When you come to Mittenfest, you get this feeling – like warm sweater-wrapped arms hugging you, pulling you in and maybe spilling some beer onto your shoe as the breathless shout comes into your left ear over the blaring amps, eyes glitzed by the laser light show igniting the cozy, soggy-carpeted space.
It is, above all, as singer/guitarist Matthew Milia put it, a welcoming into the Michigan music fold – a feeling none of our other commendable local festivals has yet accomplished. And, as festival founder/organizer Brandon Zwagerman assures, “The feeling’s forever.”
This the fourth annual Mittenfest, a 4-night benefit show featuring 40 local bands, that will takes over the Elbow Room in Ypsilanti, from New Year’s Eve through January 3, with proceeds going to Ann Arbor based non-profit tutorship organization 826 Michigan to support their work with local students in promoting creativity, helping with homework and hosting workshops.
Picture it: It’s snowing outside, sidewalks slippery, the wind’s a villain, yet, inside there’s bodies everywhere, dancing or swaying, and you’re drunk - not only on the suds flown from the dimly lit bar, but on the vibrant enthusiasm and familial love blushing from soul to soul as you fully take in the might of the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti scene.
Whereas the lifeblood of Mittenfest originally flumed (and undoubtedly still flows) from the strong cells of the Arbor/Ypsi scene’s veins, it is pumped by the heart of Michigan itself, which includes the west side, the pinky, the thumb, the U.P. and Detroit, all coming together.
“Brandon (Zwagerman) didn't play in a band, but he was a big part of the music scene,” said Amy Sumerton, 826 Michigan program director and once-performer with prized folk collective Canada. “He booked shows and was good friends with lots of local bands. Then (in 06), he moved to NYC. When he came home for the holidays, he wanted to see all his favorite local bands. And thus was born Mittenfest.”
“I was feeling a little homesick,” Zwagerman recalls of that fateful return in 06. Zwagerman said he was always an avid show-goer during his days at U of M. He would host unamplified backyard shows (“Madisonfests”) at his home at Madison House, while also dabbling with arranging shows on campus (at the “Halfass”/East Quad Music Co-OP and with the New Beat Happening group) as well as loft-set fundraisers – “Arbourfests.”
While in NYC, during the fall of 06, his old friends from Canada, and singer/songwriter Chris Bathgate swung through for CMJ. He organized a show for that winter to get “the old gang” back together to play the Corner Brewery before Christmas.
She continues, “(the first one) was at the Corner Brewery, and featured a day's worth of mostly-acoustic sets. Matt Jones, I remember, was a highlight. He did an INCREDIBLE set with Carol Gray on violin and Collette Alexander on cello.”
“It’s cool,” said folk-leaning songwriter Jones who attains a 4 for 4 attendance record, “each year I get moved later and later in the night. I met Brandon the same way everybody else met Brandon, through his house shows…when I first met him, I just thought…he was a serious nerd!” He chuckles, admitting, “I’m into nerds,” but that he worried he’d show up at Madison and be flanked by MBA’s. And, yet, the doors opened and the house wound up packed to the gills, and Jones quickly grew close with Zwagerman.
Jones simultaneously wonders and remarks at the man’s preternatural promotional skills, doubly admiring that with Mittenfest there’s “something good behind it,” with 826. “He’s just an awesome dude…a lot of us would be screwed without him.”
And when Jones says “us,” the tacit implication seems to be Arbor/Ypsi bands, which include Chris Bathgate, Misty Lyn and the Big Beautiful, Charlie Slick, Great Lakes Myth Society…, but, as we said, Mittenfest opened up to Detroit last year, welcoming acts like space-rock-folksters Prussia, electro-punkers Carjack and synth-surged dance-poppers Champions of Breakfast. “Brandon and Andy Garris over at The Elbow Room," said Jones, "are responsible for so much stuff that’s happening for this…,well, I would include Detroit bands too, but this Ann Arbor and Ypsi scene definitely. Andy, that guy, is just a crazy motherfucker, the most charismatic person probably in our little scene and he doesn’t even play music. Brandon promotes the stuff and Andy just makes it a blast.”
The line up this year includes comebacks from Great Lakes Myth Society, Frontier Ruckus, Jones – of course, as well as new comers like the Friendly Foes and Child Bite (from the Detroit area), and also, only-so-recently-lost-Ann-Arbor luminary Scott Sellwood of Drunken Barn Dance – who made a now-famous whiskey toast to the inspirational marvel of Michigan’s talent and the inevitable recognition that would someday be poured upon it’s uniquely, acrobatically creative artists and their the staggering dedication to their works and to each other. Or, as Sellwood summarized in a recent Current Magazine interview: “this is the finest, most spirited and talented collection of artists that I’ve ever been a part of, backed by an attentive and supportive audience that should be the envy of all scenes large and small. If everyone keeps offering themselves in this way, the nation will eventually tune in. Such attention isn’t necessary to make this scene special – it is already very special – but that’s an indication of how deeply I regard the musicians here.””
Year two was both “ambitious” and “disjointed.” It involved a night at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor followed by a transition to Ypsilanti, with an afternoon at the Corner Brewery and then a night show at the Elbow Room. “While the Pig is a bigger place," admits Zwagerman, "the Elbow Room felt like a home; Andy, the owner, is a great guy and donated a nice chunk to 826 on top of what was taken at the door.”
Year three settled into the Elbow Room – and the glowing results made choosing a set location of # 4 an easy one. “Even for the first act, each night, the room was buzzing,” said Zwagerman of year-three, “Mittenfest had apparently taken hold of the local consciousness…”
The line ups:
DEC 31: Chris Bathgate, Matt Jones & the Reconstruction, Electric Fire Babies, White Pines, Annie Palmer, The Ferdy Mayne, Elle and the Fonts, This is Deer Country, Stargrazer, Hallway, dance party till 4 with DJ Todd Osborne
(semiformal attire encouraged on NYE – tickets are $9 for 12/31 ($7 all other nights) or $25 for all four)
JAN 1: Great Lakes Myth Society, Silverghost, Lightning Love, Champions of Breakfast, Fields of Industry, Prussia, Ghostlady, Ghost Heart, The Juliets, Timothy Monger
($7 or $25 for all-four-days)
JAN 2: Drunken Barn Dance, Friendly Foes, Black Jake & the Carnies, Jim Roll, Spitting Nickels, Ethan Milner, Nathan K, Child Bite
($7 or $25 for all-four days)
JAN 3: Fred Thomas, Frontier Ruckus, Misty Lyn & the Big Beautiful, Secret Twins, Small Houses, Anna Ash, Alex Greiner, The Photographers, Landfill Mountain Boys, Whiskey Bottle (Scott Sellwood/Jim Roll Uncle Tupelo cover band!)
($7 or $25 for all-four days)
“It brings together the music community in a way no other festival can,” said Sumerton. “By which I mean to say: most musicians who play Mittenfest come to the other shows, and it feels like everyone's supporting everyone.”
And, Jones notes its ability to spread awareness for 826 (and non-profits in general). Any band or fan walking through the doors can then learn more about the organization and many get involved.
“We have a volunteer force of over 300 active volunteers now, and several of them will be playing Mittenfest,” said Sumerton. Since they opened in 05, bands like FrontierRuckus, Mason Proper and more have played benefit shows for 826, with Chris Bathgate teaches a songwriting workshop.
Sumerton stresses the vitality and praises the dedication of 826’s volunteers. The organization publishes two books of student’s writings each year along with ‘zines and catalogs, even installing student poetry on to Ann Arbor buses.
Plus, says Zwagerman, with the recession, non-profits are getting hit hard – and they need the care and support more than ever – only increasing Mittenfests purpose. But, aside from great live music and a great cause, Zwagerman, as well as Sumerton, GLMS, Frontier Ruckus, Jones, Sellwood, he and all of them always go back to the feeling of camaraderie.
“You see everybody you know, plus 1000 other people you don’t know and by the end of the night you’re all pretty much pals. There’s always that inter-band-drama-crap, but that just gets erased by getting together, in the winter, in that hole of a bar and just drinkin yourself shitty.”
“What a tradition,” Milia of Frontier Ruckus exclaimed, taking pride in their respective 4-for-4 record. “It’s existence brings us such joy and we can only see it snowballing into something huger and huger each year. Our first year, we were definitely the new kids on the block and were so giddy to be welcomed into the Michigan music fold. The magic of the event, and of the season really, is that if you’re lucky, that giddiness returns each year with a similar strength. It’s great to see old favorites performing next to all the new bands just starting out—the continuum of Michigan art in the warm holiday cheer.”
“This,” said GLMS’ Timothy Monger, “will be our second Mittenfest (as a band), although our guitarist Greg McIntosh has been appearing as a solo artist since the festival’s inaugural year. Last year’s show was one of the best times I have had playing music with GLMS…a sweaty, boozy, raucous sing-along of epic proportions.”
“Champions of Breakfast was so great last year,” said Sumerton, “I actually ruined a pair of shoes because the crowd was dancing so crazy.” She continues, “(Canada) played two Mittenfests and the show we played the second year was one of the best shows we ever played. The place was packed and it was the sweetest, most supportive audience ever, and a bunch of people from other bands joined us onstage for our last song. It was…pretty special.”
Other memories, Brandon? He rattles off: “…the entire crowd yelling along to most every word of GLMS' set last year, a capacity crowd listening in rapt silence to Fred Thomas' set last year, Matt Jones' haunting songs give me chills every year. The first time I ever encountered Champions of Breakfast! My jaw was on the floor the whole set.”
“Mittenfest IV,” said Sellwood, “will be Drunken Barn Dance’s third…in many ways, last year’s show was the coming out party for the current line-up and we’re thrilled beyond words to be back playing, drinking and hollering with our friends.”
“Mittenfest,” said Friendly Foes singer/guitarist Ryan Allen, “… never been, but we're into any festival celebrating hand warmth... oh, wait... it's a local band festival, you say? What the fuck? Somebody lied to us!”
DC wanted to give you some updates on a handful of players throughout the nights of Mittenfest –
Matt Jones “finally” released his spooky old-world-tinged folk epic The Black Path in February this year, a self-released effort that was received warmly locally and nationally. He is currently writing and arranging the follow-up, in the back of a van or on floors or in restaurants as he tours the Midwest and east coast before returning to Mittenfest. He is planning on recording in late winter with renowned A2 boardman Jim Roll; “a little more intricate, the melodies being the most important part – as they always are” and “I just want them to stand on their own two legs,…smaller, more compact.” Look for those recorded efforts to release in late Spring, tentatively.
The Friendly Foes celebrate two years this month, and recently released the So Obscene 7”/EP – as a follow up to 08’s debut full length Born Radical. The unabashed-90’s-indie-rock loving power trio welcomed Sean Sommer on drums and “he’s really added a great dynamic to the band,” assured Allen, “and our (with bassist/singer Liz Whittman) friendship and closeness have grown considerably because of it. Plus, he brings the red-head quotient of the band up to 2 now, so we’re giving those Lucas sisters a run for their money.” So Obscene is out, at shows or online—iTunes or Gangplank Records site. More shows on the horizon: “We’re going to continue to piss the right people off, play loud as fuck and make the funniest jokes.” Their 4 songs deep into a second full-length, and have found considerable progression. “Now, instead of sounding like 1995, we’re thinking ahead, and focusing more clearly on the year 1996 as a primary influence!”
Frontier Ruckus toured “the better part of the year” from May through November, reaching new US spots and heading to Europe for the first time to feature songs from their rich, ornate odyssey The Orion Songbook (from 08). Singer Milia rattles off highlights: “full-contact games of soccer in nighttime gas-station parking lots; Indian food on Brick Lane in London; performing in a 14th-century medieval church in north Holland for the enthusiastic townsfolk; playing at a festival in Norway overlooking a lake and countryside on the top of a windy hill with a castle turret; occupying haunted hotels of the old southwest; getting stranded in L.A. for days with great company; the kids in Denton, TX; every person we met who drove a distance with excitement to see us; etc.” Songbook’s follow-up is in the works and should be out on Ramseur Records by summertime, including big seasonal festivals. “We're just counting our blessings that people have been showing us increasing support and appreciation, giving us cause to continue writing songs and sharing them.”
Great Lakes Myth Society, meanwhile, are recording their third full length, as they wind down what Monger declares “a growing type of year for us. We’re taking our sweet time to develop the material and try some new directions.” They’ll be recording more through the early months of ’10, followed by an eventual tour.
Child Bite hit the road numerous times through the first half of 09, presenting material from 08’s Fantastic Gusts of Blood. They furled their fuzzy faces up all nice and purdy to compete in the Anchorage-set World Beard and Mustache Competition (with more touring still), and then released three 7”’s with three different respective flipside-partner bands – and…more touring.
Drunken Barn Dance finished a new record, their first as a full band. “We recorded 17 songs in 8 hours and picked the ten best,” said Sellwood. “The songs range from old to brand new, presented as close to the live performances as possible (with games and care taken to duplicate drunkenness, darkness, nerves, etc of stage show).” There’s also a new 7” coming in ’10 on Leroy Street Records. Highlights include Keewenawesomefest, CMJ, a summer of backyard-Brooklyn-shows and, “in all honesty, that 2 hour Phonotropic jam (in July 09), where we truly spread out and let the songs wind where they may. Several songs took on new life after that show and that’s exactly how we want the band to change over time.”
Random other bits?
Get there early on the first day to see the 2nd-only-performance from up and coming soul/rock group -
-Hallway – as singer/guitarist Jeffrey Freer put it, “’50’s style 2 ½ minute pop songs melded to a modern indie rock sound. I love Motown, Blur and the Beatles – you can use your imagination.”
Elsewhere – and, off the top of my head- Charlie Slick, Lightning Love and Prussia are all developing (or finishing) new records – and Champions of Breakfast also have new songs up their glitzy sleeves.
For more info:
(photos top to bottom: -Frontier Ruckus -Matt Jones (photo by Doug Coombe) -Great Lakes Myth Society -Scott Sellwood of Drunken Barn Dance -Brandon Zwagerman)