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Monday, August 14, 2017

People, Places and Music--Free the Music Fest 2017

The Festival grounds at Lakenenland
What do you get when you assemble a score of musical acts to volunteer their talents under the sun and stars in a somewhat magical, semi-mythical setting free of the clutter and chaos of the typical bar/music scene?  You get Free the Music Fest 2017 at Lakenenland in Michigan's scenic Upper Penninsula!  Festival Organizer and quintessential Marquette street musician Cody Lakenen--wiser and harder working that his age would suggest--had a dream of resurrecting his family's "music party" and making it a proper festival and he knocked it out of the park.  I dare say this, while possibly the smallest, was definitely one of the best festivals I attended this summer *(if not the VERY best).  It had everything you expect (killer lineup, beautiful place to camp, food vendors, arts and crafts...) along with a professional stage, incredible sound system and hundreds of the most friendly, welcoming and enthusiastic people I've met. All the ingredients for a magical weekend of music.

Just one of the magical creatures you will find in the woods
Critical to the enchantment were the grounds themselves.   Lakenenland is a free-to-the-public sculpture park and the dream child of Cody's uncle, Tom Lakenen.  Like many welders, Tom took up sculpture in an effort to reuse/purpose the iron scraps he ran into.  Placing his large-scale, often whimsical sculptures along paths carved though his arboreally forested property just off the shore of Lake Superior, Tom has created a year-round attraction accessible by foot, bike or car during the summer, and snow mobile or skis during the winter.  Tom's hospitality is legendary, offering visitors a place to sit out of the weather, a warm fire or cup of hot coffee and always a listening ear.   You will find fantasy creatures, an idealized mining company, tributes to the men and women who work the UP's iron and maybe a political commentary or two.  There is something new to see around every corner, and I find myself discovering something new every time I visit.

The Cody Lakenen Band
This is not the only time you will hear music on the grounds at Lakenenland.  The Lakenens are a musical family so I am certain there is a plethora of music every time their family gathers (and it's a LARGE family, so I'm sure that's often).  I know there is at least one semi-regular folk jam that convenes on the grounds, and I've heard stories of mid-winter jaunts to the park for midnight jams in the snow.   Cody made a name for himself busking in the streets of Marquette as the bars let out to make a few bucks (I'm sure that is how he paid for many of the earlier festivals).  He is a tremendous blues/slide guitar player and talented blue-collar songwriter.  His ode to his brother in Ironworker's Local 8, I'm an Iron Workin' Man is the sort of song that gets in your head and rattles around for days.  For years, Cody has been entertaining the crew after hours at the Marquette Area Blues Fest with his original songs performed on his National Guitar.  While his travels around the country for work make it difficult to put down musical roots, Cody premiered The Cody Lakenen Band at the festival, with the addition of drummer Brandon Snyder and Bassist Becca Roo.  For a young, new band, their set was clean, tight and had great drive, groove and energy.  I'd go see them play any time!

Burning it up with Not Quite Canada
The Festival kicked off with a short list of Friday night acts playing under an unseasonably cold, misty sky.   Thankfully, a supply of firewood kept the fires roaring and the crowds in good spirits.  Longtime local singer/songwiter Mike Waite kicked it off with a groovy band of friends.  Their set was high energy, entertaining, and featured some killer upright bass licks and mind-blowing harmony singing.  Folk-rockers The Daydreamers  followed and kept the energy high with their mostly original set of foot tapping music.  Eclectic brass party band, Who Dat Brass followed with their quirky, yet completely mesmerizing mix of jazz, funk and rock.  This is the third or fourth time I've seen them and they just keep getting better.  The evening wrapped up to roaring bonfires and the jam-band sounds of local band Not Quite Canada.   I've mentioned before that jam bands are DEFINITELY not my thing, but somehow I really like these guys.  After a glitch sidelined the main PA system, the band kicked off with a couple groovy instrumentals, and then--aided by a patched together second stage PA work-around--entertained the crowd with a mixed bag of jam-band covers done their way.   It was their original tune Smokin' in the Sauna that impressed me the most.  Great funk/reggae groove and a killer bass line got the whole crowd dancing.

Who Dat Brass on Haley's Stage
Cody must have done something to please the weather gods, as the next day dawned with bluebird skies, calm winds, sunshine and mid-70s temperatures.  The perfect day to be alive and listening to live, local music in the Upper Penninsula.  The day featured a baker's dozen or so of mostly local acts alternating between the  main stage, and the "Haley Memorial" stage (constructed from the front half of a commercial fishing boat).  With the PA back in tip-top shape, the day kicked off with a couple local artists in "open mic" format.  The sound was great, the music fine, and the fellowship first rate. Singer/Songwriters Allen Dupras and Robin Leitch ("Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown) entertained the crowd with great vocals and guitar picking while Zach Lancaster and Tyler Dettloff both turned in great sets of old-time and blues numbers.  Regular Lakenenland jam session attendees Dr. J and the Pickers kept things going with a ton of catchy cover tunes as the headliners got ready to go.  Detroit Ted combined some storytelling with picking (dobro, guitar and banjo!) and really connected with the crowd.  Two of my favorite acts of the day both featured local manolinist Sam Graves.  Lake of Shadows played a bunch of their original heartbreak songs.   Almost contemporay/pop in nature I found their songs compelling, the mix of acoustic instruments, percussion, glockenspiel and harmony vocals to be refreshing and ultimately listenable.   Bedrooms & Basements is Sam's duo project with guitarist Taylor Martin.  They covered a lot of instantly recognizable songs (including a pair of memorable Fleetwood Mac tunes) that are hauntingly unique in their interpretation.

Lumi gettin' it done at Free the Music Fest 2017
The final three bands on the main stage set the standard for outdoor, live, electric music for the summer.   The Derrell Syria project led off with  their unique brand of Yooper Infused Reggae (yeah--it's a thing).  Derrell is one of the best jazz/soul/rock guitar players I've seen, and anchored by a killer rhythm section featuring his son Ethan, put on one incredibly entertaining set that had most of the crowd in front of the stage swaying along to I'm a UP Boy.  Derrel's bassist, Cliff, is one of the more unique, percussive musicians you will find and adds a high-voltage energy and drive to their music.   Ethan's other band, Lumi followed.  A funk-fueled jam-band with a world rhythm component, they bring unbridled enthusiasm to life on stage.  It is no wonder that they have a diverse, eclectic and broad fan base that follows them everywhere they paly.  This was a very entertaining set from start to finish (Finnish?).

The Organgrinders, the crowd and the stars.  Magic.
The night's headliners were The Organgrinders who invited the crowed to "party with the monkey" as they kicked off a 90+ minute set of hard-driving blues in front of a roaring bonfire (so hot that the band felt it from stage and even cautioned the crowd not to throw any more wood the fire...).  The band has a huge local following and it was apparent that from the many booming, fog-horn emulating cries of "TEAM DRINK" that this was not the first time the crowd had seen this blues-fueled party band play.   The band makes it's living feeding off the crowd, and this night provided them with a rocket fueled boost of energy that sent had them grinning ear to ear as they played one song after another, each taking the crowd to greater heights.  Lead man Brian "Looper" Lucas' voice and harp filled the air while guitarist Sven Gonstead tore into one lead lick after another.  Rhythm partners Eric and Tim played off each other keeping a funky backbeat in time to the stomping of the crowd.  Cody had mentioned that his dream had always been to have the Organgrinders headline his festival, so it was fitting that things came full circle with the band inviting him on stage to play slide guitar on a hard-driving blues number.  After months of planning and hard work (not to mention three days of putting out fires and attending to one crisis after another) it was great to see him lose himself in the music, the pure joy of his playing eclipsed only by the smile on his face.   Music has the power to transform, and on this night, the magic was palpable--visible on the faces of everyone in attendance.  Free the Music Fest is more than a free party in the woods.  It's magic....

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