January 23, 2022

FTV: PorkiesFest


     By now, no one will be surprised in the slightest when I say, “I did not get to do  a recap of the sixteenth edition of the Porcupine Mountain Music Festival in 2020 or 2021.”  The idea of events, both major and minor, being canceled was a great disappointment to both fans and musicians.  With that said,  the only ways to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus (at first) were social distancing and soon after, vaccination against the deadly virus.  A cautious approach to large groups of people gathering in the same area was (and may still be) the most prudent action until we stop seeing spikes in the number of cases and deaths.  At the time that this goes to print, the number of  deaths in the  United States has climbed above 840,000.  Early in the pandemic, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was fortunate to be a minor contributor to the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.  No doubt it had a lot more to do with following the expert guidelines and staying apart than luck.  To return to anything resembling ‘normal’, we have pinned our hopes on the vaccines and boosters currently available.  The numbers have spike again in early 2022, so masking and social distancing are making a return because our area (to quote a local health care provider) is currently, “Swimming in COVID cases.”    

     No, this isn’t what we signed up for.  COVID-19 isn’t something that can be taken out with an AK-47 nor is it some nefarious conspiracy to steal our constitutional rights.  It is an event that has been predicted for years and if we will not listen to the experts who have tracked how this vicious virus spreads, we will be tallying more sad statistics in yet another wave.  The alarming surge in new cases some states experienced soon after some restrictions were eased is a pretty clear indication that Michingan did not go overboard trying to protect its citizens.  With so many people still denying the value of being vaccinated and others tired of mask mandates and social distancing, we are facing more waves caused by variants of the original COVID-19 virus.  At the beginning of 2021, we were looking forward to getting a handle on things but ‘denial and refusal’ of the problem and solution have resulted in worse numbers in the Western U.P. than we saw prior to the approval of the vaccines.

     At the end of my summary article about PMMF #15 (FTV:  PMMF #15, 10-2-19), I said, “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.”  Okay,  #16 didn’t happen in August of 2020 or 2021, but the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for PMMF resuming in 2022 (as the word on the street has it).  As long as there was another pregnant pause in the PMMF last year (along with a laundry list of other community festivals, celebrations, and so forth), I thought I would devote some space to the festival’s first fifteen years.  Scanning some of the previous articles brought back a flood of memories.  It immediately became apparent there have been so many highlights over the years, there would be  no way to cover them all in one article, so bear with me as I retread some of my favorite episodes from various PMMFs.

     There isn’t much I can say about the inaugural Porcupine Mountain Music Festival because I did not get involved until PMMF #2.  The fact that a group of volunteers wrote the grants and jumped through all the hoops necessary to even stage an event like this at a wilderness state park is highlight enough for year one.  When the organizers started sending PMMF artist CDs for us to air on WOAS-FM, we began our long term relationship with the festival.  Airing music by festival artists year round became a long term goal at WOAS.  We began ending our summer maintenance hiatus with a pre-festival week of ‘Porkiesfest and nothing but Porkiesfest music.’  We also continued featuring past and possible future acts on a show called ‘Porkiesfest Radio’ developed by current PMMF director Cheryl Sundberg when she was our Friday evening WOAS DJ.

     How did WOAS-FM get involved with PMMF?  Between PMMF 1 and 2, a band called Trees out of Los Angeles came to our attention.  Having roots in the Copper Country, it made sense for us to try and get them on the bill for PMMF 2.  I got my first dose of MCing at the festival when I was privileged to introduce them twice on the same day.  When Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams had troubles with their flight connections, the organizers quickly arranged for Trees to do a second set.  I had never met Lindsay Tomasic (who hails from Dodgeville just outside of Houghton) prior to their festival gig.  She is definitely proof that you can take the Yooper girl out of the U.P., but relocating doesn’t take the Yooper out of the U.P. girl.  

     During Festival #3, I ended up running sound for a couple of workshops.  With a couple of split shifts, the opportunities to watch some great acts from the main stage sidelines proved to be a great way to learn the stagehand’s duties before it became my regular gig.  Working with artists who put on the workshops was an up and down affair:  some enjoyed interacting with fans and some clearly were there because they had been contracted to make an appearance.  Mountain Heart had three workshop reps that year and they hit the whole spectrum:  the guitar player was happy to do it, the mandolin player wasn’t at all thrilled, and the fiddle player held the middle ground.  Five minutes in, Gandolph Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams kicked off their show (which was right outside the A-Frame, thus drowning out the Q & A taking place inside the chalet).  The workshop ended early and we learned our first lesson about when to schedule workshops. These workshops are held to satisfy an educational requirement for some of the grants used to put on the festival and have grown to be an enjoyable part of the weekend.

     PMMF 4 was my first opportunity to work on the Singing Hills stage up the hill.  The ‘stage’ was the old unloading platform for the now defunct double chair lift and it was a fun environment.  The sound crew of Marty and Mary were great to work with.  Once I learned the basics of being an MC, it became apparent the job also included meeting and greeting the arriving artists, timing the act on stage, and helping move equipment on and off the stage.  I told Mary at the beginning I had experience playing in bands, but not working with a professional sound crew.  She patiently taught me the ropes, right down to the proper way to roll up cords to make them easier to set up the next time.  When making a quick change over from one act to the next, untangling a snake pit of cords isn’t an option.  My highlight for PMMF 4 was learning to stay out of the way and be helpful at the same time.  Introducing the acts was only ten percent of the Singing Hills gig.

     The Singing Hills stage was phased out after 2017 for a variety of reasons.  The stage (the abandoned double chair lift unloading platform) was beginning to deteriorate and the Park wanted to remove it, not repair it.  As a second stage, the SHS was an interesting concept but over the years, it became apparent it was time to let it go.  The ten minute uphill walk was a challenge for some folks.  The biggest problem (with the second stage set up) was the fifteen minute overlap in acts on both stages.  It was not uncommon for a SHS crowd to get up and leave during a performance if there was an act on the Peace Hill Stage they wanted to see.  Some of the PHS acts were loud enough to actually be heard over some of the solo acts playing on the upper stage.  Marty asked me once why I did not make more of the festival public service announcements when I was emceeing.  I told him, “Marty, Kenny Lee does a great job in that department.  Are there any announcements I could make that we haven’t already heard drifting up the hill from the main stage?” Marty smiled, “Nope!” 

     With that said, my time working at the SHS has more highlights than will fit here.  Among them were Black River John sitting behind his piano in front of the stage (it was too bulky to get on the stage).  BR John announced, “Yes folks, this is what you call real ‘grassroots’ music!”  Meeting Kitty Donahoe after she trudged up the muddy trail with her instrument cases in hand began  another long term acquaintance for WOAS-FM.  After kidding her about being her own roady, we had time to discuss other types of programs she did besides festival appearances.  One thing led to another and she has revisited the Ontonagon area many times for shows at the Ontonagon Theater, the former Algomah Honey House, and the Ontonagon Area Schools.  We even got her foot in the door to make a presentation at an educational conference held in Houghton the same week she came back to Ontonagon to perform for our school kids.  Scotty Miller’s band, DangerMuffin, Seth Bernard and Daisy, The Flat Broke Blues Band, John Craigie, Peter Mulvey, Vox Vidora, The Whistle Stop Review,  The Lucky Dutch. . . the list of great artists who appeared on the Singing Hills Stage goes on and on.

     Another great thing about the PMMF is the organizer’s ability to change things up, sometimes turning on a dime.  Having the festival go off rain free for many years was almost an accident, but the first year the weather chased things indoors for a day, it worked out just fine.  Nobody wanted to see the festival interrupted by rain, but when it finally happened, we learned it was possible to carry on (as opposed to canceling) during stormy weather.  It has only happened a couple of times over the first fifteen years, but it has never derailed the artists, crew, or fans.  One can not control the weather, but it is possible to adapt to whatever Mother Nature sends our way.

     The first year after the Sing Hills Stage was retired (2018), I transitioned to working as the co-stage manager or the main stage.  In 2018, the platform that had been built in front of the ski chalet for the stage was the only show in town (and no, I am not forgetting the Busking Barn or the acts who continue to perform in the A-Frame chalet).  The routine wasn’t much different than the meet and greet, carrying gear, giving directions, and trying to be helpful (all jobs we had done for more than a decade up the hill at the SHS).  My  new job did not include MC duties, but I still got to fill in occasionally when the regular MC had a workshop to moderate at the same time an act played on the main stage.  

     One of the highlights from 2018 was Donna the Buffalo’s set.  The band was every bit as good as everyone expected, but what sticks in my mind is how professional they were.  Just before they did their encore, we found out that there had been a motorcycle accident on the highway just outside of the festival grounds.  There were no serious injuries, but the police asked if we could keep the audience in place a little longer while they cleared things up.  

     We explained the situation to the band and asked if they would be willing to do a second encore to keep the crowd in place.  The audience was still howling for more, so Tara and Jeb didn’t say a word about the accident.  They simply walked out on stage and began a fiddle and guitar dialog that went on for at least ten minutes.  Eventually, the rest of the band joined in and the dialog turned into a full jam.  Twenty five minutes after they had gone back out, Tara looked over her shoulder and I gave her a nod and a thumbs up that all was clear.  They finished up their jam, said their goodbyes and never let on why they had given the crowd more than their money’s worth.  

     Festival #15 saw another change with the staging.  The festival director and organizing committee decided to rent a higher profile portable stage that was set up next to the old main stage.  The old platform gave us more room to maneuver when taking down one act and setting up the next.  The ramp into the chalet for those with mobility problems shares the same set of doors the stage set up crew uses to get equipment on stage.  It was always a battle to remind those without mobility issues to please not use that entrance.  With more room to move, the crowd out front was able to use this entrance without interfering with the acts.  As long as they stayed off the ramp when we were changing stage set ups, it was a nice bonus added to the reasons why they brought in a new stage.  With the bigger new stage (both in floor space and the height), the audience had better sight lines even when the area out front was packed to ‘standing room only’.  Getting youth workers from the Americorp program involved in 2018 was also a great blessing.  They enjoyed the experience and those of us with older legs certainly appreciated the help toting and lifting.

     Another part of the festival that has changed over the years is the busking area.  In the early years, buskers used a small platform next to the parking lot to perform as people walked in.  The old equipment barn just east of the triple chair lift was eventually set up for use as the Busking Barn.  My schedule always prevented me from seeing any of the busking acts, but the comments I heard about it were always positive.  In 2019, I had to stroll down to the BB to pick up a music stand.  It was surprising to see an overflow crowd extending six or seven rows out the double doors at the back of the barn.  The artists who perform in the actual A-Frame of the chalet and in the Busking Barn provide a lot of variety to the festival.  These areas have taken up any slack from not having the Singing Hills Stage in operation.  Some will still lament the discontinuation of the SHS, but from my vantage point working at the Peace Hill Stage in 2018 and 2019, the festival made the right move.  It is better to try some new stuff than to get into the ‘same old’ mode.

     So, here we are, back where we started this article.  COVID-19 isn’t done with us yet and it will certainly take some time for things to feel normal again.  All we can do at this point is hunker down, do our part to prevent more spikes in cases, and take care of each other.  Millions of people died during the 1918-19 flu pandemic.  Remember when they were optimistically predicting ‘only’ 120 to 150 thousand deaths in the U.S.?  It won’t magically go away unless we take the steps to tamp it down enough to limit the number of new variants that could arise.  Do your part and follow the science, not the wishful or magical thinking that is keeping the entire country at risk.

     The PMMF has been put on the calendar for August 26 & 27, 2022.  Modifications like reducing it to a two day festival and following whatever guidelines may be necessary should we still not be out of the woods will hopefully do the trick.  I will optimistically predict you will see me at the stage side.  Check out the updated PMMF website for details:  

Top Piece Video:  The FUNKY SIDE if Donna the Buffalo from 2010.