Mid West Music Fest 2013 Day One: Astronautalis, Retribution Gospel Choir, and more
The fourth annual Mid West Music Fest got off to a bit of a shaky start on Thursday -- at least weather wise, as fans band bands driving down to Winona from anywhere in Northern Minnesota had to make their way through a torrential snow/ice storm that made the roads slick and dangerous. Those that did find their way through yet another storm in our seemingly endless winter were not only greeted by a snow-free (but still cold) Winona, but a strong line-up of talented bands and artists that got MWMF started with an enthusiastic bang.
Winona's Wildflower were just finishing up their lovely, captivating set as we entered the newly redecorated Masonic Temple, which featured large Japanese lanterns and diaphanous silken drapes which gave the stage a much more regal look than last year's rather spartan appearance. That subtle touch also added some poignancy to the music as well, with both Wildflower (comprised of Patti Darbo and Amanda Hardy, and Aleah Harvey) and the Ericksons (led by Jenny Kochsiek and Bethany Valentini) featuring resonant female vocalists that rang out true throughout the historic venue.
The Ericksons drew mainly from their excellent recent record, The Wild, during their 40-minute set, with "Find Yourself A Lover," "Gone Blind," and the title track all soaring, with Jenny and Bethany's lilting vocal interplay and deft electric/acoustic guitar work leading the delicate songs forward atop the restrained but steady drumming of Dan Kapernick. The ladies spoke fondly of their time in nearby La Crosse, asking if anyone had ever seen a show at the Root Note -- plenty had -- where they played many times in the past. Kochsiek and Valentini joked at the end of their lovely set how their bio had them described as a "folk duo," so they better play some folk songs, and ended the show with an jaunty, acoustic-driven take on "Blues Time Singer" that earned the group a well-earned ovation.
Sadly, Portage fell victim to the weather, and canceled their set, but that gap in the schedule was filled by a lively set by solo guitarist Paulie Matushek from La Crosse, who played between performances at Broken World Records, a terrific venue that was a new participant to MWMF. Matushek is a talented and inventive guitarist, looping his riffs (even adding a bass at one point) to form a layered, textured sonic atmosphere that was bluesy and imaginative. Broken World Records did a great job keeping the music going all weekend long, having solo performers in their front room during the changeovers between sets in the back bar.
Winona's Wake Up Bedhead started up in the back after Paulie's lively set came to a close, and the garage/psych-rock quartet from Winona have definitely improved since last year's fest. Their set was a mix of Weezer-esque pop numbers and more edgy, Clash-like songs, with the dual guitarists/vocalists bringing their own distinct flair to their vibrant material, which went over well with the crowd there to support the veteran local act.
Duluth's Retribution Gospel Choir were one of the biggest personal draws of the festival, so it was surprising to find the attendance at Jefferson's a bit sparse. But the club filled in nicely as soon as the band launched into a blistering take on "Your Bird," with Alan Sparhawk tearing into one fiery guitar riff after another straight from the start. "We bring you warm greetings from Duluth," Sparhawk said quietly between songs, the only thing he'd say to us during the performance, and in fact, the only quiet moment of the entire incendiary set.
Sparhawk, bassist Steve Garrington, and drummer Eric Pollard all wore matching military jackets, as if they were prepared for a musical skirmish, and indeed their performance took on an aggressive edge, with the group adding a doomy, Sabbath/Zeppelin-like squall of sound to the expansive outro to "Breaker," led by Sparhawk's spirited guitar work. A hypnotic, tempestuous take on "Seven" followed, with the band losing themselves in the track's slow-burning rhythms and riffs. After that volatile and exploratory free form half-hour, the set ending "Take Your Time" almost seemed tame by comparison. Almost, but Alan wouldn't allow it, as he spasmodically shook during his raucous guitar riffs, bringing an untamed edge to the song and the end of their stunning set, which certainly earned them plenty of new fans for life in Winona.
After a brief set change, Astronautalis took to the stage, ready to win over a Winona audience for the very first time. "That's a really shitty looking Spring Break out there," he teased at the start, but he and his dynamic two-piece backing band, featuring Oscar Romero on guitar and Mo Bluntz on drums, certainly heated things up at Jefferson's during their rousing 90-minute set. It began with a rousing version of "This Is Our Science," and the performance never really slowed down, with Astronautalis connecting with a bunch of new fans, which is certainly one of the pleasures of MWMF -- seeing an artist you've seen perform many times in the Twin Cities come down to an unfamiliar venue filled with a curious but unsuspecting audience and decidedly winning them over. It's a joy to witness and participate in, as I'm sure it is for the bands themselves.
"Most of the songs I sing about are either half-true or partially fiction, but every single word in this song is true," Astronautalis said passionately, before an intense take on "Measure the Globe," which featured impassioned lyrics delivered while he was climbing atop the monitors on stage to get closer to the crowd. Astronautalis revealed that as of June 1 he will have lived in Minnesota for two years, and that he had never heard of Winona until they asked him to play here. He also told us that he and the band were leaving for a European tour the next day, and they surely used this set to get their performance road-ready and tight, and it showed. It was fiery, focused, and a whole lot of fun.
Later, he jumped in the crowd during a spirited version of "Dimitri Mendeleev," joking how "It's all cool when you stage dive, but then you have to come back up on stage using the ramp like a fucking politician." Ferocious takes on classic tracks "The Wondersmith and His Sons" and "The Case of William Smith" soon followed, as the set was well and truly on fire at this point. Andy then launched into his traditional freestyle rap, which was done over a banging P.O.S. beat, and featured a lengthy diatribe about how he dislikes the work of Baz Luhrmann, and how we should all just read the books and skip his movies. There was also some slick verses about sea otters (per Andrea Swensson's request) and Fitzgerald's "Tales of the Jazz Age."
Before the last song of the main set, Astronautalis thanked the crowd and everyone who put on MWMF. "I did not know that this town of Winona existed before this show, and it's so sweet that the whole town is taking part in putting this on. Fuck New York and London, this is the place to be tonight." And with that, Andy and the band tore into a vehement take on "Secrets On Our Lips," which kept the crowd cheering wildly until they came back for an encore. "Midday Moon" launched the encore explosively, before Andy jumped in the crowd again during "Trouble Hunters," instructing us all to crouch down with him, "We call this getting low down in Florida," before the band kicked the beat back in and everyone was jumping right along with Astronautalis as the show joyously came to an end. Andy and company brought Day One of MWMF triumphantly to a close, making it more than worth it to everyone who braved the nasty weather and dangerous roads in order to get down to Winona.