Michigan Music Fests: Mozart To Mosh Pits
From Brethren’s folksy Spirit of the Woods gathering to Frankenmuth’s annual ode to the polka, Michigan music lovers will have plenty to whistle about this summer. A freighter load of festivals will appease music novices and aficionados alike and spur the adventurous to explore the entire state by ear. Jambands, classical quintets, Elvis wannabes and banjo-driven bluegrass are all on the Lower Peninsula’s marquee.
Here’s a small sampling of music fests taking place over the next 12 weeks:
Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, June 9-23
Various Southeastern Michigan locations
While chamber music is no longer performed in the privacy of a bedroom or palace chamber, listeners can still enjoy crescendos and staccatos in intimate settings. Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival provides audiences with an ample degree of intimacy (minus the pajamas), in a range of cultural and religious venues from Grosse Pointe to Bloomfield Hills to Ann Arbor. The beauty of this festival: it doesn’t take place on a lone weekend or under one awning, but, rather, serves up 18 concerts over a two-week span. This year’s event highlights the music of Beethoven and Leon Kirchner; concerts present the best of both seasoned musicians and emerging ensembles. Rumor has it that Kirchner, celebrating his 88th birthday this year, will make an appearance.
Spirit of the Woods Folk Festival, June 16, 12 noon-10:00 p.m.
Dickson Township Park, Brethren
Admirers of bluegrass and old-time string bands – and those nostalgic for a time when folks picked banjos on their front porch – just might find a bit of comfort and bliss at Spirit of the Woods Folk Festival. This grass roots gathering started 30 years ago when a group of folk music lovers, inspired by barn dances and potlucks, staged the scene; since then, it grew and grew some more, but eventually shrunk back to its cool, cozy roots. Patrons should bring a blanket and a cooler (that’s right, no $5 sodas here, and you don’t have to smuggle in food and beverages). The crowd is laid back, but the fiddles still hop and the mandolins sure fly.
Michigan Elvisfest, July 13-14
Depot Town, Ypsilanti
By day, they’re your average Joe, or, actually, Steven, Leo, Matt and Chris as the case may be. But by night, they all go by Elvis. At the Michigan Elvisfest, nine top-dog impersonators grace the stage for a weekend of musical homage. They roll into town “Elvis style” on Friday in limos, white convertibles, and other VIP modes of transport, complete with a police escort to the doors of the local Holiday Inn. Impersonators cover the gamut of the King’s performing career, from the early Sun Studio recording days to the bloated and bell-bottomed later years. There are even little people performing, including a twelve-year-old boy from Chicago, a nine-year-old girl from Georgia and a 46-inch high man from Missouri. Oddly, some fans can’t quite separate the real from the surreal, and it’s not uncommon to see folks weep, scream and throw red roses.
Michigan Jazz Festival, July 15
Schoolcraft College, Livonia
Big band swing, Afro-Cuban beats, and quintet classics shake up the Sabbath and wake up the mellow Detroit suburb of Livonia – all in the name of encouraging public appreciation of jazz. But not smothering, sappy, smooth jazz. Nope: it’s full-tilt jazz on five stages, with a focus on homegrown talent. Entertainment from 18 groups is magically crammed into nine hours of nonstop toe-tapping at the Michigan Jazz Festival. Festival admission is free.
Evart Dulcimer Festival, July 19-22
Osceola County Fairgrounds, Evart
While your average Michigander might not know where Evart is, anyone associated with hammered dulcimers does. Each year, this tiny mid-Michigan town hosts the largest gathering in the world for hammered dulcimer players. The dulcimer wriggled its way into American folk music some time back, but historians wager that the string instrument originated about 2000 years ago. Today, it’s more popular in Michigan than any other state. Evart Dulcimer Festival attracts the learner and player of the hammered dulcimer and the lover of all types of acoustic instruments. Three days of stage shows; 200 workshops on everything from the hammered dulcimer to the penny whistle, hurdy-gurdy and fiddle; and tons informal jamming make this quite the hoopla for bluegrass and folk music junkies.
Sleeping Bear Dunegrass & Blues Festival, August 2-5
The aesthetics are grand, but at this Midwest version of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, patrons have the added fortuity of high-octane, homespun tunes; healthy food; and hanging loose with kindred musical spirits in a small up-north village. Shaded by an “old hippy” feel, this long-running event showcases musical genres that erupted from American soil, with a dash of world beat thrown in for good measure. Each year, Dunegrass attracts a more stellar lineup – acts top in their genre, but by no means main stream. Visitors hear bluegrass, jamband, folk, rock, reggae, jazz or blues floating from amplifiers on two stages – themselves staged between Lake Michigan and the forested hills of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Rhythms are infectious, but festival goers will find a dip in the big mishigami or forty winks under an old oak mighty appealing too.
Frankenmuth Summer Music Fest, August 10-18
Sure, festival bureaucrats renamed the Frankenmuth Polka Festival a while back, but it’s still all about polka. With names like Big Daddy Lackowski, Frank Moravcik, and Lenny Gomulka & Chicago Push on the bill, there’s no doubt that the Frankenmuth Summer Music Fest notwithstanding holds title as the nation’s number one, or numer jenden, polka festival. Sure, a Brenda Lee concert and a contemporary Christian music night muddy up the nine-day polka docket a bit, but this summer festival is truly about celebrating Slovenian, Bavarian and Polish folk music, ripe and rampant with accordions, trumpets, concertinas and tubas – and a 10,000 square foot dance floor to boot.
Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, August 7-12
Oceana County, between Hart and Ludington
The secret location in the woods of northern Michigan may smell of witchcraft, but it’s really all about women and music – women singing, women slam dancing, women rapping, shaking and hollering, and women strumming their acoustic guitars with such gusto, that Mother Nature would be proud. The 650-acre festival campus hosts 40 performances over six days, hundreds of workshops, a vegetarian café with three squares/day, and onsite childcare. Interesting twist: every woman attending Michigan Womyn’s Festival must work a “shift” or two in a community area of the festival. Sorry, gents, but no boys allowed (unless you’re under 10).
Melinda Clynes is a Detroit-area freelancer. This is the first in a series of her travel pieces for Model D.
Photos:Elvis Fest - photo by Chris Solano
Polka band at Frankenmuth Summer Music Fest - photo by Tom Muzarski
Mom and baby at Womyn's Music Festival - courtesy of Womyn's Music Festival
Dunegrass sign - courtesy of Sleeping Bear Dunegrass & Blues Festival
Performer Sarah Bettons - courtesy of Womyn's Music Festival