Seth Bernard attended his first folk festival at four years old, which explains his why he's a leading figure of the booming Michigan roots music scene. Coming from a musical family, Bernard spent a large part of his youth soaking up the spirit of traditional arts.
"The music and the community we have now was very much inspired by the collaborative and cooperative principles that those festivals were founded on," he said.
Artists like Bernard, May Erlewine, Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys, The Fauxgrass Quartet and Greensky Bluegrass are among the popular acts in West Michigan's live music scene, and their success stems in part from the way both established and emerging Michigan folk festivals work to preserve of roots music community culture.
Folk festivals are typically smaller in size and feature primarily acoustic instruments, creating an intimate atmosphere. Wheatland, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this fall, began humbly in the early '70s as a way for music enthusiasts to connect and raise money for the Mount Pleasant Food Co-Op. The inaugural Wheatland, held in 1974, was orchestrated by a group of less than a dozen people and drew a crowd of 700 that watched as musicians performed on flatbed trailers. Now, the festival draws more than 10,000 attendees to a much larger festival site.
"We don't spend a lot of time making sure everybody's doing what they're supposed to do," said Marilyn Hummel, secretary of Wheatland Music Organization's Board of Directors since 1976. "It just happens because we believe so strongly in the benefit of what we do."
Blissfest, the state's other premier roots music festival, has a strikingly similar backstory. Beginning in 1981, it was a simple gathering of folk musicians and traditional arts enthusiasts. It soon grew to a multi-stage weekend event that mirrors Wheatland's dedication to community, variety and quality. Over the years, both festivals have expanded their lineups to include a more diverse array of folk music from around the world.
"We go from blues to Cajun to folk to everything," Hummel said. "If [people] don't like a particular kind of music, they can always go to a different stage and find something they do like."
For older festivals, the key to sustainability lies in communal organization and dedication to preserving the legacy of traditional arts. They rely heavily on volunteers, as well as lean on and support local farmers, businesses, artists, arts instructors and community organizations to bring more to the festival experience than just music.
In addition to the 'big two,' the state is a veritable gold mine of folk festivals. Some, like Hoxeyville Music Festival near Cadillac and the Nor'East'r Music and Art Festival in Oscoda County, are relatively new on the scene, but are building on the model of community set forth by their predecessors, showing growth every year. Other festivals, like Farmfest in Johannesberg and Spirit of the Woods Folk Fest in Brethern, have been around for a while, but chose to remain smaller.
The days of having to drive ridiculous distances to camp, party and hear your favorite music are largely over. Now there appears to be a killer music festival somewhere in the country every weekend in the summer. One genre that has experienced the most significant growth amongst the festival circuit is electronic music.
Right in West Michigan's backyard is the acclaimed Electric Forest Music Festival. Originally started as the Rothbury Festival in 2008 and having a second year in 2009, the event and campground (the Double JJ Ranch, north of Muskegon) went into bankruptcy, forcing the festival to take 2010 off. Thus, Electric Forest rose from the ashes like a mighty phoenix (not the French electropop band).
In 2011 the festival came back to the Double JJ with a split emphasis on jam bands and electronic. In the last two years DJs and producers such as Skrillex, Bassnectar and Girl Talk have all played sets.
For 2013 it appears that Electric Forest is taking the electro scene to a new level. Beyond headliners that include acts like Pretty Lights, Grimes and Benny Bennassi - all major names in electro music - the festival is also bringing back its curated stages.
Fool's Gold Records, the Brooklyn indie label home to artists like Danny Brown, A-Trak and Party Supplies brings its signature Clubhouse stage to the Forest.
"Fool's Gold will always be a DJ-centric label," said Nick Catchdubs, a noted DJ/producer and co-founder of the label. "Even when we're releasing a weird Japanese girl garage band there's a funkiness to it and a soulfulness to it ... We put out hip hop music and we put out dance music and kind of everything in between. I think that musically, this sort of DJ perspective unites all these things."
One thing that appears to set Fool's Gold apart in a still beleaguered music industry is that it has diversified itself to be more than just a record label. Fool's Gold has made itself more of a go-to brand for the alt-hipster lifestyle, having an extensive clothing line and throwing block parties around New York and Los Angeles.
"One of the unique things about having a record label in 2013 is that you can't just release music," Catchdubs said. "On a purely practical sense it's not just what makes the most money. (Fool's Gold) is something that stands for things that are cool and interesting, and come from the world of music, but aren't necessarily only based around music."
This appears to be the focus that is driving Fool's Gold's growth as it goes beyond the borders of hipster meccas like Brooklyn and West Hollywood, and pushes it's way into the forests of northwestern Michigan.
"It's just a passion to put out cool, creative content, whether it's music or merchandise or throwing big parties," said Ben Jacobs, general manager of Fool's Gold Records.
Jacobs and Catchdubs are both proud of the fact that the majority of the Fool's Gold family will be at their Clubhouse stage for Electric Forest. Catchdubs himself will be there, along with A-Trak, Danny Brown, Ryan Hemsworth, Just Blaze, Tommy Trash, and a list that goes on.
Joining Fool's Gold in curating a stage this June is Movement, the world-renowned electronic festival held each Memorial Day weekend at Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit (often considered the birthplace of techno music). Movement's production team hopes to bring artists from many spectrums of electronic music to create their own unique party.
Dana Boyette, special projects manager with Paxahau (the organizers of Movement) hopes that having a stage at Electric Forest will lend some credibility to the music for new listeners.
"(Movement's stage) will showcase some historical aspects of the genre we are a part," Boyette said. "(Last year) we brought some Detroit flavor to the Wagon Wheel (one of Electric Forest's stages).
If you're unable to make the trip to Electric Forest or pay for the four-day camping festival, there is a pretty solid option in the middle of downtown Grand Rapids. On July 19 and 20, City Lights Music Festival will hold its annual electronic music event at Calder Plaza. What started as a one-night, free event has evolved into a large-scale, multi-day festival.
"The free nights saw great response and we switched to two nights (in 2012)," said Tim Sinen, public relations director with City Lights.
Sinen told REVUE that this year's event will feature increased collaboration with the city, as well as with Kendall College of Art and Design in an effort to make art more of a focus. The festival also features some familiar names like Superdre, DJ Kenneth Thomas and Detroit Techno Militia. Sinen said he is particularly excited for acts StarKillers and Kill Paris.
"It's just going to be an awesome time ... without the price of a huge festival," Sinen said.
Festival of the Arts
Downtown Grand Rapids
This month marks the 44th year of Festival of the Arts, or simply "Festival," making it one of the longest running festivals in Michigan. The three-day event celebrates the area's long history of supporting art and artists, and serves as an unofficial start to summer kicked off with food, music and culture.
It began as a fundraiser for the city's arts organizations in 1970 by the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids, an organization founded as a support resource in 1967.
Much like the groups it helped to support, Festival grew over the years and organizers decided to make it a non-profit organization in 2002.
In addition to assisting in the funding and promoting of area organizations, Festival also gives the community an opportunity to perform and engage the arts.
"We try and encourage everyone to not only support the arts but to join the arts," said Eileen Scwarz-Duty, longtime volunteer and festival publicity co-chair. "It's all about local first. Everyone who performs or exhibits has to be a resident of Kent County or the surrounding counties."
This year, the event boasts six stages with line-ups that are filled with performances from local groups, bands and organizations.
"It gives us the opportunity to extend the exhibition, and it also gives people a reason to check out the UICA."
The juried show, which is often fertile ground for artists to sell work or be seen by gallery representatives, will run from May 31 through Aug. 18 and will be free to the public during Festival weekend.
Other area artists will have work on display and be on-hand to talk about their creations. In addition to the opportunities to see work by local artists, everyone at Festival has plenty of chances to create their own.
A printmaking station allows Festival-goers the chance to create their own souvenirs using classic silk-screening techniques, and the Swing'n Art station is always a popular stop, giving people the chance to put art in motion.
Schwarz-Duty said one of the most important things about Festival is that it's truly an event for the community by the community.
"It's run completely by volunteers," she said. "We try and keep it as noncommercial as possible. Festival wouldn't be possible without volunteers and we have opportunities for all talents and time commitments."
Other Art Events
Spring: New Work by Ashley Lieber
Rowster Coffee, Grand Rapids
May 1 – July 15
Moss, soil, wood and water are a few of the elements Ashley Lieber uses to create indoor explorations of the natural world. Lieber, an ecological artist and educator, earned her MFA from the University of Michigan, and now transforms artistic inspiration into environmental masterpieces. Hosted by Rowster Coffee, "Spring" features site-specific installations inspired by Michigan's shortest season. Lieber's most recent series, "Moss for Meditation" debuted in Chicago to high praise, and this exhibition – curated by Kaitlyn Zylstra – follows suit.
Kalamazoo Institute of Arts Fair 2
June 7, 3-8 p.m; June 8, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
kiarts.org, (269) 349-7775
The official start of summer takes place this month, as well as the unofficial kickoff of the festival and art fair season. During the first full weekend of June, the city of Kalamazoo will host its 62nd annual celebration of art and entertainment in downtown's Bronson Park. The community tradition draws thousands of visitors into the area to check out the work from more than 180 artists, watch performers on two stages, and imbibe some of Michigan's finest brews in the Bell's Beer Garden.
Creativity Uncorked: Improv Chop Shop
Grand Rapids Art Museum
June 13, 7-9:30 p.m., doors open at 6:15 p.m.
$25 members, $30 non-members
21 or older only
artmuseumgr.org, (616) 831-2919
Experience your own 'night at the museum' inspired by The Improvisational Quilts of Susana Allen Hunter, the colorful exhibition of the late artist's work. After the doors of the museum close to public for the night, participants are invited to gather, have a glass of wine and explore the themes of design, inventiveness, form vs function and originality that Allen wove into each quilt. Upon arrival, you will receive a bag full of 'ingredients' to use to create your own iPad sleeve, apron or tote bag. No experience is necessary.
Dowagiac Dogwood Fine Arts Festival
Literary all-stars Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike and Margaret Atwood all have one thing in common besides being acclaimed novelists: they all hung out in the little town of Dowagiac, Mich.
How? Through the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival, which is in its 22nd year. This year, the festival hosts artists with similar accolades, such as folk musician Arlo Guthrie and award-winning author Nicole Krauss.
"When [the festival] first started, the community was going through a renaissance," said Max Sala, festival coordinator. "There was a refurbishment of the downtown business district and people wondered what else we could do."
The organizers decided to expand the use of the community theater and invite writers to give a presentation. Festival Founder Richard Frantz compiled a list of authors he believed to be at the top of their game in the literature world and decided to give them a call. That first year, they landed Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks.
"We thought, 'OK, if we can do it one year let's see who else we can get,'" Sala said.
In the following years, the festival brought Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike and Margaret Atwood to the community, among other literary giants.
"When people wonder how we get these big-name people, the answer is: we ask," Sala said. "We've never run into an author who said they wouldn't come. Now there's kind of an understanding among the authors. They tell each other, 'Hey, if someone from this little town calls, don't hang up the phone.'"
Nicole Krauss is one of those authors that didn't hang up. One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 to Watch, her work has appeared in Esquire and The New Yorker and her first novel, Man Walks Into a Room, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year.
Dogwood isn't just about literature, however. The festival aims to focus on all aspects of fine art. Coming back to the festival after five years is folk singer Arlo Guthrie, best known for his politically charged songs, agreed to return during the tribute tour for his father, Woody Guthrie.
The festivities also include an introduction to classical music for kids, the grand opening of the Dowagiac Area History Museum, a storytelling master class and "Caught in the Act," which gives visitors the opportunity to interact with artists in an open-air studio. Andy Offutt Irwin, equal parts storyteller, musician and humorist, will delight families with his performance and master class on May 14.
"It's probably the biggest event that the community offers and it brings people from outside the area," Sala said. "The community definitely becomes a destination for people during those 10 days."