Area music lovers might want to pull out their calendars and circle Saturday with bright red ink: La Crosse will experience an unparalleled explosion of music — 28 bands playing mostly one-hour sets in six venues, all of them within walking distance of each other.
The La Crosse portion of the 2016 Mid West Music Fest is a celebration of Midwestern musical talent and upcoming bands that was started in Winona in 2010. Managing director Parker Forsell noted that there’s a unique kind of excitement about these kinds of downtown festivals with new bands taking the stage every hour and so much happening simultaneously.
The festival is designed to provide a smorgasbord of music for a wide variety of tastes. Genres will include alt country, Americana, blues, rock, bluegrass folk, punk, swamp rock, electronic music and swing jazz, to name just a few.
Meanwhile, it’s Forsell’s job to keep things enjoyable for fans by making sure everyone stays on schedule. That isn’t as hard as you might think.
“These bands are beyond the beginner level — they know what a 60-minute set is,” Forsell said. “It’s important not to have big gaps (dead air) for the audience. Part of the whole thrill is that kind of circus atmosphere. So much is going on, and fans have to make decisions about which venue they want to go to next.”
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“It really encourages people to be out and about downtown,” he said. “In Winona, a lot of times we’ll hear people say ‘Wow, I never was in that place before!’”
Musicians in La Crosse will be performing at six venues: Cavalier Theater, the Court Above Main, The Charmant, The Root Note, the Pearl Street Brewery and The Warehouse. It’s likely many area residents have yet to check out the recently opened Court Above Main or the Charmant Hotel, and Forsell said that many older music lovers have probably never been to the Warehouse either.
Although Forsell has been involved with the Winona portion of the festival for years, he has strong ties to La Crosse. He went to school at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and did promotions for The Warehouse and Deaf Ear Records while living here.
“Since I have roots in La Crosse, I kind of suggested to the board that this could be a good move for us,” Forsell said. “It’s kind of an exciting time for La Crosse right now.”
In previous years, MWMF has done promotional shows prior to the Winona festival at The Root Note and the Cavalier Theater, and the Pearl Street Brewery also has been a sponsor. Last year, Winona and MWMF hosted 400 musicians and 2,100 fans during its three days of music. This year — in addition to the music-packed Saturday in La Crosse — Winona will again host the festival for three days April 28-30.
The bands in the festival — both in La Crosse and Winona — appear to have been thoroughly vetted. “We probably looked at 600 bands before getting down to the 80 to 85 that will be playing,” Forsell said. He added that the festival’s board gets advice from deejays at The Current radio station in the Twin Cities.
“We hit them up and ask who they think are the up and coming bands,” Forsell said.
Bands booked for April 16 from this area — or with ties to the area — include Porcupine, Pigtown Fling, Them Coulee Boys, Red Sky Warning and Under Paris Skies. The Ericksons and Jimmy Peterson of Arcada are former La Crosse area residents now based in the Twin Cities. They’ll perform back-to-back sets at The Root Note Saturday evening.
In addition, Forsell said that local musician Gregg “Cheech” Hall should be singled out for praise for his musical tributes. For this event, Hall helped organize a series of four such tributes Saturday evening at The Court Above Main.
Hall and his buddies Jimbo Zill and Tommy Bentz will do a tribute to the Allman Brothers while Mr. Blink will channel Van Morrison. Bentz will perform a tribute to George Harrison and — in possibly the most interesting pairing of them all — TUGG, a La Crosse reggae band, will tackle the Johnny Cash songbook.
Brian Stehula is a local musician (Shot to Hell and Big Liquor) whose new band — Barely Losing — is playing a show at the Pearl Street Brewery during the festival. Stehula said he’s been to Austin’s South by Southwest five or six times and is excited about the MWMF coming to La Crosse.
“I like how they are honoring the local (bands) but augmenting that with bands from other places,” Stehula said. Those other places include Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Madison, Des Moines and more.
As for the acts he’s looking forward to seeing himself, Stehula mentioned 4ontheFloor — a band that’s been described as “whiskey-fueled swamp rockers, each with their own kick drum” — and Farewell Milwaukee, a young band from the Twin Cities that uses two- and three-part harmonies and a pedal steel guitar.
Forsell said he’s looking forward to seeing De La Buena for the first time. The 10-piece Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz dance band from Milwaukee will be at the Cavalier at 9 p.m. Saturday.
Another act worth a look is Des Moines-based Chistopher the Conquered. Chris Ford’s latest album of “interstellar soul” is called “I’m Giving Up on Rock & Roll.” Singer-songwriter Ryan Adams called it “crazy and incredible,” and it’s already made a big splash on college radio.
Forsell explained that all bands are paid for their appearances and some are paid quite well — even though the ticket price for La Crosse will stay at $20 for the entire day. “That’s very affordable for this much entertainment,” Forsell said. “We’re a nonprofit so we essentially subsidize the cost of a ticket.”
Although you’ll need that ticket for many of the shows, a dozen bands can be seen free of charge, including Christopher the Conquered and Under Paris Skies — which plays Django Reinhardt-inspired “gypsy jazz” — at the Charmant.
All the bands at The Warehouse will be free, including Matt Lawrence and Nick Maas (former partners in Neon) and, most notably, Trapper Schoepp. Based in Milwaukee, Schoepp just released his second album, “Rangers and Valentines,” recorded in Nashville with producer Brendan Benson of the Raconteurs.