August 8, 1995
Our summers around here seem to be growing thick with festivals and it's a pleasure to find one with as much local flavor and talent as the Sleeping Bear Dunegrass and Blues Festival in Empire. The festival featured some of the area's very best bluegrass, folk, and blues artists, as well as the between acts stories and poetry of Glen Arbor's Beach Bards. Last year's fest was the Second Annual and as Third Coast member Pat Niemisto said onstage "There doesn't seem to be any doubt that next year we'll all be back here for the the Third Annual."
Pat was right on the mark. Dunegrass is held every year at the same location, just outside of Empire, Michigan (across from the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore's office) on the same day, the first Saturday of August from 10 AM until sunset. You can visit their web site at: www.leelanau.com/dunegrass for more information.
The weather was (in a month that seemed to be serving as the clearing house for unwanted weather from assorted seasons) perfect. Sunny, breezy conditions keeping it not too hot in the sun and pleasantly cool in the shade. A number of merchants purveying food, clothing and jewelry made it uneccessary to take the free BATA bus into Empire unless that's what you wanted to do (or for a quick dip in Lake Michigan). The music was stellar: great sound, good views of the stage all around, and some of the hottest players in the area. Mike Vanderberg, listed in the program as "Festival Visionary", explained to me that rather than seek out big name, national acts, Dunegrass is built on the principle that we have all the musical talent we need right in our own backyard. This philosophy gives Dunegrass a flavor that is decidedly friendly, a sort of community gathering. A crowd a little larger than last year attended, almost two thousand, and from noon to after sunset they were treated a steady and diverse blend of music with the Beach Bards keeping things moving during band changes.
The Cedar Folks, a group of players who met at the Cedar Tavern's Open Mike Night ( an effective cure for the wintertime blues in and of itself) started things off before a small but ready crowd. A solitary woman began dancing, and never seemed to stop throughout the day. They were followed by Moses, who offered up some songs in Spanish and apologized several times that he had to be going to work (though it sounded more like him wishing that he didn't have to leave).
Mike and Theresa Irish, from over by Grayling, mixed country, folk, and bluegrass with Mike's many stringed instruments and Theresa's clear and compelling voice. Somewhere in there Beach Bard Bob Sutherland led the first of several groups of kids off to play some games. Wrangler (Jim Warren to his mother) rendered some old favorites in his unique style as well as a few of his own, and Jay Webber, a very fine singer-songwriter who is well-respected and borrowed from by the members of many groups here and elsewhere, demonstrated just why that is.
If you didn't know, you would have never suspected that the guys in River City Bluegrass did other things than play music to earn their livings: they were having a great time and kicking out some serious 'grass. It seemed like the levels jumped up a notch or two when Song of the Lakes took the stage, but that just might be how they are. While not really "back-porch" bluegrass, their music leaps and rolls like a ship under sail. Cabin Fever, a band reputedly created to stave off that dreaded Northern Michigan affliction proved that they don't need three feet of snow on the ground to get people moving. Third Coast, three of the hardest working (and playing) musicians in the area reached back as well as into their own material for a solid set of "dunegrass".
Things really got jumping on the dance floor with the appearance of the Jelly Roll Blues Band, regulars in the area for some time now who have quite a dedicated following and who gave the volume knob an additional twist. Luther Gravy and the Soul Biscuits kept folks up well after dark and were joined on stage by many of the other musicains for a closing jam. Ten or twenty years down the road, Dunegrass '94 may be remembered most as the time of the first public announcement of the proposed Dunegrass College of Performing Arts, which Vanderberg hopes will offer post- high school training in performance arts as well as broadcast and production. There have been offers of interest already and they welcome any assistance or advice at:
MPIR & Co.
10097 Front St - Box 327
Empire, Michigan 49630