winona leg of this year’s festival, The Current’s Brian Oake and Jill Riley will be hanging out at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum from 4-7 p.m. on Friday. The two will be accompanied by suds from Island City (Winona’s newest brewery), food from Jefferson’s Pub and Grill, and live music from Nick Elstad and his sunny band Sleeping Jesus.
The MWMF promotes music and art activism, creates opportunities for artists, and stimulates downtown economic development and educational resources for artists, community members, and children. “I wish I could describe the feelings of attending the fest better,” said Forsell. “It’s truly a magical experience.”
Michael Flicek is a student at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.