Special times at the the U.P.'s Keweenawesomefest

BY KAVI PANDEY
Daily Arts Writer
Published April 15, 2009

Growing up in the Upper Peninsula was an undeniably incredible experience, but for all its picturesque beauty and wonderful people, the U.P. wasn’t exactly the best environment for someone with my cultural interests: I was absorbed by the harsh melodies of Bright Eyes and the idiosyncratic films of Charlie Kaufman. Luckily, my hometown wasn’t a complete cultural wasteland. I lived in Houghton, home of Michigan Tech, so there were plenty of chamber orchestras and musical troupes, but my indie-rock cravings were left unsatisfied. And I wasn’t ready to drive the six hours to see Tegan and Sara in Milwaukee.

By my senior year in high school, I was complacent, trudging through the year and looking forward to jumping into the musical utopia that is Ann Arbor. But around January, my friend started raving about this event called “Keweenawesomefest.” The title itself was intriguing, a clever portmanteau combining “Keweenaw,” the name of the peninsula-on-a–peninsula where Houghton is found, and "awesome." He had attended the inaugural two-day festival the year before, gushing about its selection of great independent music. I was out of town that weekend, so I had not joined him. Also, I was admittedly skeptical about the quality of bands that would come to the cold, isolated town of Houghton.

By the time it began, I was optimistic enough to be reservedly excited about the second annual Keweenawesomefest. The show started off on a chilly March evening with a few decent bands, just as expected. Later, out of nowhere, a bearded man with a guitar took the stage and began soulfully scatting, transfixing the entire audience within seconds. For the next 40-some minutes the audience sat in entranced silence as the musician, Michael Waite, played through his set of jaunty folk songs and Bob Dylan covers. I had never seen anything like it, and from that moment on, I knew that this festival was going to be sensational. Over the next two nights, we denizens of the U.P. were treated to an unbelievable variety of midwestern music including Detroit's DJ Deastro, the two-drummer metal band Sah, bluegrass group Frontier Ruckus (complete with a singing saw) and Ann Arbor’s own guitar maestro Chris Bathgate.

Even though I’m now in Ann Arbor, I couldn’t wait to go back to Houghton last weekend for the third Keweenawesomefest. Sure, it was a 10-hour drive and I had tons of assignments due, but last year was too perfect.

Besides my special connection to the event, it’s unlike any festival in the Midwest. With a single stage and thus one act performing at a time, the concert enables an intimate, personal experience. Also, apart from a few pot-smoking attendees, the audience is graciously respectful. There’s no annoying, idle chatter while artists are performing. Lollapalooza was fun, but I couldn’t stand the noisy crowds that only sang along to half of the refrain of Radiohead's “Fake Plastic Trees.” I actively avoid listening to music from the lineup before the festival. It’s always a nice surprise to see what genre will show up on stage next.

This year featured yet another exceptional assortment of musical groups. Notable performers included frenzied one-man techno-rock band This Show is the Rainbow, the Arcade Fire-esque Light Pollution, synth-rock group One for the Team and Ann Arbor mainstay Drunken Barn Dance. In the course of a year, the lineup has become more concise and enjoyable, and the festival will only improve with age. There’s a reason my friends, now at colleges across the Midwest, all returned home this year for the show. Keweenawesomefest is strangely magical.