Mid West Music Fest 2015 and Other Winona Shenanigans

I miss my college town of Winona, Minnesota SO much. It’s in a  beautiful part of the state; the little river city is surrounded by these big, gorgeous bluffs and it’s like you’re being hugged by nature. The downtown area is adorable and old-fashioned and is full of great cafes and bars and restaurants. And, despite its reputation for being a tiny college town, it always has something going on: the Great River Shakespeare Festival in the summer, Frozen River Film Festival in the winter, and Mid West Music Fest in the spring- which is where my friend Alisha and I spent a weekend volunteering (when we weren’t eating or pumping ourselves full of caffeine at some of our favorite places). Before I get into the details of the weekend, I have to thank our wonderful friend Katie for letting us crash at her apartment despite her being out of town for the weekend. We were sad not to get to spend time with her and her girls (a pitbull named Jasmine and a shih tzu named Minnie), but we really appreciate her hospitality.

A little background: Mid West Music Fest is a relatively new event, founded in 2010 by former AmeriCorps volunteer Sam Brown, who modeled the festival on Salem, Oregon’s Cherry City Music Fest. The first festival brought over 70 musical acts from the area to the community for a 2-day event in July. In 2011, MWMF was moved to April  to correspond with the school year, since college students make up a large portion of the population in Winona. Since the festival’s inception, MWMF has grown into a 3-day music festival with over 100 acts, as well as several related events and collaborations.

The first show Alisha and I hit up was General B and the Wiz at Broken World Records. We’d seen them perform at last year’s MWMF and couldn’t pass up seeing them again. The Minneapolis-based indie-blues/self-described “psych rock” band put on a phenomenal show as usual. They have this fun 70’s vibe without sounding campy, are obscenely talented musicians, and seriously know how to work a crowd; all of the members have incredible stage presence.We left around 9, during the last song, because Alisha and I are 25-and26-year-old octogenarians who need to be in bed by 10 PM.

We didn’t have to be at our volunteer venue until 4:30 on Saturday, so the majority of the day was devoted to food and coffee and catching up with a couple people.  We started our morning at Bloedow’s Bakery, which has the best doughnuts in Minnesota (seriously, WCCO voted them the best in 2012) so Alisha could get a box for her family. Sadly, I didn’t get anything because everyone in the crowded shop kept budging in front of me and I’m the least assertive person ever so eventually I was like “It’s cool, I don’t need a doughnut” and we left. It ended up not being a problem though, because I ended up eating my weight in omelet at Winona’s Family Restaurant. We initially went there to say hi to Alisha’s cousin who works there, and while at first it just seemed like a local Perkins knockoff, we were pretty quickly impressed. They were great about accommodating Alisha’s bajillion dietary restrictions, and the massive ABC (avocado/bacon/cheese) omelet I ordered had huge chunks of fresh avocado in it rather than pasty pre-made guacamole, which was awesome. Not that I have anything against guacamole-I would probably eat my own hand if it were covered in guacamole- but having fresh avocado was a nice surprise. Alisha’s only complaint was that they never asked if we wanted a refill on coffee; they’d just swoop in like diner ninjas and fill our cups before we could say anything. I didn’t mind, because I wanted to be more awake for the shows later than we had been the night before and was totally cool with starting my day with four cups of coffee, but Alisha was a little frustrated.

The next few hours were all about caffeine. We met our friend Sam at Acoustic Cafe, where I got a cafe miel (coffee+honey+cinnamon=liquid heaven). I didn’t spend much time at Acoustic when I was in school, which I regret, because it’s a great place-cozy without feeling crowded, with a variety of delicious drinks on their menu. Then we decided to follow up our coffee with more coffee at Mugby Junction, a chain coffee shop (although maybe “chain” is inaccurate, since it’s only located in Winona and the only other locations are a drive-thru and an express shop in one of the WSU academic buildings) where I briefly considered getting something non-caffeinated, since I had been mainlining coffee since about 10 AM, but opted for my college favorite, the satin mocha (mocha with white chocolate instead of milk chocolate). By the time we got to our venue I was definitely more awake. And jittery. And I really had to pee.

Our venue was Wesley Methodist Church, which seemed like a weird location for the rap/rock/electronic acts playing there, but it ended up being perfect. Something about the combination of electric guitars and stained glass windows was just so bad-ass (…am I going to Hell for describing a church as “bad-ass”? Oh, well). There were four acts during our volunteer slot, but two stood out: Whale House and Koo Koo Kanga Roo. Whale House is an alt rock band from Eau Claire, and while all of the musicians in the group are incredibly talented, the singer especially impressed me; he had such a sweet, bright tone to his voice that still carried so much power. And then there was Koo Koo Kanga Roo….oh, boy. I looked them up on YouTube a few days before the festival, and with songs like “Cat Party” and “Fanny Pack,”  I wasn’t sure if they were a group for little kids, similar to The Wiggles, or if they were just super hipster and I wasn’t getting the irony. Turns out the answer is kind of yes to both. According to their site, they’re “a kids’ band for adults too.” They’re an interactive dance party duo from Minneapolis who plays a variety of gigs, from church basements and preschools to state fairs and even Vans Warped Tour this year. They’re ridiculously creative, their energy is infectious, and they appeal to a range of music fans. Hopefully they’ll be back next year, because they were definitely the highlight of our volunteer time.

We wrapped up the night at Ed’s (No Name) Bar, one of my favorite places downtown due to its eclectic style, frequent live music (not just during MWMF), and signature drink: tinto de verano, a Spanish cocktail similar to sangria, made with red wine and lemon soda. Sitting in a back booth with my friends, straining to hear the conversation over the music and people watching as fest-goers passed by on the sidewalk outside, I felt weirdly homesick for Winona, even though I haven’t lived there in about four years. The Twin Cities are great, and it’s not like they don’t have music festivals or other cool events, but there’s something special about Winona. It’s such a unique, tight-knit community. Leaving is it is hard, but at least I’ll always have an excuse to go back.



Grabbing the Bull by the Horns

A couple weeks ago, I joined my friend Leslie on a road trip to Indiana. Not exactly an exotic destination, but our musician friend Dan and his friend Jimmy were playing a couple shows there-Leslie, who’s also Dan’s manager, had booked them and didn’t want to go down alone- and I figured it was a good opportunity for me to kick off my goal of taking more risks this year. Not that driving down to a small town in another Midwestern state is especially risky, but hey, baby steps. It would also be fun hanging out with Leslie more; she’s almost as big of a nerd as I am in some ways, so we get along really well.

Prior to Leslie picking me up on Friday morning, I knew virtually nothing about Indiana. I knew it was where Parks and Recreation’s fictional town of Pawnee was set. I was pretty sure there was some big NASCAR thing that happened there. Past that, I was clueless. Once we took off, though, Leslie shared a fun piece of Indiana trivia with me: Gary, Indiana has the most serial killers per capita in the U.S. It’s also just outside of Valparaiso, the little town where we’d be staying. Well, I wanted risks. Avoiding getting stabbed and having my body dumped in a rock quarry definitely fell under the risk category.

The eight-ish hour drive went by surprisingly quickly despite not being particularly scenic (unless you count the comically absurd amount of cheese and adult video/toy store signs we passed in Wisconsin) and having to stop at tolls every ten minutes in Illinois (that state is a greedy sonofabitch), but we were still relieved to finally see the sign proclaiming “Welcome to Indiana: Crossroads of America!” (although having a state motto that basically translates to “Indiana: you have to drive through us to get somewhere better!” doesn’t seem like good advertisement). We crashed at the hotel for a few hours before getting ready for that night’s show- or rather, Leslie got us both ready, because she’s also a hair stylist and makeup artist/miracle worker with hot rollers and eye shadow. As someone whose idea of “fancy” is putting in my contacts and not wearing my hair in a ponytail, I appreciated the magic she worked on my hair and face, as well as her patience with my dumb questions (“So what do I do with the mousse? Just rub it in?” “Do I put the eyeliner under my eyes too?”).  She was basically my fairy godmother, but instead of going to a royal ball we were going to a dive bar in Michigan City, Indiana. At least we knew the music would be good.

Before I go any further, it would probably make sense to talk a little bit about Dan and Jimmy, since they’re the main reason we drove to the middle of nowhere/potential set of a Rob Zombie movie. Dan Hamrick is an Indiana native/honorary Minnesotan/Nashville transplant with a voice simultaneously soft and intense and impressive guitar skills. His  songs contain straightforward but heartfelt lyrics; “This is my Family” is especially touching (and seeing his family dance to it in Valpo on Saturday night definitely choked me up a bit), and “Flowers Because It’s Tuesday” has given me even more unrealistic expectations for guys. His partner in crime for the Indiana shows, Jimmy Charles, is also a Nashville-based musician (originally from Maryland): an up-and-coming country artist with a slightly raspy but strong voice and admirable guitar abilities. His song “Superman,” written to raise cancer awareness, is beautiful and heartbreaking and is not something you should listen to at work because the lyrics might make you cry a little at your desk. Besides their talent and creativity, Dan and Jimmy are both genuinely sweet guys who always make a real connection with their audience, which isn’t something you get from a lot of performers. I would definitely recommend checking them out, and I’ll include links to their Facebook fan pages at the end of this post.

Once we arrived at the bar where the show was, we learned something else about Indiana: it’s legal to smoke in bars there- and a LOT of people take advantage of that freedom.  The smell of cigarette smoke usually doesn’t bother me, but when the majority of the people around you are smoking in a small, enclosed space, it gets pretty suffocating. By the time we left that night, our clothes reeked like a redneck bonfire. I was also a little worried about how flammable my hair was; with people lighting up inches away from me, and my hair saturated with three different kinds of product, the possibility of my entire head going up in flames seemed realistic.

But there was one thing in the bar that really drew my attention-a risk greater than secondhand smoke or running into some Jeffrey Dahmer impersonator: a huge mechanical bull in the back left corner of the bar. I had known before arriving that it would be there-Dan had mentioned it in a Facebook post advertising the show- and immediately decided “I SHOULD TOTALLY DO THAT. I’m not remotely athletic, and coordination isn’t one of my strong points, but how hard could it be?” Of course, being the massive nerd that I am, I thoroughly researched (well, googled) any useful tips on riding a mechanical bull without getting a concussion or breaking your neck. It all seemed pretty straightforward: Move your legs forward and squeeze with your lower body. Keep your upper body relaxed. Lean back when the bull head moves forward and lean forward when the bull moves upward. Easy enough.

Still, my confidence faltered a bit when one music set, two whiskey cokes, one water moccasin shot, and a a game of pool with a local douchebag later, Leslie and I nervously approached the girl who ran the bull. “I bruise like a peach,” Leslie informed the girl. “Will I be okay riding this?” The girl considered it for a few seconds, then told us that the last time she rode the bull, she ended up with massive bruises covering her inner thighs. “So you might have to let your man know what’s up with that,” she joked.

That made up Leslie’s mind, but I still signed the waiver with a slightly shaking hand and climbed into the bull pen (sort of like a big, uncovered moon bounce). I had been so concerned about how I would stay on the bull that I hadn’t considered how tricky it would be actually getting on it. The girl in charge suggested getting a good starting bounce on the inflatable floor, which made it a little easier, but I still didn’t look remotely cool dragging myself up. Once I was on, I shifted anxiously on the bull’s back, trying to make sure I was balanced, and gripped the short rope handle at the base of the neck. “Ready?” the girl asked. I nodded, trying to look less scared than I felt. The bull jerked to life, and I immediately forgot every tip I had read. I lasted for about three seconds of being whipped around before I panicked, let go of the rope, and slid off the bull, surprisingly landing on my feet.  I started to climb out of the bull pen, thinking I had sufficiently embarrassed myself for the weekend, but Leslie and the girl in charge encouraged me to try one more time, so I once again clambered awkwardly onto the bull. I lasted a little longer the second time-maybe five seconds-before rolling off with a yelp and landing harmlessly, though much less gracefully, on the puffy surface. My face was flushed, my perfectly curled hair was mussed, and I hadn’t even stayed on long enough to brag about, but I was still grinning ear-to-ear when I left the bull pen. I felt like a total badass.

The rest of the weekend was enjoyable-I had so much fun hanging out with Leslie and getting to know her better, and it was great seeing Dan and Jimmy- but the highlight of the trip for me was riding that bull, as brief as it might have been, because it was something I never would have thought of doing before this trip. It’s funny that it took a trip to the middle of nowhere, U.S.A. to get the opportunity, but I’m grateful for it, and it was the perfect kickoff to what I’m hoping will be a year full of even more exciting possibilities.

Dan’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dan-Hamrick/314900768647605
Jimmy’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/jimmycharlesfans