The Mississippi River is a magical place. So says bassist Liz Draper, and she should know. On July 20, Draper, along with fiddler Clancy Ward and multi-instrumentalist Kyle Ollah, set out for an adventure down the river for a six-day series of socially distanced pop-up performances known as the Mississippi River PonTour. Aboard their trusty vessel — a pontoon boat named the Ivan Doer’d — the three Minnesota musicians hit five towns, reached many music-lovers, and managed to raise $1600 for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, all while going at a steady six miles per hour down the Mississippi.
Draper described the experience as continuously active, where everything that could happen with a pontoon boat, barring disaster, did happen. “We had such a super strong learning curve,” Draper said. “We thought that we were prepped, but you have to really respect the river and know it’s its own entity, and it’s gonna do what it wants to do.”
The trio shoved off from South St. Paul, where they played a show with country blues musician Charlie Parr. Though they had set up a solar-powered sound system to take with them for all their shows, they found that sound carried very well on the water, so they ditched most of their sound equipment and decided to go primarily acoustic. From South St. Paul, they traveled to Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, and played a show with their friends, roots music duo The DitchLilies, who advised the trio on where they could best dock the pontoon boat.
The group had been scheduled to play a show in Pepin, Wis., after Maiden Rock with Wisconsin band The Beavers. Unfortunately, the trio got word that COVID-19 cases in Pepin had gone up significantly in the few days before their arrival, so they decided to cancel this stop. “We were like, ‘Well, we’re not trying to encourage anybody to be, you know, coming out when this is going on,’” Draper said. “Not that necessarily 20 miles downriver is better or not, but we just felt like it was sending the wrong message if we were to do that.”
On the recommendation of an audience member from Maiden Rock, the group went instead to Wabasha, Minn., docking at a well-known local bar called Slippery’s. “So then we just start wandering around town,” Draper said, “and people literally came out of their houses being like, ‘Hey! Are you the PonTour, is that your boat down at Slippery’s?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re the freaks in town I guess, and we’re playing a show in the park at 6 o’clock tonight!’” After their show in Wabasha, the group spent the night on a sandbar north of Fountain City, “which was also important,” Draper explained, “because Clancy’s great-grandma immigrated to the U.S., I think from Sweden, to Fountain City, Wis., and he wanted to see the town.”
Finally, the team made their way to Winona, Minn., where they were surprised to find a beer garden set up for their show by the Boat House restaurant, and it had quite the turnout. “That being said,” Draper qualified, “I think people were very good at being socially distant from each other and respectful, which is really important and really nice to see.”
The next morning, the trio played a Winona porch show, and then wrapped up by leaving the Ivan Doer’d docked in Winona and catching a ride outside of La Crosse, Wis., reuniting with Charlie Parr for their last show.
Draper described the jam-packed six days as exhausting, exhilarating and invigorating. “We constantly were like, ‘Are we actually doing this?’ Like, ‘This is working, we’re doing this, this is amazing,’ because it was always kind of a dream of all of ours to travel down the Mississippi, with music, and hopefully we’ll do it again or pick up where we left off and keep going further.”
Throughout the trip, the friends came to know the Ivan Doer’d inside out. “We all kind of really spoke about Ivan like he really was a family member!” Draper laughed. “He has his own personality, that’s for sure.”
The trio also learned more about one another; for example, Draper shared a story about how the navigation system along the river is color-coded using green and red buoys. “Well, turns out freaking Clancy and Kyle are both red-green colorblind,” she said.
The group met many supportive folks along the way, offering housing, rides, and tips. Via cash, Venmo, and PayPal, they raised $1600 for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “If anyone still feels inspired and just wants to do a direct donation to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund,” Draper encouraged, “that would be awesome.”
Draper shared one of her favorite quieter memories from the PonTour; that of waking up around dawn and leaving her tent, “fog lifting off the river, and there’s screeching eagles, and we’re sleeping on the sand, and the sand is speckled kind of everywhere with these white turtle-shell remnants, because it’s totally a place where turtles must go to hatch regularly. It was just really awesome…I don’t know, there was just something really special about that, at least to me.”
Draper said that it was “inspiring that it all worked out and we all learned a lot and got along, and I think hopefully it seems like we were able to bring some joy and bring some stuff to different places.” The Ivan Doer’d crew likely have many adventures ahead of them; until then, look to the trio’s social media pages for more photos of this very successful one.
Additional images courtesy Liz Draper/Instagram.