The year ends. We look back. We look forward. We muse upon our now-ness.
This time of year, we're inclined to ponder, "where have we been / where are we going." For the local music community, it's restoring and indubitably fitting to celebrate our calendar flipping by attending Mittenfest - the annual music event that culls a staggering arc of Michigan bands together under one roof for four felicitous nights full of clamor, camaraderie, fun and philanthropy.
(pictured above: Scott Sellwood, Drunken Barn Dance - all photos: Doug Coombe (except Zwagerman profile pic )
"It feels more like an epic marathon of a party than a cozy holiday gathering," said Brandon Zwagerman, the festival's originator and organizer. Mittenfest debuted in December 2006 at the Corner Brewery. Zwagerman's had established connections to the Ypsi/Arbor scene through the mid-00's, which lead to his hosting acoustic backyard shows at his house while he attended the University of Michigan. He moved to New York in 2006 (where he currently works as marketing manager for an architecture/design firm, whilst also booking shows from time to time.)
The New Venue
Last year at the Elbow Room in Ypsilanti, Mittenfest featured 40 bands, selling out each night and raising more than $12,000 for 826 Michigan.
Mittenfest V hoped to up the ante - adding 20 bands to the revolving line up - and organizers (including Amy Sumerton of 826 Michigan and Jeremy Peters of Quite Scientific Records) had anticipated the vast capacity and dual-stage capabilities of The Savoy accommodating their growth. However, the building was closed in November due to disputed energy bill payments.
"I'm sure that all the bands involved in Mittenfest and other scheduled events were worried," said Anthony Gentile, singer/guitarist of 2010 performer Jehovah's Witness Protection Program. (pictured right)
"Andy would move to the North Pole before letting Mittenfest down," Gentile said. "And, thus, Mittenfest has a wonderful new home."
Zwagerman said they would be "shoehorned into" Woodruff's, yet still, the "top-notch fallback" offers a slightly larger capacity then the Elbow Room (which hosted 07-08). "Same number of days, same number of bands," Peters said, "just changing the schedule by starting earlier." Bands will perform 25 minute sets, starting at 3:45 pm each day.
"I'm particularly excited about bands I've never seen live before," said Zwagerman. "Gun Lake, Long Whisker, Our Brother the Native and Pistolbrides all sound awesome. People can't stop telling me how great In Tall Buildings are, also. Bands I've maybe seen a few times but never at Mittenfest: The Sights, Cains and Abels, Wonder Caverns, Bad Indians and the High Strung (pictured below, right); it's always interesting to see how this crowd reacts."
"Rumor has it Matt Jones & the Reconstruction will be playing (Bruce) Springsteen's Born to Run album in its entirety. That is something nobody should miss. On that note, seeing how returning bands have grown or changed over the course of the past year is always fascinating. Frontier Ruckus played an early set on the first year as a young act with local buzz and major promise; this year they come off of several U.S. and European tours, including Bonnaroo. I wish we had a better record of these performances sometimes; bands grow up so fast."
Peters has "always been around the festival," working with Quite Scientific bands. As a close friend to Zwagerman, he got "officially involved" last year, serving as back-up on booking. Now, as co-organizer, he's hosted the website and aided in the expected bedlam of aligning 60 different bands.
"Both QuiSci and Ghostly (International) have always been supporters of what 826 Michigan does; finding ways to get more involved with them, support them and fund the awesome and important work that they do was important to me," said Peters. "Sleep is overrated."
What Mittenfest Means
"I play every once in a while with other bands," Peters said, "and it was pretty awesome last year to be on stage with Chris Bathgate when he played 'Auld Lang Syne' as the year turned over. To be surrounded by some of my closest friends and the musicians I most respect and admire was absolutely amazing."
Singer-songwriter Scott Sellwood made a legendary whiskey toast in 2008 to the vibrancy of Michigan music, thus edifying Mittenfest's existence as epitomizing an ideal "cheers," or misty-eyed raising of the glass to our music and arts.
"This is my fourth Mittenfest," said Sellwood, who heads Drunken Barn Dance. "Last year the back stage room was truly a blast. From random cake fights to jam sessions, the bands all contributed such personality and spirit. Learning songs in Matt Jones' basement twenty minutes before our Uncle Tupelo cover band (Whisky Bottle)'s set was fun too. We just played a bunch of Jim Roll songs anyway... ...(Mittenfest) is a very real effort by some of my favorite people to do something moving and exciting - whether it's organizing, performing, decorating or showing up night after night. We raise our glass to all, and refill and repeat."
"I'd be willing to say," Gentile added, "that this 'fest' represents what the state of Michigan as a whole offers, rather than being a regional event that focuses mostly on Detroit area rock bands, or jam bands, or metal, or whatever. I love the other fests in Detroit and surrounding areas, but Mittenfest has a unique appeal that feels perfect for nurturing our state's ever-expanding musical community."
As Mittenfest's five year anniversary arrives, Zwagerman is "struck by how accidental this all was. I'd never planned on starting an annual event, especially in a state I no longer live in."
It's grown "little by little, annually" he said, giving grateful nods to Garris, Peters, Bathgate (pictured, right) and Sumerton, with new bands and new sponsors (including the Red Wings' Open Skate Detroit among others). "A loosely-defined core group of folks still makes this happen and we hope to embrace an even-larger constituency of performers, attendees, and supporters while raising significant funding for 826 Michigan."
"It sounds like a cliche, but from where I sit, I really do think Mittenfest is special; it is a community event in the true sense; organized by and enjoyed by one generation of Michiganders benefiting the next."
That 'next' generation implied by Zwagerman are the students benefiting from the tireless tutoring and writing workshops offered by 826 Michigan. For years the Ann Arbor based non-profit operated with only two full-time staff members (Sumerton, Program Director, and Amanda Uhle, Executive Director) - relying on the devoted work of dozens of volunteers to facilitate their education services. On top of hosting field trips, drop-in tutoring and the Liberty Street Robot Repair & Supply Store, the organization has grown, offering free creative writing workshops, a weekly English language learning program and publishing capabilities for student writers.
Sumerton said "We have more than doubled our In-School Residencies, in direct response to: -school closings in Ypsilanti, -class size increases everywhere and -funding which allowed us to hire an all-important third full-time staff person (Catherine Calabro, Program Coordinator). This year we're working in eight schools in Ann Arbor and Ypsi, with almost 20 teachers and hundreds of students. We're sending almost 40 volunteers into these schools each week, tallying over 25 hours in residencies each week."
826 Michigan is also facilitating off-site workshops around the area, including each branch of the Ypsilanti Library, Avalon Housing, and, soon, a weekly poetry group at Ozone House.
For Sumerton, working with 826 Michigan, especially after the off-site workshos and in-school tutoring, has "restored my sense of good in the world; that there are so many adults willing to volunteer their time to work with young people. It's easy enough to talk about how the education system is failing. It's easy enough to cry through the end of 'Waiting for Superman' and lament. But I am surrounded by people who are taking action, in big ways and small ways and it's amazing to see the impact of both."
Sumerton said 826 Michigan's work is "joyful and rejuvenating. It's hard to be jaded when you spend three hours a week in a classroom of third graders and you remember that wonder and excitement specific to a 9-year-old. I know that I can't change the world but I also know that I can make some small adjustments to it through my own actions."
(Some of) The Bands
***Drunken Barn Dance: "Lots and lots of new songs," Sellwood exclaimed. "We'll have a slew of them ready for the show and will release a bunch as soon as January." Over the summer, DBD released its 2nd proper full length, Grey Buried, (recorded in one night by band member Jim Roll).
***Jehovah's Witness Protection Program: "(Playing) the Loco Gnosis 5-year Anniversary shows on Jan 14 and Jan 15 in Detroit and Ypsilanti respectively. We're also finishing up work on a few more brand new songs and we will be recording our first full length with Brandon Wiard, starting in January (due on vinyl in late spring, 2011 on Loco Gnosis).
***The High Strung: "All is well in HighStrungLand," said singer/songwriter Josh Malerman. "We're learning our next album ?Possible o' Impossible? -to be recorded with Jim Diamond in January." This follows last year's Dragon Dicks full length, with ?PoP? being their sixth album. "Ypsilanti is one of our favorite towns in the USA and Mittenfest is only getting bigger and richer. We cannot wait."
*** Frontier Ruckus have just returned from a European tour, supporting their recently released Deadmalls and Nightfalls, their 2nd proper full length album.
***Black Jake & the Carnies: The Ypsi based psychedelic bluegrass rock collective (pictured, right) celebrated four years and (more than) 100 shows this year, following a number of summer festivals and a headlining spot at Theatre Bizarre's Halloween shindig. Their 2nd full length (tentatively titled) Sundry Mayhem is being wrapped up this month for a hopeful late spring 2011 release. They'll head to Europe next April.
***Chris Bathgate: Folk/rock singer-songwriter will be dropping a single (and a video) from his forthcoming Salt Year LP (look for an April release on Quite Scientific).
***Prussia: indie-pop re-constructionists have their third full length album, Poor English wrapped up and hope for a Spring 2011 release. In the meantime, you can hear a couple tunes from said-release in form of an EP (Four For Attention).
***Quite Scientific: Peters, QuiSci's co-owner noted that they're working as much as they can for the bands they love, considering he and his comrades, Brian Peters & Justin Spindler, each work full time jobs outside of the label, including, for Jeremy (Director of Creative Licensing and Business Affairs for Ghostly International). "We just released the Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr remixes EP that followed their first EP. We're going to be focusing on growing Drunken Barn Dance, Chris Bathgate and DEJJ. Both Bathgate and DEJJ have albums planned for next year in Spring."
***Woodruff's - 1/8/2011 - The Lisps, w: Chris Bathgate / Small Houses / Annie Palmer
The Line Up:
Mittenfest V Schedule
Mittenfest V @ Woodruff’s (36 E. Cross St, Ypsilanti (Depot Town), MI 48198)
Thu Dec 30th, 2010 – Sun Jan 2, 2011 / Doors @3PM each day / Music from 3:45PM – 2AM / Late Night NYE Dance Party until 4AM
Tickets: $7.00/day or $25.00/4-day wristband (available soon at Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair, 115 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor, MI
Day 1, Thur, Dec 30th
- Matt Jones & the Reconstruction -
- Pistolbrides -
Day 2: Fri, Dec 31st
Late Night –
- Frontier Ruckus -
- Gregory McIntosh -
Day 3: Sat, Jan 1st
- The High Strung -
- Ghost Heart -
Day 4: Sun, Jan 2nd
- Drunken Barn Dance -
- Photographers -
– Annie Palmer -
- Jeff Pianki -
Brandon Zwagerman: "What Have I learned, after 5 years of organizing Mittenfest?
-Despite best intentions, planning never really gets going in earnest until October.
-Alternate glasses of water with alcoholic beverages at a 1:1 ratio
-Blue Cab provides fast and reliable service from central Ypsilanti
-Jeremy Peters is an excellent project manager
-826michigan is an amazing organization; I recommend buying one of the books written by their
-The Ypsilanti creative and business community deserves more recognition than it gets from those in both Ann Arbor and Detroit
-Beezy's is the best for brunch, but you need to go to the Bomber at least once during the festival
-A backline is your best friend
-Ask for a Stroh's
-Black Jake & the Carnies tend to throw items into the crowd
-If Andy Garris is involved, it will always work out just fine
-Get over your ego and your idealized "vision" for how things ought to be
-Chris Bathgate has more talents than commonly known
-Posters are unlikely to be accurate: someone always cancels a week before the show
-A band's national and/or Detroit profile often means little in terms of draw locally
-Don't leave your birthday cake in the green room
-Nobody can follow Drunken Barn Dance