September 20, 2019

From the Vaults: PMMF # 15

 Volunteering at the Porcupine Mountain Music Festival has become the highlight of my summer.  I first got involved with PMMF #2 and now circle the PMMF weekend in my engagement calendar far enough in advance that the family plans on me disappearing for two days near the end of August.  After a few years of doing a four hour shift here and there, it became my habit to just work two four shifts on Friday and two more on Saturday. Okay, in my case, two eight hour shifts end up to be closer to a couple of twelve hour days, but that is just how it works out volunteering at stage side.  When the Singing Hills stage went away after PMM #13, my regular emcee/greeter/stage hand gig went away with it. When offered the chance to co-manage the Peace Hill main stage, the transition was easy because I found myself doing pretty much the same jobs minus the emceeing part. Do not let the length of my volunteer stints deter you from signing up.  I am a certified band geek and enjoy hanging around backstage longer than the average festival volunteer shift requires. Try it and you may find that it is just as much fun volunteering as it is attending PMMF. Others must agree with my take on it as there were ample volunteers signed up for PMMF #15 (which speaks well of the organization and the organizers).

     Some years, the follow up article about PMMF has revolved around some thread or theme.  After PMMF #14, it dawned on me that a lot of my remembrances (and most of the pictures I snapped) were about the various drum kits that the bands used.  Any musician will tell you that when two drummers meet, ‘drum talk’ will inevitably commence so I had a lot of fun with that in last year’s follow up. Viewing the line up card the week after PMMF #15, nothing really popped out at me to connect the acts that I got to work with on Friday and Saturday so it made sense to do the Jack Webb / Dragnet review and just report, “The facts, ma’am, just the facts.”  My schedule prevents me from working the Sunday part of the festival, so the comments presented here in will only cover the first two days of PMMF #15.

     After checking in with Mary from Armadillo Sound and my main stage co-conspirator Jackie, I took a little time to check out the new stage set up.  A decision was made this year to bring in a rented, fold out stage that was placed next to the older, permanent platform built at the front of the  ski chalet. This old platform is lower and smaller than the new set up. The longer, wider, and higher stage guaranteed the performers would still be visible to those further up the hill when a crowd gathered at the front of the stage.  The higher stage also required a little more lifting for the stage crew, but in the end it turned out to be a brilliant idea. From the comments I heard, it will be the ‘new normal’ set up. With Doug, Mary, and Scott (the newest Armadillo Sound member this year) having done the preliminary set up (including PA columns, stage monitors, lights, a tented mixing board set a little ways up the hill, and all of the power handling systems), my job would begin when the first act arrived.  

     Right on cue, Cary Morin arrived with guitars in hand and a straw cowboy hat on his head.  Having only glanced at the schedule card, I mistakenly called him ‘Corey’ for which I apologized when he corrected my faux pas.  While Cary was doing his sound check, his traveling companion informed me that they had come in from Fort Collins, Colorado. She mentioned that she has also handled Ray Bonneville in the past.  I remembered talking to Ray about fishing a lot the last time he was at PMMF and found out that he has been busy building a cabin near Sault Ste. Marie for that very reason. Cary took the stage right on time and opened the festival with just the right blend of homespun stories, songs, and song-stories while accompanying himself of a thin line acoustic guitar (sorry guitarists, I didn’t think to check on the make).

     Just before Cary reached the half-way mark of his set, the drummer and bass player for the Ivy Ford Band arrived.  Drummer Dave and bassist Willy were friendly and thanked the crew for getting their gear up to the prep area in the chalet.  Not long after Dave got his DW drum set assembled, a whirlwind of energy in the person of Ivy Ford rolled into the area. Already dressed in her stage gear, she was a bundle of energy that had the crowd eagerly anticipating her set just from the sound check.  It should be noted that the main PA columns are turned off when the band sound checks the balance of the stage monitors. Even without the vocal parts playing out onto the hill, an audible murmur ran through the crowd when Ivy gave them a preview of what was to come as she warmed up with a few tasty guitar licks.  This year’s emcee for Friday and Saturday night, Todd Van Dycke of K-Bear radio introduced Ivy as ‘Chicago’s Blues Kitten’ and they proceeded to rock the hill. Their set was exciting and tight with Dave and Willy holding down the back line. 

     With a little help from a dancer out front, Ivy managed to hop off the stage and take a long stroll through the crowd.  She was still cuing the band from afar while also having a great time communing with the fans seated behind the soundboard tent.  By the time she returned to the stage via the stairs (there was no way she was going to be able to go back up in the same place she had come down to the ground), she had played a bunch of stabbing slide licks and then brought the tune to an explosive climax.  “I had to get my cardio in somehow,” was her explanation for this little jaunt. When we got their equipment off the stage, I had an opportunity to talk drums with Dave for a bit and a little about the music biz with Willy. Willy described himself as a ‘grizzled music veteran’ and informed he that they were heading back to northern Illinois for a Saturday night gig and that he was going to be playing near Madison, WI with another band the day after that.

     PMMF stalwart Charlie Parr was next up and he traditionally has an easy set up so I spent some time helping Dave and Willy pack up before greeting May Erlewine and her new band.  With Charlie doing his thing, dinner beckoned before we faced the task of setting up May’s big band, The Motivations. May Erlewine and Seth Bernard have deep roots back to the early days of the PMMF.  When they started out, she was ‘Daisy May’ and their songs and performance were just as ‘countrified and rural’ as her old moniker sounded. The last time she played on the Singing Hills stage in 2017, she performed solo without the ‘Daisy’ handle.  Anyone who remembers these versions of Erlewine were no doubt surprised to see her stylishly bobbed hair, snug fitting black skirt and jacket with a red sash and her similarly black clad band sporting red ties.

     May said that she had gotten together with The Motivators for a fun one off gig a while ago. They had so much fun they decided to keep playing together from time to time.  She led her crack band through a funk and soul set that had people kicking up dust in the dance zone in front of the stage. During the band’s opening tune, May herself kicked up a little dust out front before she took the stage.  It was a much different side of the reserved singer-songwriter who had previously graced the PMMF stages, but it was a show filled with a giddy, fun vibe. It also set the tone for several acts to follow: music with horns added for punch.

     The hour break between The Motivators’ set and the closers was much welcomed as the Dustbowl Revival was also a big group.  Having only heard a couple of tracks from the PMMF sampler, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The name evoked banjos, fiddles, and acoustic guitars in the Okie Tom Joad school of music, but nothing could have been farther from the truth.  After returning from a quest to find a music stand (they had a relatively new female singer who had a binder of lyrics and such), I sat back in amazement as Scott methodically checked the levels on all of their many instrument inputs and vocal mics.  The crowd was very patient when the band started fifteen minutes late, but they played their full ninety minute set plus an encore. With a lot of equipment to cover up, I finally departed home bone tired a little after 11 PM. Day One was perfect weather-wise and the only negative was the lack of shade for the stage side crew after 2:30 PM.  No doubt this (and a few other minor details) will come up in the post-festival discussions that will already be started for PMMF # 16 by the time this goes to print.

     With Emily Scott Robinson opening Day Two as a single act, I was a little surprised to arrive and find the Evan Bartels & the Stoney Lonesomes’ drummer on stage sound checking his kit.  He had one of the nicest sounding Gretsch drum kits I have heard (and according to emcee Todd’s introduction, one of the biggest bass drums he had ever seen – not that it had a big diameter, it was just very deep, length-wise).  Emily’s sound check was a brief affair and her set of new country songs and stories were well received. I say ‘new country’ because her song referencing ‘facebook and hashtags’ is a far cry from older country topics like ‘horses, trucks, and beer’.  With that said, her stories and lyrics cut to the heart and she put everyone in a good mood for what was to come. At one point she asked if we could damp the snares on the drum kit on stage (which would rattle when she played low notes on her guitar).  I discovered that the Gretsch snare had an alien looking snare throw so I ended up just unscrewing the tension nut until they stopped rattling. She left the stage and repeatedly thanked the crew for doing what we were there to do.  

     Evan Bartels told the crowd that he was originally from a small town in North Dakota that might have a 1000 residents, but probably closer to 600 because they are never all at home at the same time.  Working out of Nashville, they deployed a three guitar front line and a solid bass / drums backline. They were a step up in volume and pace from Robinson’s opening set, but their music was also well received by the crowd.  A big push was made to get their gear off the stage for the next set up, another solo act billed as Chicago Farmer. I never did catch his real name, but with two guitars and a box of harmonicas (and his performing ‘farmer hat’), he was a charming story teller.  When I later compared his stuff to Oregon’s John Craigie (who performed at PMMF three years ago) he said, “Yeah, I know John. We had lunch a couple of weeks ago when he was on the way to Florida.” Small world! 

     The next big challenge was getting the back line of drums, bass amp, and guitar amp on stage.  The good news? We only had to do it once as the last three bands were all in line to use the equipment made available by the festival.  First up was Melodine and they kicked things up a notch with a set of infections country rock tunes. The Paperboys followed with a mix of funky New Orleans inspired songs that had the dancers again kicking up clouds of dust.  They had asked for a ten minute cue when their set was coming to a close but they played right through it. They were a little surprised when the ‘ten’ became a ‘five’ minute cue, but they still finished right on time.

     Last up was the Saturday night headline act The War and Treaty.  The backing band was as tight a unit as I have heard and the front duo of Tanya and Michael Trotter brought the crowd up, down, and back up again over the course of their ninety minute set.  Trotter ended up kneeling down on the stage in a dramatic moment that scared Mary when she came out to see how they were doing. When she asked, “What is wrong with him?” I pointed out he was having a dramatic moment ala James Brown (who used a similar moment with a cape being hung on his shoulders as he slumped to the stage in his act).  They had already agreed to meet and greet fans in the merchandize area after their show, so I wasn’t too surprised when their road manager said they would not be doing an encore. The crowd howled and clapped for nearly ten minutes before they began to filter out. An encore would have been nice, but getting done fifteen minutes earlier wasn’t a bad trade off for the stage crew.

     Another round of moving equipment and wrapping cords commenced.  We were pleasantly surprised to have a group of AmeriCorp kids helping with the festival this year.  I hope they come back because I can not say enough good things about how much work they put in. I hope you are looking forward to PMMF #16 as much as I am.  Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I am planning to be at my station with bells on and hope you will join the fun.

Top Piece Video:  May Erlewine and the Motivations from the 2017 Ann Arbor Summer Festival.