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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Hiawatha: The Exceptional Music Festival

Tasty Traditional Bluegrass from the High 48s
There are some special places in my life.  The Ann Arbor of my youth; where we'd play tag in the park and woods all night, and then jump the fence of some neighborhood pool to cool off before the sun came up.  The East Lansing of my Michigan State Undergraduate experience; where I made most of the lifelong friends I still cherish today.  The northern Michigan town of Grayling; home to fond memories of the spectacular people, places and fish in my life.  And then there's Marquette.  Somehow all the threads of my life--music, fishing, family and friends--converge in this decidedly wild, yet modern city; full of interesting, diverse and friendly folk; pulsating with the vibrant art and music scene that gives life to the city--even in the dark, cold winters; and home to one of the very best music festivals around: the Hiawatha Traditional Music Festival.  This was the second year I attended, and the first with my wife and daughter.  All of us were struck with how exceptional this festival truly is; offering something for everyone and doing everything as close to perfect as possible.  I could write an entire book about my experiences there, but I'll share just a few of the really extraordinary things I found at Hiawatha.

A Beautiful Setting for A Festival
The tourist park campground in Marquette is really one of the most beautiful settings for a festival you can imagine.  Bordered by the City of Marquette, Northern Michigan University and the ironically misnamed Dead River, this beautiful park's grassy fields are shaded by towering pine trees.  It is easy to forget that you are only minutes away from the largest city in the Upper Peninsula.  Bathrooms (both permanent and portable) are convenient and exeedingly well maintained.  Hot showers can be had at almost any hour.   There are plentiful electric and water hookups for the camper/RV types, as well as lots of soft grass for tent campers  and lots of trees available for the increasingly popular "hang a hammock" crowd. Be forewarned, nearly every square inch of available space is taken up by fellow campers, with dozens of tents springing up between the campers like mushrooms after a spring rain.  However, your fellow Hiawathans are generally friendly and very respectful of each other, so you are far more likely to find friends rather than problems occupying the next camp site!

Bonsoir, Catin Keeps 'Em Dancin' Well Into the Night!
Being a traditional music festival, Hiawatha is free to choose only the best bands from a variety of genres--bluegrass, folk, cajun, Celtic, songwriters and more can be heard on the main stage, as well as the second stage "dance tent", various workshop and jam tents, and even the kids/teens areas! Each year a somewhat oddball act seems to grace the stage.  This year it was Polyphony Marimba, a 10-piece marimba ensemble playing African-based melodies.  In addition to their obvious musical talent, every member of the group is an excellent entertainer, dancing, laughing, executing "stick tricks" mid-song, and generally grooving to their music--and what a groove it is!  They were awesome on stage, but really tore up a demonstration at the kid's area. 

Second Stage Dance Tent is THE place to be!
I also really liked the traditional Minnesota bluegrass group the High 48s.  While their set of bluegrass standards on the main stage was first rate, it was their appearance in the dance tent, playing fiddle tunes behind a square-dance caller that really blew me away.  The banjo, fiddle and flat-pick guitar on "Big Sandy River" were the best I've heard all summer.  Progressive/Acoustic act the Duhks drew large crowds, as did the exceptional Cajun group Bonsoir, Catin.  With an all-female front line and an exceptional drummer, this band kept the second stage crowd on their feet and dancing late into Friday night with traditional Cajun tunes sung with passion, energy and good nature.  The dance floor was packed with hundreds of dancers, while and even greater number stood or sat to watch the set from the grass surrounding the tent. 

The Dead Pigeons in the Dance Tent
As if that wasn't enough, Saturday featured an amazing set under the dance tent by Minneapolis newgrass/bluegrass outfit The Dead Pigeons. Even though they include a drummer (who plays with the largest straw brushes I've ever seen), their sound is decidedly on the traditional bluegrass side--perhaps due to one of the most amazingly complex and intricate fiddlers I've run into aw well as an awesomely rich and deep lead vocalist paired with killer harmonies from the rest of the band.  The Dead Pigeons had the crowd on their feet and dancing from the first note, and never let up.  The highest complement I can pay them is that my wife--a self-professed 80s hair-rocker--heard them playing and came running on the stage  to hear them.  A highlight of the evening was a 20-minute medley of popular music covers.  Ranging from "Wagon Wheel" to TLC, from Alice in Chains to "Alice's Restaurant" and a rousing cover of "Don't Stop Believing" that had the crowd singing along; drowning out the band on "...born and raised in south Detroit", the song had something for everyone, and everyone LOVED it.  Hard to believe they could top this, but the rest of their set continued at the same energy level and left the crowd sweat-soaked, exhausted and completely fulfilled at the end of the night.

A Truly Professional Sound Crew Makes All The Difference
I heard hundreds of people over the weekend expressing what I already knew--the second stage (aka: dance tent) is THE place to hang out at Hiawatha.  More than just a second stage for acts to appear, the tent is used for a variety of activities.  Each morning starts with a Yoga session under the tent, accompanied by tasteful, live music from an acoustic musician. All afternoon various dance workshops are offered--square, celtic, middle-eastern, etc.--often with a band from the main stage providing the music.  The intimate setting of the afternoon dance workshops, and the high-energy, no-holds-barred attitude required of the nightly dances combine to produce the best sets of the weekend under the tent.  However, it is the incredible sound system provided by Sombrero Sound that really puts things over the top.  Top-of the line digital mixers and amps, and appropriate sized speakers for the venue allow for full-rich sounds without being overpowering.   Yet, you can hear every instrument, every voice, clearly from anywhere around the tent.  Ever though the weekend features a diverse and eclectic lineup of bands, both electric and acoustic, with often complex stage plots, Jim and his crew handle changing the bands efficiently and effectively.  Most telling of all...not once during the weekend did I hear a band member ask for "a little more _____ in the monitor" or witness even a single squeal of feedback from the dance stage.  This is simply the best, most professional sound company you will find. 

The Best of the Best!
Hiawatha is also among the most family-friendly of all Michigan festivals.  The beautiful, rustic setting and approachable bands offer a bit of something for everyone.  There is a "kids area" offering musical workshops, crafts and activities all weekend long.  Local teens host a "teen scene" tent with age-appropriate activities for teens--hemp bracelets, tie-dye, wood-burning and henna tattoos.  There is small artshow/vendor area on site with various items for sale.  In a sea of festival tie-dye shops (and there were some EXCELLENT ones there) it was nice to see the Upcycled Closet with their "old t-shirts transformed into skirts" ware.  Really an excellent concept, well-produced by the friendliest couple at the festival.  Check them out at a show or festival near you!  There's also some incredible food on site.  Mostly local and as varied as they come, my family and friends sampled everything and pronounced it all excellent.  However, the best-of-the-best is definitely the Dia De Los Tacos food truck.  And it's not their incredible taco offerings (which are spectacular), or even their quirky, funky blue truck.  It's the people working inside the truck.  They have an infectious, feel-good attitude.  You can just tell that they love what they do, and it shows in every plate they pass out through the window.  Find them next time  you're in Marquette and give them a try.  You will NOT be sorry.

Great venue, great music, great event, great food and great people.  What's not to like about Hiawatha?  Nothing.  Until next year, Happy Hiawatha (we miss you already!).  

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