“So many cities would kill to have something like this,” said John Munson, standing next to a fermentation tank at Island City Brewing Company. He could have been talking about the beer — which he later praised, onstage with the Twilight Hours — but what he meant was the Mid West Music Fest (MWMF). The sprawling celebration of regional music returned to Winona this weekend for its eighth consecutive year, and the event’s momentum showed no signs of slacking.
On a weekend when the music world’s collective jaws were dropping at the complete implosion of the luxurious Fyre Festival, the MWMF delivered all the goods as promised. None of the Instagram celebrities who abandoned the Bahamas seemed to find their way to Winona, but that was their loss: they could, for example, have posed in a throne at the Historic Masonic Temple and then stepped out into the balcony seats to watch a searing set by Charlie Parr.
They could have shot selfies in one of only two surviving original versions of Emmanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. One is at the Met in New York, and the other hangs in the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, within earshot of a free happy-hour performance by Sleeping Jesus.
They could have made like Nate Ryan and taken a photo hike on the bluffs near the iconic Sugar Loaf monolith, then walked back to town in time to see a swoon-worthy set by Ilika Ward and the Moonlight Riders.
Well, some people get to have all the fun — and I was happy to be one of those people this weekend, when I was among The Current staffers who took a road trip to Winona for the second weekend of the Mid West Music Fest. (The first weekend took place across the river in La Crosse, on April 14-15.) Dozens of bands played at ten official venues, as well as unofficial venues that ranged from the fine art museum to the 3rd Street sidewalk.
In addition to longtime MWMF venues like Ed’s and the Masonic Temple, Island City Brewing opened the doors of its brand-spanking-new taproom, which became an instant hot spot. That’s where I started the weekend — hitting a hair-whipping TABAH performance on Friday evening — and where many of us ended it, as Alan Sparhawk’s Black Eyed Snakes tested the brewery’s brick walls with a set of hard-stomping electric blues.
Last year we recorded an episode of the Local Show at Ed’s, and this weekend, Andrea Swensson took the stage again to welcome a band that joined us for that taping: Winona’s own Ultrasounds. Other local heroes shared the spotlight this weekend, from Minnesota x Manitoba Music Exchange veterans Sleeping Jesus to journeyman singer-songwriter Mike Munson.
Mike Novitzki, host of The Current’s Duluth Local Show, came down from the North Country along with a host of artists including Sparhawk, Parr, the band Feeding Leroy, and acclaimed singer-songwriter-violinist Gaelynn Lea, who commanded absolutely rapt attention for her Saturday afternoon set at the Masonic Temple.
The fest was a true family affair — not just because of the warm shared emotions, but more literally as well. Lots of parents brought their kids to dance under the festival tent for sets by bands like the Big Wu and the McNasty Brass Band. Then there were the adult kids who brought their parents. Festival founder Sam Brown’s mom joined him for our Friday happy hour, and Reina del Cid’s parents very politely asked me if they could share my front-row table for her Friday night set at the brewery.
Reina’s parents stuck around afterwards to hang out with their daughter and the band as the Twilight Hours took the brewery stage, filling the high-beamed taproom with heavenly harmonies and their three-axe guitar attack. Some of the longtime fans who’ve followed Munson and his bandmate Matt Wilson since their Trip Shakespeare days made their way over to Ed’s on Saturday for a set by Porcupine — the heavy-hitting Wisconsin trio who pointed out that Ed’s was also the site of their first show with their new bassist, Greg Norton.
I didn’t head to Winona expecting to be lifting my shirt for a member of Hüsker Dü, but that’s where things went when I ran into Norton at Ed’s. We started talking about how Brian Oake and Jill Riley were joking before the festival that I was so excited about the marine art, I probably had an anchor tattoo; that joke turned into a pseudo-reality when I found a stack of temporary anchor tattoos at the museum and put one on my arm, another on my lower back. Seeing them both, Norton nodded approvingly. “Committed to the bit.”
My anchor tattoos will wear off, but I’ll always have my Winona memories: Jillian Rae enticing couples to come out from a timid Saturday night crowd to take some wild spins on the dance floor. Tony Peachka making 5:30 p.m. feel like 12:20 a.m. Getting a backstage topography lesson from Them Coulee Boys, who explained to me what a coulee is. “We live in a coulee, so we’re coulee boys. Not sure about the ‘them’…we just figured, it wouldn’t sound right if we used perfect grammar.”
Indeed: their name, like their music and like just about everything else in Winona this weekend, sounded just about as right as it could be.
Sleeping Jesus at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum
General B and the Wiz at the Tent Stage
Adam Levy at the Mid West Music Store
Reina del Cid at Island City Brewing
The Big Wu at the Tent Stage
The Honeydogs at the Historic Masonic Temple
The Twilight Hours at Island City Brewing
Night Moves at Island City Brewing, introduced by Jay Gabler
Gaelynn Lea at the Historic Masonic Temple
BBGUN at the Tent Stage
Tony Peachka at Ed’s No Name Bar
Lydia Liza at the Mid West Music Store
The Ultrasounds at Ed’s No Name Bar
Jay Smart at the Eagles Club
Jillian Rae at Island City Brewing
People Brothers at the Tent Stage
Charlie Parr at the Historic Masonic Temple
Black Eyed Snakes at Island City Brewing