Local Current Blog

Mid West Music Fest celebrates a decade of live music in Sugar Loaf’s shadow

The Current's Jill Riley and Brian Oake at Mid West Music Fest. Below, top to bottom: Tristen at the Levee Stage, Humbird at Burke's Music House, Gully Boys at Ed's (No Name) Bar, the Bad Man at Island City Brewing. (all photos by Jay Gabler/MPR)

“Every time I come down to the Driftless,” said Humbird, “I wonder why I live in Minneapolis.”

The singer-songwriter was speaking before a rapt audience on Saturday afternoon at Burke’s Music House, a listening room with the slightly decadent feeling of the sofa showroom it functions as when it’s not serving as a music venue. Humbird, Aby Wolf, and Annie Mack all played to standing-room crowds that hung on every note.

“The Driftless” is the area of southeastern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin (with corners of Iowa and Illinois) that the glaciers failed to flatten all those tens of thousands of years ago. The annual Mid West Music Fest now spans both sides of the Mississippi in that region, kicking off this past weekend in Winona, Minnesota and resuming later this month in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Now ten years in, the festival just keeps going — and growing. Dozens of acts pack the lineup across venues that, in Winona, range from the hard-rocking Ed’s (No Name) Bar to the cozy Blooming Grounds to the majestic Masonic Theater, a former fraternal lodge that’s been renovated as one of the most distinctive concert venues in the Upper Midwest.

As part of the renovations, proprietors have brought out vintage Depression-era painted backdrops, including the rich wooded scene that hung behind the stage for performances like an intimate duo set by Wolf and Eric Mayson on Friday night. They’ve also literally rolled back the rug, removing wall-to-wall carpet to improve acoustics and facilitate dancing, an itch that Nooky Jones enthusiastically scratched with a typically boisterous set.

New this year was the Levee Stage, a stunning riverside venue on a permanent outdoor patio that turned the iconic Winona Bridge into a picture-perfect backdrop for headliners like Longshot and Lazerbeak. A path behind the stage was underwater with spring floods, but the well-engineered streetlights were still shining as they poked up out of the river.

This year The Current sponsored the stage at Ed’s, where each night of the festival closes out. On Friday that meant Night Moves, following a rousing set from the Shackletons. “Take me home, country roads,” sang Colin Campbell in the band’s raucous set-closing cover. Despite the lyrical reference to West Virginia, the singalong anthem certainly captured the festival’s homecoming spirit — and after all, John Denver is in the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame.

Mid West Music Fest crowds are ready for anything, whether it’s the delicate songcraft of Humbird or the grinning antics of the Bad Man, a group no one would describe as “delicate.” They played not one but two sets on Saturday, following an early-evening Levee Park show with an after-dark rager at Island City Brewing’s new outdoor tent stage. Shout-sung ska by the riverside? Don’t knock it ’til you try it. Suffused with local lubrication, the crowd even created an unexpected Isley Brothers moment.

The festival makes a sterling showcase for Twin Cities bands like the Bad Man, Gully Boys, and the one-two-three punch that ended Saturday night at Ed’s: Holly Hansen’s re-imagined Zoo Animal ceded the stage to Fort Wilson Riot, whose Amy Hager and Jacob Mullis shared the stage for a memorable last hurrah before taking a break to have a baby that’s due soon. Then, the lights got low for Graveyard Club to bliss everyone out — including festival founder Sam Brown, watching proudly just offstage.

It’s also a reliable showcase for Winona bands. The town’s two biggest names played back-to-back on Saturday evening at Ed’s, as the Ultrasounds shredded and Sleeping Jesus (led by Nick Elstad, part of the festival’s booking team) cast their spell.

The acts aren’t all local, though. The Winona lineup included Colorado’s Foxfeather, Clownvis Presley out of St. Louis, and Tristen — who came up the river from Nashville with her band, charming a Levee Stage audience on Saturday night. As the sun set and the stage lights came up, Tristen invited the initially reserved crowd to scoot forward. By set’s end, several had kicked off their shoes for the season’s first barefoot dance party, and roared their appreciation as the band wrapped up.

“Ah!” said Tristen. “See how things change when we get to know each other a little better?”