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.