My annual ritual of summarizing the backstage events of the Porcupine Mountain Music Festival dates back more than a dozen years. I was organizing some of the articles that I keep filed chronologically, so naturally I started re-reading some of these ghosts of PMMFs past. With the COVID-19 pandemic scuttling our favorite local festival this past summer, I thought a little retreading a few favorite PMMF moments might help close the gap until PMMF resumes.
Going all the way back to PMMF #2 would be a good place to start. This was the first festival that I volunteered at and the first festival that featured a group more or less recruited by WOAS-FM. Having made contact with Trees front woman Lindsay Tomasic in Los Angeles, I found out that she and her band were originally from Houghton. Once their slot was confirmed, I asked if I could do their introduction on the main stage. It was a thrill to be able to introduce Trees and the other bands who graced the main stage that day. Our first face to face meeting with Lindsay and her crew took place backstage and we have kept in touch ever since.
Another band I was looking forward to hearing that year was Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams. Unfortunately, they encountered airport connection troubles and it became my job to give periodic updates on where the band had last reported in from. When word finally came down that they wouldn’t be able to make their first festival slot on Friday (they were also scheduled for Saturday), Trees was asked to do a second set giving me the opportunity to introduce them twice. When I finally got to meet Slambovian leader Josiah on Saturday, he began telling me about their traveling difficulties to which I replied, “Yeah, I know. I was the guy who was keeping everyone abreast of where you were based on your frequent updates.” He laughed and said it was frustrating, but it got to be kind of funny when they had to keep calling to say, “Well, no, we haven’t gotten a flight yet.” Traveling to the wilds of the Upper Peninsula can give one the idea that we certainly are at the end of the Earth. Throw in a little Time Zone confusion and it becomes an even more interesting place to visit.
Depending on which definitive historical source you would like to believe, I find the one making the UP part of the Eastern Time Zone a business decision the most plausible. When the boom times arrived, most of the mining concerns were owned and funded by groups located in far flung places like Detroit, Cleveland, Boston, and New York City. One popular idea states the businessman who owned the mines and processing plants wanted their properties to be on the same time as the eastern cities and stock exchanges. Geographically, Ontonagon is located near the center of what would normally be the Central Time Zone. Confusion on the whole time zone issue was multiplied when the Michigan/Wisconsin border counties asked to be on Central Time to make it easier to conduct commercial transactions between the two states. Not all of the PMMF artists coming north through Wisconsin get the memo about the Time Zone thing.
When Peter Mulvey drove up from Milwaukee for his main stage slot, he gave himself some extra time to motor north. He was feeling great as he turned west on Memorial Highway 107, at least until his phone updated to the local standard, EST zone. Mulvey suddenly realized that he wasn’t an hour early. He drove up to the festival grounds right when he should have been taking the stage. The band that had been scheduled for the upper stage (the Singing Hills stage where I was working) had already been transferred down to the main stage and we were trying to figure out what to do in order to fill their slot. A few minutes before showtime, Mulvey was delivered by golf cart and sheepishly told us the story of his time faux pas. When I promised him I wouldn’t make an jokes about telling time when I introduced him, Peter said, “Oh heck no, I screwed up and am going to have a lot of fun making fun of myself, so don’t pull any punches.” While it caused us a few anxious moments not knowing if we had an act for our stage, Mulvey put on one of the best solo performances I have ever heard at the Porkies. Yes, he cracked a lot of time jokes, but he played some of the most inspired, soulful songs and I couldn’t wait to pick up a couple of his albums. Had he been on time, he would have played the main stage and I would never have gotten to meet or hear him. Peter wasn’t the first nor will he be the last to get caught in the CST – EST time portal vortex, but it still remains one of my favorite memories from the PMMF.
As a fan of good old paper maps, I have seen my share of ‘GPS oops’ events to last me a lifetime. Twice we had Singing Hills Stage artists come in close to the wire because their GPS gave them directions to beautiful downtown Mass City. I haven’t travelled much using GPS for navigation so I can’t exactly explain how directions to the Porkies can divert them to Mass City, but the fact it has happened more than once tells me it wasn’t just user error. The funniest one was the drummer for a trio (who went on as a duo until he finally arrived mid-set) who later said, “I was here last year with a different band. I knew it was sending me in the wrong direction but I went anyway!” We left his drums in the car and set him up with just a mic on his snare drum. The group’s leader didn’t bat an eye when he joined them, but he managed to tell the crowd that perhaps in the future they would just bring the one drum so they could all ride in one car.
In the dozen years I performed the emcee duties at the Singing Hills stage, I only made one major flub introducing a band. With no great reason other than I had their name stuck in my head from seeing their biography in the announcer’s notes, I proudly introduced ‘The Rag Birds’ only to turn around and see the horrified looks from the band who was about to play. “Ah, we like the Rag Birds, but we are The Whistle Stop Review’ their lead singer said to correct my faux pas. All I could think of to say was, “Why, yes you are! Let me try that again!” The band was terrific about it and (naturally) they gave me a good natured ribbing about it when we cleared their stuff from the stage. As I left the festival grounds that night, I encountered the band’s guitar player and greeted him with a jolly, “Hey, aren’t you with the Rag Birds?” to which he jauntily replied, “No, but I have heard that somewhere before.”
Marty the sound guy had even more fun with my ‘oops’. As I was sitting on a stool waiting for Anna Egge to return after her soundcheck, I heard Marty’s voice coming through the stage monitors. This talkback feature allows him to talk to the band as they set the monitor levels without running the discussion through the main P.A. speakers. “Ken, Ken, do you know what the name of the next act is?” I looked out and Marty had a mile wide grin on his face. “Yes, Marty. It is Anna Egge.” Marty inquired, “Isn’t it ‘Aw-nah Egg’?” “No, Marty, I asked – it is ‘AN-na Egg-ee’.” When the band finally showed up seconds before showtime, I asked Anna if I could have a little fun with her introduction. She looked at me quizzically but said, “Hey, knock yourself out.” I went into my usual background rap about her credentials and ended up by saying, “Would you please welcome to the Singing Hills Stage, ‘Anna LEGGE’ – oh, I mean ‘EGGE’!” Marty almost fell off his chair at the soundboard and in all the years we worked together, it was the only time I can remember getting a ‘leg up’ on him. I turned and told the band, “Sorry, but that was for Marty!” and they smiled without really understanding what had transpired between their sound check and introduction.
There have been so many great acts that it is difficult to rank them in any kind of sensical order. Musically, the artists represent genres from all over the map. Personality can be another thing all together. As great as some of the musicians are at what they do, they display the same range of personalities that one encounters with ‘regular folk’. Some are easy to relate to while others seem to come from some other reality. Part of the job working backstage is to engage with the artists to find out what they need before they go on stage. Most are easy to please, but every once in a while, one encounters a performer with issues. I am not being critical here because touring is a stressful way to make a living. It would be unfair to me to speculate if it is ‘normal’ behavior or ‘tour induced’ behavior that causes some artists to be a little ‘off’.
Without mentioning names, I was sitting on the back stairs of the Singing Hills Stage during a solo female performer’s set. Marty the sound guy had come backstage to ask about a small problem that had occurred during setup. Just as he turned to leave, the artist on stage stopped and told the audience, “I am sorry, I was distracted by the talking backstage and lost my place.” She started again but by then Mary the stage manager was backstage more than a little irate: “What did you do?” Marty rolled his eyes and said, “WE didn’t do anything – we were talking about the problem from the soundcheck. SHE lost her place and blamed us.” Mary calmed down, shrugged and left it at that. One part of me was tempted to do the artist’s walkoff by asking, “What was your name again?” but in this case, professionalism seemed to be the valid path.
Mary has to have a lot of faith in the festival volunteers because her job with Armadillo Sound keeps her hopping between two stages. At a more recent festival, the male half of the group The War and The Treaty had a dramatic moment built in where he dropped to his knees on stage while emoting the lyrics of a song. Mary happened to come stageside just then and nodded toward the stage and mouthed, “What happened?” I whispered, “Have you ever seen James Brown do the schtick where he falls to his knees and they put a cape around him, lead him off and then he shakes it off to continue performing? This is their ‘James Brown’ moment.” “Oh,” she said, “I thought he was having a medical event. I wondered why you guys were just standing here watching.”
Buckwheat Zydeco is one of my absolute favorite PMMF performers, God rest his soul. With his son playing the organ, the band came out and did the soundcheck without Buckwheat (aka: Stanley Dural, Jr. 1947-2016). After they were introduced, the band began their headlining slot by warming up the audience before Buckwheat came on stage. We had already finished clearing up the Singing Hills Stage so as was my usual habit, I stopped stageside to catch at least the beginning of the headliner’s set. Right on cue, Buckwheat came out of the backstage area resplendent in his sequined coat and stylish hat. On the way to the stage, he stopped and shook hands with everyone wearing a PMMF volunteer shirt and lanyard. In each case, he made eye contact and said, “Thank you so much for being here.” This was the same kind of ‘old time professional road warrior vibe’ I had felt when BB King shook every hand in sight leaving the stage of Hedgecock Fieldhouse at NMU several decades earlier. A confident performer like that has no trouble selling records because they have an aura of ‘here we are, thanks for being here, now we can have a good time.”
Another band I was looking forward to hearing was Donna the Buffalo. I was nursing a bum knee so the best I could do when they unloaded their bus was to give directions and stay out of the way. The younger guys grunting their organ up the backstairs to the stage had their work cut out for them. It looked like they had one roady/sound guy with them and the rest of the set up was done with a couple of the band members. They hit the stage and played a wonderful ninety minute set. They were just getting into the last song when security reported that there had been a motorcycle accident on M107 right outside the festival grounds and the police had asked if we could keep the crowd in place until they had things cleared up. Emcee Harold approached Tara and Jeb to ask if they could extend their encore a bit while I explained what was up to the rest of the band.
In another example of how a professional band deals with things, Tara and Jeb went back on stage and started a little violin and guitar ‘discussion’. This went on for nearly ten minutes and no one in the crowd had moved an inch. Eventually, the rest of the band filtered back on stage and proceeded to extend the ten minute solo spot into a 25 minute long jam. Every now and then, Tara would look backstage and I would shrug and wave my hand as in, “Nope, not yet.” When security reported all was well, I gave her a thumbs up, the band did a big finish, said goodnight, and they were off to the merch tent to sign CDs. They never said a word to the crowd about why they were almost thirty minutes longer than normal and everyone went away feeling like they had just seen something special. I was impressed how they handled the whole affair like it was something they did all the time.
Here is to all those artists who make their living on the road. We are truly looking forward to having the COVID 19 pandemic under control so we can resume something akin to normal. I can’t say it will happen for sure, but if the PMMF is able to resume in August of 2021, I will be there with bells on – hope you will be there too.
Top Piece Video: This is Donna the Buffalo’s show closer, normally. Jeb (in hat) and Tara (violin) did an extended jam at the PMMF they headlined. They were asked to keep the crowd in place so police had time to clear up an accident that happened just outside of the festival grounds. They were game and never said a word about playing nearly 30 minutes longer than they were contracted for! Professional!!