Exploring Ypsi: From Mittenfest to marionettes, Ann Arbor's neighbor provides an alternative arts haven

By Joe Dimuzio, Daily Arts Writer
Published January 23, 2012

It’s 11 p.m., and just about 200 people have shed their coats under paper snowflakes. Outside, breath and cigarette smoke have become indistinguishable. But inside Woodruff’s, located in the heart of Ypsilanti’s historic Depot Town, there’s warmth, and it’s more than just body heat.

On a humble stage surrounded by glittering decorations and beer, Great Lakes Myth Society finishes up its set, thanking another group for its generosity.

“Thanks for lending me an amp,” lead singer Tim Monger said. “We want to offer Frontier Ruckus a vibra-slap.” The audience cheers, knowing the offer is real.

Mittenfest

It’s the last day of Ypsilanti's Mittenfest and the first day of the new year in Ypsilanti. The five-day music festival, now in its sixth year, is one of many reasons why Ypsilanti is becoming a musical and cultural bellwether of the American Midwest. With a quiet explosion of new music, local business and enterprise, the city is expanding without losing the intimate connections of a physically small, socially diverse community.

For Brandon Zwagerman, founder of Mittenfest, the festival is a communal yet personal celebration of the city. In front of a line of vintage arcade cabinets, he intoned over the crowd, “I don’t know what it is about Mittenfest, but there’s a real love in the air. It’s a great way to start the year, it’s sort of a reunion.”

Zwagerman, a University alum with a Masters in Urban Planning, lives in New York but returns every year to help organize what began as a tiny show at the local Corner Brewery. The event was created as a fundraiser for the non-profit 826michigan, a group that tutors students in writing in Southeast Michigan and in Ypsilanti’s public schools. Bigger than ever in its sixth incarnation, Mittenfest has become one of the city's defining musical events. With sponsors such as the Detroit Red Wings and a smattering of local restaurants and businesses, it hosts 60 acts over five days in cozy Woodruff’s, a bar and concert venue opened at 2010’s tail end that’s become the go-to place to see local groups and DJs.

Jeremy Peters, who organizes the event with Zwagerman, works with the label Ghostly International and co-founded Quite Scientific Records, a label that’s put out records by local heavyweights such as Lightning Love, Chris Bathgate and Frontier Ruckus. He sees the festival as a representation of not only Ypsilanti, but also the Great Lakes at large.

“It’s this whole sort of scene that’s going on throughout the state and I think it’s awesome,” Peters said. “I firmly believe you can say it’s a scene on the level of some of these other classic rock scenes, trying to birth some of the great music that’s coming out of here. I don’t think we’re clawing at anything more — it’s here. It might be a little bit of hyperbole, but I honestly believe it’s true.”

Café Ollie

Just down the sidewalk from Woodruff’s is Café Ollie, one of the only places you can find all of Ypsilanti’s music for sale under one roof. You can also grab a sandwich, any one of a slew of exclusively sold local beers, and the best sweets and snacks from around the state in Ollie’s newly opened MI General Store.

For Café Ollie owner Mark Teachout, it’s a handy compromise.

“My dream was to always have a record shop. If there was money in it, I would have done that,” he said.

Along with a full food and drink menu, the café features a local music shelf with local CDs, LPs and cassettes — an idea originally proposed by Amber Fellows, one of the members of the band Swimsuit, a local super-group of sorts. The café hosts performers, and beginning in February, will implement a weekly showcase of songwriters, artists and filmmakers, called Ypsi Facto. Teachout is also looking forward to selling more records with some contributions from the warehouses of Plymouth’s record store Cousins Vinyl starting in early March.

The café, open for over a year now, has been successful. As Teachout bags glass bottles of Faygo, cider and caramels for a string of customers, he chuckles.

“You know, I haven’t been to Ann Arbor in months, except for maybe a few visits with friends,” he said. “When you live in Ypsilanti, you eventually just sort of forget it’s even there.”

Like Ollie, a number of exceptional restaurants and bars are giving Ypsilanti’s day- and night-life some color. This growth of establishments is getting attention for breakfast spots like Beezy’s, coffee shops like the Ugly Mug and, pubs such as the Tap Room and the Corner Brewery, where I met with one of Ypsilanti’s most influential and consistently name-dropped figures.

Self-made in Ypsi

Mark Maynard, the Ypsilanti entrepreneur, came up often in conversations with musicians and business owners. Maynard writes a popular blog highlighting local events and dissecting the state’s political inanities, attracting anywhere from 600 to 1,000 visitors a day. Aside from that, he’s helped organize events like the Shadow Art Fair — an “experiential” alternative to Ann Arbor’s Art Fair — in addition to a puppet talk-show at the local Dreamland Theater and a failed bike-powered movie festival (of which Mark claims “the bikes were just too damn loud”). He’s also a University of Michigan grad, one of the creators of the acclaimed Michigan zine “Crimewave USA” and a former member of a short-lived noise band called Prehensile Monkey-tailed Skink — he recalls being unable to find a booking in Ann Arbor for the band.

Drinking from a mug of Red Snapper with his first name scrawled on the bottom, he mentioned a new project.

“I met with this guy who wants to start a horror film festival in Ypsi,” he said. “He was asking for advice on how to do that, trying to get it off the ground. There’s a lot of people like that, and you know, part of it is there’s not a lot of infrastructure in Ypsi, so when you come here with a good idea, you can just do it.”

He added: “There’s not a lot holding you back … I think it’s maybe the future of the United States in a way? Like people just making things work because there’s not really an infrastructure, just making their own things happen.”

Dreamland Theater

Just under a mile away, Mark’s likeness hangs by strings in the dim, vibrant walls of the Dreamland Theater. Crafted by puppet master and theater owner Naia Venturi, the marionette was used in a live talk show with the help of Chris Sandon, a local artist and founder of Dirty Bros. Quality Productions, a collective of musicians, filmmakers and visual artists.

During a Saturday-evening visit to Dreamland, the theater showed a short feature film recorded entirely with marionettes, accompanied by a live-action short and a puppet show about a robotic baby Jesus. Marionettes built with twisted features and mixed media covered the walls. One of the performers shot a water gun into the audience as he gave birth to a tiny, puppet Judas, and then a cell phone rang loudly.

“I’m at the show. Yeah. THE PUPPET SHOW. I’M AT THE PUPPET SHOW!” a man nearly shouts over the performance before sitting back down.

After the film, which featured warped representations of Martha Stewart’s prison experience, a horrifyingly life-like Sarah Palin marionette and a gooey soundtrack of Elvis and Bee Gees covers by Ypsilanti’s Charlie Slick, Sandon, smiling, addressed the cell phone disturbance.

“I see it as a fun thing. You get used to strange people doing strange things,” he said. “It adds to the fun of the whole show. I like when people taunt or do weird things.”

The theater, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, hosts its share of unconventional performances, films and musical acts. It’s a compact space that Sandon sees as another one of Ypsilanti’s creative assets.

“Here, you can have a weird idea and be able to do it,” he said. “That’s all you can ask of a space. To have the freedom to do what you want to do. I get a weird idea or some inspiration and I know that this is a place that I can test it out.”

There and back again

For a prolific musician like Ypsilanti-born Fred Thomas, it’s that same sort of freedom that’s guided more than 20 years of musical output. With a crib sheet too intimidating to abridge, Thomas’ music defies easy categorization. Part of the trouble comes from the fact that he seems to have collaborated with just about everyone in Southeast Michigan.

Known especially for his stint with the band Saturday Looks Good To Me, and more recently, Swimsuit, Thomas has toured the country, lived in Portland and New York, and founded a now-defunct label called Ypsilanti Records. These days, he works as an editor for Allmusic.com, while living in Ypsilanti, where he puts out cassettes for a new record label called Lifelike, and continues to write and record music.

“Nobody is the audience,” he said. “Everyone who I know is a performer or a DJ or a show promoter … nobody’s just someone who’s hanging out. The community’s just so dense with creative people that there’s always some new things happening.”

Speaking with what sounds like a nasty cold, Thomas ended our phone call with a hint at this creative saturation. “I’m just about to have a jam with my friends Amber and Shelley, not sure what it’s going to sound like, what we’re gonna do … it could be anything,” he said.

Just another day

Like Thomas, music is all Shelley Sallant seems to do. She met Thomas through mutual friends and through Encore Records (where she works now), before interning with Ypsilanti Records during Thomas’ stint in Portland, setting up mail orders.

When she’s not working shifts at the Ann Arbor record store, she’s organizing, promoting and attending shows in both cities and running her own label, Ginkgo Records, which has just put out its first 7-inch single, “The Path Home,” for the group Bad Indians. She compiles a list of local shows every month and you can hear her incredibly Midwestern accent hosting the Local Music Show on WCBN, 88.3FM.

On Sallant's show last week, an excited guest, Alexis Ford, gave detailed instructions to potential visitors for an upcoming show at her Ypsilanti home. Sallant said it’s a pretty typical thing in the community.

“There’s more house shows in Ypsi than Ann Arbor,” she said. “And it’s hard to get in the crowd without the concert listings … if you don’t know everybody, you’re not gonna hear about it. So I try to be a community resource for people that are interested in the shows.”

There are houses like the Pleasuredome, where Ypsi’s reputation for some of America’s best ear-stabbing, soul-soothing noise music thrives. Shows in living rooms, basements and cafes are all part of what makes Ypsilanti, to Sallant, a pretty exceptional music scene.

“There was this Talking Heads cover band that played on the roof of Déjà Vu, the strip club, just across the street from Dreamland,” she said. “The only way to get up there was two ladders. They had to get the gear up there just on the two ladders, but the drummer was afraid of heights. So he was playing on the ground, and the rest of the band was playing two floors up.”

She added, “It looked like it was maybe going to rain. They played anyway.”