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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hiawatha Traditional Music Festival: So Much More Than Just Music

     I spend a great deal of time in Marquette Michigan.  Whether it's visiting with family, hanging out with my bluegrass buddies in Chasin' Steel, attending the Annual Marquette Area Blues Fest with my blues "family", sampling a fine craft brew at Blackrocks Brewery, or incredible Cajun food at Lagniappe, I have always managed to find the "best" in this great city.  Therefore, the fact that I had NEVER attended the Hiawatha Traditional Music Festival held in the scenic Marquette Tourist Park bothered me to no end.  So, this year, I vowed to do something about this oversight and bought my ticket, pointed the headlights north and hit the road, over the bridge to "God's country".  And Brother, am I glad I did!

Swimming Beach
Travelling in Style!
     First, the setting.  I can imagine no better place to hold a music festival.  Located right outside of downtown, the Marquette Tourist Park boast seemingly endless expanses of shady camping under towering pines, a first-class swimming beach in the Dead River basin, comfortable expanses of well maintained grass, and wide, well maintained drives and paths to get around.
The Main Stage
      Camper hookups were available, but the majority of camper (myself included) lean towards tent camping.  The campground is well maintained, clean and comfortable.  Their is ample security present.  Trash cans, composting bins, and recycling pickup are everywhere and emptied regularly.  This is definitely a "green" event. The grounds are bigger than they appear, and most of the parking is off-site, so a bicycle is a definite plus.  There is a super-cool, free, horse-drawn shuttle to the parking lot as well.
Incredible Food Truck!
The quirky main stage is high enough to allow excellent viewing from anywhere, and the staff enforces a "blankets and low chairs" in front rule to keep sight lines open. The stage is centrally located, with a large field where you can leave your folding chairs.  The sound system was rather small for my tastes.  It was not so much a lack of volume (I understand that they are trying to be good neighbors), but rather a somewhat thin, anemic character to the mix that I found somewhat lacking for an outdoor venue.   I caught a couple shows at the main stage and they were thoroughly enjoyable.
Artists In the Round
Overall, the layout is well thought out, with easy access to the food concessions (try the "little Miss Piggy from Dia de los Tacos), art vendors and ample portable toilets.    There was a really cool vendor/artist area just off the main stage, with the requisite tie-die and drum vendors, but also some really cool local artists with their work.  Prices were reasonable, bordering on insanely low, for some really cool work by incredibly talented artists.  A pottery vendor caught my eye with some hand-thrown beer mugs with the UP glazed into the sides, perfect for a basement bar "mug club".
Belly Dancing to Live Music
     A huge, airy tent with wooden floor comprises the "dance tent" (usually called the "second stage" by festival goers).  A variety of square-dance, clogging, belly dancing and swing dancing seminars are held all day, with many of the main stage acts serving as the music.  With an excellent sound system (courtesy of Jim Supanich at Sombrero Sound), I found watching the acts in this smaller, more intimate setting to be even more enjoyable than the main stage!  The Saturday night "teen dance" really worked the crowd into a frenzy, with high octane sets from uptempo bluegrass band Tin Can Gin and a fired-up Dragon Wagon.  By midnight, the tent and surrounding grounds were overflowing with crazy teens and adults alike, all jamming to the infectious groove.  Really a highlight of the festival for me.
Frostbitten Grass
Sparrow Tree
Harp, Hart, Bones and Cody
 Another cool venue at the festival was the workshop tent.  Unlike some festivals, these workshops were less "hands on" and more "small artist showcases", where bands played some of their tunes, while providing some narration and the opportunity to interact with the crowd.  I saw some incredible performances in the workshop tent, including the swingy, melodic bluegrass-inspired grooves of Frostbitten Grass, the high-energy jamgrass and soaring harmonies of Sparrow Tree, and a trip through the Delta Blues with Hart, Harp and Bones (with my buddy Cody sitting in on his National guitar).  There was also a  really cool jamming tent set up by the swimming area as well, with some cool open jams, drum circles and some old-timey music.  I didn't get to attend many, but they looked like a whole lot of fun!  Between the main stage, dance tent, workshops, teen scene, jamming tent and artists area, there was definitely something for everyone at all times during the day.  There's even an amazing kids area with hundreds of entertaining, high-quality activities all day long.
One of hundreds of late night jams...
     So, with a day packed full of sunshine, music, great food and interesting people, most people go right to bed after the last show, right?  Um...no.  This is one of the greatest all-night jamming festival's I've ever been to (except for the "family area" which is respectfully and remarkably quiet all night--an added benefit of the sprawling site layout). Plenty of jams are available to suit any taste.  From energetic bohemian young persons sitting on the ground in the dark belting out Green Day and the White Stripes, to old folkies with elaborately decorated (and well lit) jamming tents, there was something for everyone.  I sat in on bluegrass, folk, old-time, cajun, blues and fiddle tune jams.  I listened to more varieties of music than I can remember, culminating in an accordion/upright bass duo belting out Finnish drinking songs (cool beyond words).
     Overall, this has to be one of the best festivals I've attended.  The music is fantastic, the people friendly, and the site is beautiful, safe and inviting.  The vibe is very mellow and fun, and the whole event is very family-friendly.  I'll be going back next year, and bringing my daughter with me!  To the event organizers I say "really well done" and (of course) "Happy Hiawatha!"

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