Dispatches from Michigan’s Blissfest 2019

Vialano-Virtuoso, Music House Museum

I didn’t make it to Blissfest until Saturday but the blissful magic started for me on Friday. It just so happened that my friend May Erlewine needed a bass player for her set near Traverse City that night. Freddy and Francine, who I’m touring with currently, didn’t have a show. May had me play bass on her UK tour this spring and in parting from that tour we discovered we’d both be at Blissfest. She reached out about possibly subbing a few months ago and by crazy happenstance it all worked out! We, along with her regular drummer Mike Shimmin (check The Olllam !!), played a super fun set at The Music House Museum near Traverse City, MI. It has what has to be the most extensive collection of “music machines” in the US, if not the world. Sure there’s player pianos but there’s also analog “drum machines”, parade organs, and even a “player violin”. It was like a dream!

It was also a dream to go to Blissfest with May, as I first met her there 8 years ago. Blissfest always keeps Michigan musicians front and center and I remember first seeing May perform alongside the Starlight Six, all Michigan natives, in 2011. I was completely transported by the songs and the sound then and it was a wild twist of fate to drive to the grounds with her on Saturday morning.

I was ecstatic to be back for another bunch of performances with Freddy and Francine. (See my last post for an overview of what they do…) I hadn’t been since 2013 and I was hoping that it would live up to all the memories from my previous times there. I remembered the lineup always held some solid folk and roots festival headliners (Taj Mahal, Buffy Sainte Marie in my years past) but what I loved about it most was all of the bands you’d never heard of, below the top billing. This is how I’d discovered bands like Good Lovelies, May Erlewine, Laith Al-Saadi, Joel Maebus, Euforquestra, and Jaron Freeman-Fox (w/ Good Buddy Taylor Ashton!). The lineup always seemed to dig a little deeper than the obvious trending bands. They may not always be well-known performers but the organizers always find music that inspires, sometimes purely by musical talent and sometimes by challenging what music can do and be.

Martin Sexton and William Love

I’m happy to say the culture of the festival is solidly intact. Headliners included Sam Bush Band, Canned Heat, Amy Helm, Steve Poltz, and Martin Sexton. I loved seeing Martin Sexton again (Mariposa last week) and he was again an absolute force! I was naive to his music but now I know and I’m going to dig in to his catalogue! His songwriting, singing, and guitar playing is completely unique and it was a treat to take in at his sunset set, side stage. I ventured out into the front of the stage to take in the vibe and spotted an 18ish year old sax player playing along with him in the dance section of the crowd. He was deep in the bliss. I went to grab a bite to eat and when I was walking back toward the stage I was astonished to see that Sexton had invited him up to play with him! When the song ended he introduced the sax player and mentioned he was a Michigan native. The crowd went insane and the kid on the stage was absolutely beaming, cloud nine status. I started to tear up a bit because it was just such a perfect moment. The absolute gift of sharing the stage shared between strangers is what music should strive to be about. Always. The lack of ego and humility that it takes to reach out like that is rare among musicians in my experience, and all of the love I had for Martin and his music quadrupled in that moment. My heart was full of hope and love.

The Revelers @ Blissfest 2019

Another high was seeing my buds from Lafayette, LA do their thing. The Revelers take elements of Western Swing, Cajun, Zydeco, Tex-Mex, and Swamp Pop and combine it into an original undeniably fun sound. I first saw some of the members of this band (Chas & Glenn) as members of The Red Stick Ramblers at Grey Fox Bluegrass Fest in 2009. It was the first time I experienced Cajun music live and I was hooked. The dance tent set and the energy they created there that year change my life. After watching them I knew I wanted to be in a band that could play at festivals and make people move. The Revelers are killer musicians individually and collectively. I surely wasn’t gonna miss them when they closed out Blissfest 2019 in the dance tent.

Red Sticks, 2009 @ Grey Fox

Bianca asked (The) Chris Miller from the Revelers (and the Faux Paws) to sit in with us for a new tune. It was only the second time playing it on stage and it definitely had the “new music” edge vibe that can be so special. Chris is a master collaborator and he brought it to the next level with us. So fun!

People liked my whale shirt

We also got to collab with Steve Poltz again (see my last post about him at Mariposa Folk Fest). We played Waterfalls by TLC and he crowd surfed. 💯What a guy.

On Monday we simmered in the bliss afterglow by Lake Michigan and it was the cherry on top of the experience. After 8 years I still love this festival. I love the spirit of the people who put it together with such care. I love all the musical fans who lean into whatever music they discover. Next year is the 40th annual and I hope I can make it. I know I’ll be back some day.

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