Everyone loves food, music and free stuff. It’s a rare happening when a local event combines all three, even more so in an inviting, engaging and communal way. Sonic Lunch, a free concert series in downtown Ann Arbor, did just this over the past summer — and with tremendous results.

Held every Thursday afternoon from the first week in June to the second week of September in Liberty Plaza — the park at the corner of Liberty and Division — the event brought together an assorted mix of local music and cuisine. Performers played on a stage in the middle of the park while local restaurants set up shop in the square.

Musicians ranged from veteran performers to up-and-coming locals. The Sonic Lunch lineup this year included The Macpodz, The Ragbirds, Jill Jack, Tumbao Bravo, Laith al-Saadi, Shout Sister Shout and several others.

The concert series’s genesis began three years ago as the brainchild of local entrepreneurs and music aficionados Hal Davis and Michael Cole, who sought to make an informal music series with an emphasis on local culture. After gaining corporate sponsorship and recognition from Bank of Ann Arbor, the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce and local radio station 107one, the event known as Sonic Lunch was born.

“It’s like a Concert in the Park series — something you might see anywhere,” said Erin Zindle, lead singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist of The Ragbirds. “But in a town as culturally vibrant as Ann Arbor, it makes for something completely different.”

The Ragbirds, originally from Ann Arbor, play a blend of traditional and contemporary folk with a Celtic lean. They have strong ties to the local community — the record release for their newest album, Finally Almost Ready, is scheduled at the Blind Pig on Sept. 25.

“There’s a very wide spectrum of bands here, and you can really see it at an event like Sonic Lunch,” Zindle explained. The event paired The Ragbirds with acts like experimental rockers The Macpodz, which made for an eclectic mix of local music from all tastes and persuasions over the course of the summer.

The Ragbirds have been playing at the event since it began, and have seen the stylistic breadth of the performers, as well as their own audience, grow steadily each time.

“Sometimes as much as a couple hundred people will show up,” she continued. “People bring lawn chairs, and kids are always dancing around the park. Of course, I’m sure having free food helps, too.”

Local restaurants and food chains were involved with Sonic Lunch in a major way, offering giveaways, T-shirts and gift certificates each week. Passers-by were often just as enticed by the music, which was audible from blocks away, as they were by the food. Magnetic emcee and local DJ Martin Bandyke, was also part of the mix.

Bandyke is most commonly recognized as the morning DJ on Ann Arbor’s 107one and for his weekly eclectic music program Fine Tunings. It’s his wealth of music knowledge and genuine interest in the local scene, however, that make him endearing to so many. Sonic Lunch employed his charisma and deep roots in the local scene to introduce this year’s performances, adding further color to an event already ringing with local flair.

Bandyke also had a central role in choosing this summer’s lineup, a task few in the area are more qualified to do. His fostering of bands like The Ragbirds and The Macpodz from early on in their careers made them easy picks for the event, showing just how close-knit and supportive the Ann Arbor musical community can be.

Kari Fedewa, the marketing officer for the Bank of Ann Arbor and the event’s title sponsor, explained just how crucial Bandyke’s role was in creating a comfortable atmosphere for both the audience and performers.

“He’s kind of a local legend around here, between the radio and his involvement with local music,” she said. “We were lucky to have him this year.”

Fedewa and other event organizers made a big push with social networking for this summer’s series, offering updates through Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. She was glad to see audiences increase as a result.

“I was surprised that people sometimes drove an hour or two to come this year,” she said. “The social networking sites made a huge difference. We’re always learning how to best get the word out to everybody.”

Plagued by rain over the course of the summer, several events had to be rescheduled, pushing the series into September. Michigan folk troubadour Jill Jack was the last artist to play, closing out the series on Sept. 10. Despite the rain, this summer’s series was markedly more attended than in previous years.

“The attendance was up, particularly in the beginning,” Fedewa explained. “A rain-out in the second week maybe hurt momentum a little bit, but audiences were still pretty strong throughout the summer.”

While social networking and radio plugs certainly spearheaded the marketing campaigns for the event, getting the word out on the street was just as much of a focus for Sonic Lunch’s organizers. With ad posters taped to telephone poles and coffee shop bulletin boards throughout the city as well as local sidewalk chalk artists stenciling “Sonic Lunch” logos up and down Liberty, Sonic Lunch is certainly aiming to make its presence known.

Fedewa foresees the event growing even more in the future, and next summer she aims to attract even bigger names and audiences. This time around, the social networking sites are still being used to gather feedback from Lunch-goers this past summer, and are open to taking suggestions for next summer’s performers.

When asked if Sonic Lunch is at a disadvantage because its smaller venue can’t cater to more high-profile artists and an increasing audience, Fedewa didn’t seem too concerned. After a summer of great music, great food and enthusiastic audiences, she shouldn’t be.

“Its central spot between State and Main is really an ideal location,” she said. “I think we’re going to be staying here for a while.”

And hopefully they will be. The Sonic Lunch series was an unquestionable success this summer, and those in Ann Arbor in the summer of 2010 should have an even juicier series to look forward to.

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