Music on the Road

From Brethren’s folksy Spirit of the Woods gathering to Frankenmuth’s annual ode to the polka, Michigan music lovers will have plenty to whistle about this summer. A freighter load of festivals will appease music novices and aficionados alike and spur the adventurous to explore the entire state by ear. Jambands, classical quintets, Elvis wannabes and banjo-driven bluegrass are all on the Lower Peninsula’s marquee.

It's time to get on the road in search of music that will keep you smiling, clapping and stomping your feet from now until mid-August. Here’s a small sampling of music fests taking place over the next 12 weeks:

Colors of Salsa, June 2
Old Town, Lansing

Motionless bystanders be warned. Merengue, salsa and cumbia will dish out contagious beats at the first-ever Colors of Salsa music festival. Granted, the first year of anything is bound to have glitches, but this new Latin-inspired festival should be worth the risk. Featured bands, each with seven to 12 musicians, will be hauling in trumpets, bongos, timbales, keyboards and congas to the state’s capital. Cuban mambos, Dominican Republic meringues, and plenty of Puerto Rican salsa will be showcased by Detroit’s top three Latin orchestras.

Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, June 9-23
Various Southeastern Michigan locations

While chamber music is no longer performed in the privacy of a bedroom or palace chamber, listeners can still enjoy crescendos and staccatos in intimate settings. Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival provides audiences with an ample degree of intimacy (minus the pajamas), in a range of cultural and religious venues from Grosse Pointe to Bloomfield Hills to Ann Arbor. The beauty of this festival: it doesn’t take place on a lone weekend or under one awning, but, rather, serves up 18 concerts over a two-week span. This year’s event highlights the music of Beethoven and Leon Kirchner; concerts present the best of both seasoned musicians and emerging ensembles. Rumor has it that Kirchner, celebrating his 88th birthday this year, will make an appearance.
Spirit of the Woods Folk Festival, June 16
Dickson Township Park, Brethren

Admirers of bluegrass and old-time string bands – and those nostalgic for a time when folks picked banjos on their front porch – just might find a bit of comfort and bliss at Spirit of the Woods Folk Festival. This grass roots gathering started 30 years ago when a group of folk music lovers, inspired by barn dances and potlucks, staged the scene; since then, it grew and grew some more, but eventually shrunk back to its cool, cozy roots. Patrons should bring a blanket and a cooler (that’s right, no $5 sodas here, and you don’t have to smuggle in food and beverages). The crowd is laid back, but the fiddles still hop and the mandolins sure fly.

Michigan Elvisfest July 13-14
Depot Town, Ypsilanti

By day, they’re your average Joe, or, actually, Steven, Leo, Matt and Chris as the case may be. But by night, they all go by Elvis. At the Michigan Elvisfest, nine top-dog impersonators grace the stage for a weekend of musical homage. They roll into town “Elvis style” on Friday in limos, white convertibles, and other VIP modes of transport, complete with a police escort to the doors of the local Holiday Inn. Impersonators cover the gamut of the King’s performing career, from the early Sun Studio recording days to the bloated and bell-bottomed later years. There are even little people performing, including a twelve-year-old boy from Chicago, a nine-year-old girl from Georgia and a 46-inch high man from Missouri. Oddly, some fans can’t quite separate the real from the surreal, and it’s not uncommon to see folks weep, scream and throw red roses.

Evart Dulcimer Festival, July 19-22
Osceola County Fairgrounds, Evart

While your average Michigander might not know where Evart is, anyone associated with hammered dulcimers does. Each year, this tiny mid-Michigan town hosts the largest gathering in the world for hammered dulcimer players. The dulcimer wriggled its way into American folk music some time back, but historians wager that the string instrument originated about 2000 years ago. Today, it’s more popular in Michigan than any other state. Evart Dulcimer Festival attracts the learner and player of the hammered dulcimer and the lover of all types of acoustic instruments. Three days of stage shows; 200 workshops on everything from the hammered dulcimer to the penny whistle, hurdy-gurdy and fiddle; and tons of informal jamming make this quite the hoopla for bluegrass and folk music junkies.

Sleeping Bear Dunegrass & Blues Festival, August 2-5

The aesthetics are grand, but at this Midwest version of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, patrons have the added fortuity of high-octane, homespun tunes; healthy food; and hanging loose with kindred musical spirits in a small up-north village. Shaded by an “old hippy” feel, this long-running event showcases musical genres that erupted from American soil, with a dash of world beat thrown in for good measure. Each year, Dunegrass attracts a more stellar lineup – acts top in their genre, but by no means mainstream. Visitors hear bluegrass, jamband, folk, rock, reggae, jazz or blues floating from amplifiers on two stages – themselves staged between Lake Michigan and the forested hills of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore. Rhythms are infectious, but festival goers will find a dip in the big mishigami or forty winks under an old oak mighty appealing too.

Frankenmuth Summer Music Fest, August 10-18

Sure, festival bureaucrats renamed the Frankenmuth Polka Festival a while back, but it’s still all about polka. With names like Big Daddy Lackowski, Frank Moravcik, and Lenny Gomulka & Chicago Push on the bill, there’s no doubt that the Frankenmuth Summer Music Fest holds title as the nation’s number one polka festival. Sure, a Brenda Lee concert and a contemporary Christian music showcase might be included on the nine-day polka docket, but this summer festival is truly about celebrating Slovenian, Bavarian and Polish folk music, ripe and rampant with accordions, trumpets, concertinas and tubas – and a 10,000 square foot dance floor to boot.

Melinda Clynes is a Detroit-area freelancer. This is the first in a seres of her travel pieces for Model D.

Photographs from top to bottom:

Polka band at Frankenmuth Summer Music Fest (photo by Tom Muzarski)

Evart Dulcimer Festival (photo by Sharon Skaryd)

Michigan Elvisfest (photo by Chris Solano)

Crowd at Frankenmuth Summer Music Fest (photo by Tom Muzarski)

Read more articles by Melinda Clynes.

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Model D. She is the statewide project editor of Michigan Kids, a series of stories that highlight what’s working to improve outcomes for Michigan children. View her online portfolio here.
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