by CHRIS ROGERS
As best as he can remember, Adam Levy and his band, The Honeydogs, haven’t played in Winona since Bill Clinton was president. The veteran musician picks guitar strings in myriad projects, from retro dance music to Brazilian Tropicália to “orchestral pop rock.” The Honeydogs is his mainstay. “It’s like a T-shirt that you’ve had for years that always feels good when you put it on,” he said.
At the eighth annual Mid West Music Fest (MWMF) April 28-29, The Honeydogs will be one of 10 headliners over two nights and five stages in downtown Winona. Nearly 70 other acts will flock to the island city, including rising national acts like Detroit’s Flint Eastwood, a bevy of hometown musicians, and longtime favorites like Charlie Parr, Porcupine, and Jillian Rae.
Jax Anderson (Flint Eastwood’s real name) will swing through Winona on her way to Washington state’s Sasquatch Music Festival — where she’ll help open for Frank Ocean — Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, and her first European show, a festival in France. “This year has been a crazy year,” Anderson said. “I’ve existed in the Midwest for a long time … It’s really nice to be able to go to the coasts and show people what we’re all about.”
What Flint Eastwood is all about is dance rock, with thrashing red hair and a fierce stage presence. “She’s just a live wire,” MWMF Festival Director Parker Forsell said. Anderson explained, “I always want to encourage people to exist in a space that’s outside their comfort zone at live shows.” She will perform tracks off a new EP, “Broke Royalty,” which comes out this Friday.
Both Eastwood and Levy place lyrics about heartbreak and grief amid upbeat music. Levy will play a solo set on Friday, April 28, featuring songs off his debut solo album, “Naubinway,” which focuses on his son’s suicide in 2012. Songs like “Atoms Never Die” combine hand-clapping acoustic grooves with melodic wanderings. On the title track, he recalls sprinkling his son’s ashes into Lake Michigan. “It’s just touched every corner of my existence. Every record that I make somehow has him involved in it,” Levy said. He will perform in a city that is no stranger to youth suicide.
“I’ve learned a lot as a result of going through what I went through,” Levy stated. “The human brain is mysterious and will remain mysterious for a long long time. My son’s decision to kill himself was not entirely his own decision. Essentially it was the equivalent of someone hijacking his brain … The decision he felt he had to make was based on a really twisted reality that he didn’t have any control over.” He added, “My advice to people who suffer from this or have people who they’re worried about is to never hide. It’s really important that when we suspect something is wrong with somebody and we’re worried about them that we point them to help and not pretend that things are going to magically go away because they don’t.”
Asked about how his grief changed or stayed the same over the years, Levy said, “It certainly changes. There is the whole shock of the first six months where it just doesn’t feel real and then you just sort of adapt.” Still, he continued, “I can be caught off guard by grief. Once a week I can go into a real sad headspace.” Sometimes, seeing boys or young men who remind him of his son brings it on. “The sound of a skateboard hitting the pavement is a real intense memory of my son,” he said.
‘Picking your jaw off the floor’
He is not the only musician playing multiple sets, but Winona native Jake Ilika might be the busiest performer at this year’s festival. He will play solo shows in Winona and La Crosse, and headline a pre-festival concert on Thursday, April 27, with Mike Munson and their new band, Land At Last. Then Ilika will open for The Honeydog with his Winona bandmates, Jim Trouten, Zac Barbieur, and Jamie Groth, as The Heavy Set, and finally join longtime musical partner Joel Ward for a show as Ilika Ward and the Moonlight Riders at the Masonic Temple on Saturday. MWMF organizers Dave Casey and Sam Zierden called The Heavy Set “hometown heroes.” Zierden added, “I'll always be at their shows.”
The Southern rockers Blackfoot Gypsies and the Minneapolis indie band Night Moves topped several organizers’ must-see lists. “Hard rockin’, Nashville-based Blackfoot Gypsies will be a sleeper hit of 2017, the show people will be talking about for weeks after the festival,” Casey forecasted. “They kind of remind me of a young Rolling Stones kind of band,” Forsell added of Blackfoot Gypsies. MWMF Booking Manager Nick Elstad described Night Moves this way: “Like hearing the howl of Neil Young from outer space, this group blends the sincerity of Americana with the cosmic sounds of indie psych rock and delivers a performance that will have you picking your jaw off the floor — if you can stop dancing.”
Elstad’s own band, Sleeping Jesus, will be playing, too. Minneapolis’ First Avenue called the Winona group out as one of the best new bands of 2016.
There are plenty of funky bands coming, too, including headliners Alex Rossi and Frog Leg. “Can't wait to let loose,” MWMF Music Committee member Noah Short said of Rossi. The New Sound Underground and the McNasty Brass Band will show off horn sections. At the tent stage — at Second and Center streets this year — the jam band Big Wu will headline on Friday night, and the People Brother’s Band will cap off a night of outdoor shows on Saturday — possibly with the help of some special guests.
There will be free shows at the tent stage from noon to four on Saturday, April 28, including a variety show of local student-musicians, a performance by local puppeteer Dr. Bob and musician Eddie Danger, a set from the Winona band Beet Root Stew, and MWMF founder Sam Brown’s new project: Listen Here, Kids.
The Outpost art gallery, 119 East Third Street, will host a variety of events that are not all music, including a documentary on the Big Wu and readings from music writers Jim Walsh and Danny Sigelman followed by a DJ-off between the two authors.
La Crosse offshoot grows
MWMF expanded to La Crosse last year, launching a one-night teaser festival in Wisconsin before the main festival in Winona. This year, the La Crosse branch is bigger, with two nights of music on April 14-15 and more artists.
More information, including a full lineup and schedule is available online at www.midwestmusicfest.org. Not including fees, single-day tickets cost $25, two-day passes are $45, and four-day passes to both Winona and La Crosse are priced at $80.