Winter Wheat brings summer feel
While Michigan music festivals have certainly been on the rise in recent years, organizers would be hard-pressed to draw an audience during the cold winter months. Perhaps that is why for the past five years the Wheatland Music Organization has experienced success through Winter Wheat — a 12-hour celebration of traditional American music hosted at The Intersection.
Held Jan. 11, this year’s Winter Wheat featured more than a dozen performances on two main stages. The event showcased music genres such as bluegrass, crabgrass and Celtic, including appearances by well-known Michigan artists such as Red Tail Ring, K. Jones & The Benzie Playboys, and Black Jake & The Carnies.
From folk dancing to discovering new bands and appreciating old favorites, the festival served as a welcome reminder to attendees of the summer that is yet to come.
Early on in the festival, young ‘rootsgrass’ band Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys captured the audience’s attention with their clean-cut vocals and taut harmonies. While stylistically the group resembled bluegrass, it did not strictly adhere to that genre, as it periodically blended hints of jazz into its set. Lindsay Lou, as the vocalist of the group, told well-crafted tales through her verses, often complimenting them with catchy choruses.
In addition to the music was dancing, such as the traditional squares and contras during contemporary folk band FiddleFire’s performance. During its set, professional callers Glen Morningstar and Laurie Pietravalle directed the dancing, which drew about 75 people to the main floor. The dancing, much like FiddleFire’s music, opened at a moderate pace, but gradually escalated to an energetic frenzy.
“Contra dancing is a great type of social dance,” said Eve Panning, member of FiddleFire. “I love it because I’m not the type that can improvise while dancing, and the dances from contra dancing are a prescribed set of moves. Within those moves, however, you can definitely get creative.”
Panning said that by using two stages and by having acts perform simultaneously, the organizers were successful at emulating a conventional festival. The venue also imported a padded dance floor, allowing for another music festival tradition — barefoot dancing. Even the stage lighting seemed to simulate the feel of a summertime festival — blue and yellow for blue skies and sunshine, which helped visitors forget the brisk reality that awaited them outdoors.
Event planner Bruce Ling said the urban location allows people who would not typically attend music festivals to be exposed to traditional music and dance. Through this exposure, Ling hopes to spark visitors’ interests, ultimately drawing them to other gatherings similar to Wheatland.
While Grand Rapids may not be a typical location for such an event, the area most definitely cultivates the talent featured at Michigan festivals.
“The Blue Water Ramblers, An Dro, Blue Molly — they’re all from Grand Rapids,” Ling said. “In fact, there are no bands from out of state. What we showcase is Michigan regional bands.”
Ling said the first Winter Wheat was held at Founder’s Brewing Company in 2010, but the following year migrated to The Intersection, which is capable of housing a larger audience.
“(The) Intersection has been really gracious with Wheatland Music Organization in terms of allowing us to have the place for next to nothing,” Ling said. “They make no money off of this event.”
As the remaining amount of performance time grew smaller, the audience had only grown larger, not to mention louder. By the early morning hours, it seemed as if both the performers and those listening could carry on well through the weekend.
While speaking to those in attendance, Lindsay Lou seemed to capture this feeling perfectly. “Winter Wheat is one of those magical places,” Lou said. “Where once you get there, you never want to leave.”