Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Mittenfest X (uncut)

“…I remember one Mittenfest at the Elbow Room, finding someone’s birthday cake in the backstage area, and reflexively grabbing it and trying to smash it into Greg (McIntosh)’s face. Pretty soon, there was cake flying every which way and cake-covered ElBros also flying everywhere. I still have a photo of myself tackling Ryan Spencer (of Jamaican Queens), covered in blue cake. I didn’t even really know him, then. If that doesn’t say “Community,” I don’t know what does…” –Matt Jones, Mittenfest Memories

This might be the first you’ve heard of Mittenfest. If so, then, well, it’s an exciting five-day-long music festival that raises funds for 826 Michigan’s educational endeavors with local students, primarily tutoring expository writing skills along with an awesome overall encouragement of their creative expression (through short stories, poetry, and even songwriting). But, as some of you already know, this is the tenth Mittenfest, which has always been hosted around the holidays, just as the New Year dawns. 


Mittenfest, which features several unique Michigan-based bands per night Bona Sera in Ypsilanti (Dec 29-Jan 2), always manifests as something more than a big benefit concert and more like a second Thanksgiving (with a little more whiskey), where the music scene’s myriad members convene as a family typically would, only around a stage (instead of a fireplace), and raise a cup or a can in tribute to this rich, wide-ranging and overall resplendent foundation of local talent that can sometimes be more closely-knit than we realize.

Do I sound sentimental? You bet your artsy scarf, I’m sentimental! Mittenfest in general, and it’s cause (supporting 826Michigan’s vital work), always evoke all the feels. In fact, it’s surreal in a way, because it seems like Mittenfest has been here for 15 years, not just 10…hell, feels even longer. Because once something happens at Mittenfest, be it a poignant “whiskey toast” that quiets the room with goosebumps, or someone riding a motorcycle into a venue, maybe a reunion for the Great Lakes Myth Society, “pint-glass baseball” or just a rousing midnight round of Auld Lang Syne from Chris Bathgate, it all becomes as nostalgically cemented in the collective memory of those in attendance as though it were Jimmy frickin Stewart winking up at to Clarence as the bells ring. Yes…sorry…sentimental.

In honor of ten years, the opening night of year 10 will mirror the lineup of year 1, with Frontier Ruckus, Misty Lyn Bergeron, Matt Jones, Fred Thomas and more.

I spent my Halloween contacting several past performers and the current group of volunteers and 826 staffers organizing this year’s event, so I’m going to let them take it from here…

photo by Erik Granning

The Fest
Chris Batghate (Singer/songwriter/frequent Mittenfest-performer):
Mittenfest accomplishes something I consider miraculous. It marries my love of music and performance with something bigger. It splices communities together. It provides me with an opportunity to use music to do something other than just get friends in the front row. Mittenfest creates its own holiday tradition of supporting the arts and the development of youth, and engaging with amazing local music. 

Timothy Monger (Singer/songwriter/ frequent Mittenfest-performer): The solidarity of getting to pal around with friends who have traveled from all over to couch surf and feast from a king-sized menu of quality music over five wild days is a unique and weird gift. The Great Lakes Myth Society sets we’ve played at Mittenfest have been among the highlights of my career. 

Dina Bankole (Mittenfest co-organizer / Local musician): Last year was my first year in the planning committee and I knew I wanted to help book Mittenfest again as soon as last year’s ended. I definitely brought my “fest philosophy” from the planning of (the first two Best Friends Forever Fests in Detroit), like always keeping an eye toward diversity, mixing old and new…so I was really excited and ready to join the MIttenfest team. I think my first Mittenfest I played was at the Elbow Room with Secret Twins and we always had a blast. It was always an honor to be invited. 

Linda Jordan (Mittenfest co-organizer): I’ve been to every Mittenfest except one. I’m from Michigan, currently in Detroit, but I lived in New York for several years. I always came home for the holidays and Mittenfest served as an annual reunion; it kept me connected to my favorite musicians and dearest friends. I got involved because Mittenfest highlights the very best of the Michigan music scene, and I have always been inspired by the community’s willingness to come together and volunteer for a good cause.

Matthew Milia (Frontier Ruckus singer/songwriter/ frequent Mittenfest-performer): We were honored to be asked to headline the first night of this 10th anniversary. It’s a celebration of what I feel must be one of the most special music scenes in the country: this trans-Michigan network of diverse yt likeminded artists and a rare spirit of good-natured connectedness that has forged over so many years and through so many bands’ lifespans.

Matt Jones (Singer/songwriter/consistent performer): I’ve played every one and the strange thing is that while I can remember all the antics happening off stage, I can rarely remember anything that actually happened on stage. Off stage is the best part…. and then the after parties. Or, the dawn trips to Abe's, all washed out and exhausted, waking up in the morning with an entire bottle of hair gel (also a backstage find) in your hair, and having to go to your band rehearsal like that- hair rock-solid. Or… breaking the house drums every year without fail...and of course, as always, the bands...But,more importantly and way more exciting that any one song or any one bunch of Jameson-fueled musicians on stage: it’s the people WATCHING the bands: watching people enjoy live music; that’s better than any set you could ever play…

The Perseverance
Bankole: Mittenfests hosted at Woodruffs, though, was the best; kind of like the defining era for me. All of the love in that room! Mittenfest, and even Ypsi/Ann Arbor’s music scene, hasn’t been the same since (Woodruff’s) shut down. I think it can be said that there are noticeably fewer bands in the Ypsi/Arbor area now and I think the loss of local venues isn’t helping…though, groups like Ypsi Music Guild and Crossroads are fighting the good fight. 

Jeremy Peters (Mittenfest co-organizer/Ghostly Intl’s Director of Creative Licensing & Business Affairs): Leaving Yps was tough, with the closure of such an important venue in Woodruffs. But, it was nice to engage with the Ann Arbor crowd a bit more, that being said, I’m excited that Bona Sera has welcomed us with open arms for this coming year.

Bankole: More bands from Detroit played last year because I think Detroit bands, like Double Winter, Deadly Viper, Little Animal, Prude Boys, Bloodstone, Tunde Olaniran…were having a moment and they wanted an opportunity to play in this area which still isn’t easily achievable. This year, I’m looking forward to the recreation of Mittenfest # 1 on first night of the fest.

Jordan: Booking the bands takes up the bulk of our work, followed by logistical concerns. (Peters, Bankole, Pierce) and I are all volunteers, so finding all the time can be challenging, but we make it work. I’m extremely excited that Mittenfest X is coming back to Ypsilanti at Bona Sera. Ypsilanti has hosted the majority of the festivities over the years, and the community has always been very involved. The mayor has attended the festivities in the past and local businesses, like Beezy’s Café, gear up for the event and find creative ways to contribute.  

Read all about it....in this month's CURRENT (photo by Doug Coombe)

The Cause 
Brandan Pierce (826Michigan’s Detroit-based program coordinator): I started volunteering with 826Michigan four years ago and had an amazing time working with students. The interactions I've had with students, helping them unleash creativity they didn't think they had, has been the most rewarding aspect of this work. When a student suggests "Maybe the world is taken over by unicorns?" and they hear an adult get SUPER excited about that idea, you can watch a student transform into a well-oiled generator of imagination. When my band, Pity sex, performed last year it was a special moment because it combined the two passions I have in life into a highly impactful moment. 

Graham Parsons (singer/songwriter for The Go Rounds): The cause…is what really draws me to want to participate, now. 826Michigan is a tangible, active and important organization and I think raising money for educational efforts through music is undeniably positive. 

Peters: It is amazing that we’ve raised more than $115,000 to date. That goes a long way to helping students learn that writing doesn’t have to be something you have to bear, it can be fun. It’s been a long haul; I’ve been to every single one and helped with eight of them. I’m excited to see how this event changes and interfaces with the music community in this state, going forward
Parsons: Music, and its communities, are immensely powerful entities and I love to see that power channeled into something outside itself, creating ripples that extend beyond the egotism and sallow boxes we call ‘music venues.’ Mittenfest seems to be a truly joyous affair; a reunion, something bigger and more impactful than itself and its parts. 

Pierce: 826Michigan is expanding so much right now. We’re in our third year of programs in Detroit, and we are getting new requests from teachers and programmers for assistance, constantly. We’re hosting after school tutoring programs four days a week in Ypsilanti & Ann Arbor, along with field trips and tones of other creative writing opportunities for students. We serve over 3,000 students annually! This festival has been a financial asset as much as it’s helped spread the word and gets more people involved. We need help designing chapbooks, assembling robots, putting stickers on envelopes even… If even one person comes to one night of MIttenfest and starts volunteering after, I’ll be ecstatic. Also, the true artistry of Fred Thomas will be mesmerizing, I’m sure. 

Fred Thomas (singer/songwriter/frequent Mittenfest performer): The work that the organizers do in conjunction with the 826-staff is tireless and seems to crest annually with Mittenfest. I’m happy to be playing this one, just as I was to play the first one! It’s interesting to look at the longetivity of Michigan’s independent music celebrations, isn’t it? 

Jordan: I think the work (of 826Michigan)is invaluable, especially given the deficiencies in our public education system. 826Michigan provides kids in Southeast Michigan an opportunity to be creative and develop their writing skills. 

Amanda Uhle (826Michigan Executive Director):  Much has changed in ten years, but we’re still offering young people unique opportunities to grow, learn, and create with help from caring adult volunteers. We continue to be committed to helping students succeed in school and in life by way of tutoring, writing workshops, and publishing opportunities.

The magic
Bathgate: Most of my fondest memories are the moments when I felt lost in the music, standing in the audience. (Mittenfest) provides an incredible environment; there’s always an undeniable magic in the air. Through the combination of cause, dedicated volunteers, motivated performance and enthusiastic crowd…, there’s a camaraderie that seems to ooze out of the walls. The audience is in a consistently giving state, there’s a distinct positive exchange between the crowd and performers, and there’s a mutual feeling of merriment and support. 

Milia: During Mittenfest, it’s as though every Michigan town from Ypsi to grand Rapids to Houghton to Lansing and back all occupy one unified, timeless space of heightened community.

This magic will be conjured again, starting December 29th.
Mittenfest X: Featuring Frontier Ruckus, Fred Thomas and much much more! Hosted Dec 29 through Jan 2 at Bona Sera (200 W. Michigan Ave, Ypsilanti) starting at 7pm each night. For more info, visit 826Michigan.org, and find the full lineup at mittenfest.org

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