Snacks, dogs and rock ‘n’ roll

Shovels and Rope
Shovels and Rope at the 2022 Grand Rapids Riverfest. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Music festivals are to the music-loving introvert what a seed catalogue is to the over-enthusiastic gardener. They seem like a good idea months in advance of what will actually become hard work. And, like any hard work, the results are worth it. (Though, usually, not until well after the fact).

Last weekend, my wife Christina and I attended the second annual Grand Rapids Riverfest. The independent public station KAXE-Northern Community Radio and the city of Grand Rapids sponsored this day-long music festival. The event nestled snuggly along the Mississippi River in a beautiful public space near the Grand Rapids Area Public Library.

Riverfest featured four bands: local up-and-comers Wild Horses; Minnesota-based soul singer Chastity Brown; Americana power duo Shovels and Rope; and the big headline act, Wilco.

I must admit, it was mildly surreal to see Wilco performing in the drive-thru lane where we return our library books. But more on that later.

We’d had this weekend circled on our calendar for some time. As longtime members and content producers for KAXE, we enjoy their events. We’ve made good friends in this radio and music community. But as the weekend actually approached, we were confronted with a dueling truth: we’re not very social and this thing was going to be packed with people. Not just people, but relatively cool people. 

Ladies wore sundresses and carried expensive bags. Dudes sported funky facial hair. We saw more tats than an army of grandmas could crochet on a long winter night. We don’t know how to operate in crowds like this. 

True, I used to host a live radio variety show that included dozens of cast and crew, and hundreds in the audience. But I always had a job to do, so I never needed to worry about what to do with myself. But as a spectator, all I know how to do is eat kettle corn and wave at people who are too far away to see me. I’d blame COVID, but Christina and I have been moving in this direction for a long time. We admitted halfway through that we missed our warm blankets and cuddly dog. At least we had each other.

As discomforted as we have become in crowds, we did enjoy the people watching. I made a few observations.

First, the fashion. Lots of folks were dressed casually, but in a deliberate sort of way. T-shirts appeared curated for optimal messaging and vibe. This was a good day for hats, my own Stetson fedora included. My hat wasn’t even the stupidest one there, which was a comfort.

I noticed how one gender seemed to understand the assignment better than the other. Many women looked like they sauntered out of a late summer edition of Vogue, while their boyfriends and husbands looked like how raccoons smell.

Why do women try so hard when men try so little? 

Actually, we could apply this same question to boys and girls in middle school. And high school. Um, college. The office. Funerals. Pretty much the works. Never mind. Question withdrawn.

With big shows like this, it helps to know the culture of festivals. Our commitment to our lawn chairs put us outside the more vibrant area down in front of the stage. I never know when to yell “wooo.” It felt like I had to choose between yelling “wooo” too much or not at all. 

Music festivals are like fragile authoritarian regimes. Security forces enforce all kinds of rules. But ultimately, the whole thing is an audio malfunction away from a riot; then, once it gets dark, new rules apply. In this case, organizers maintained their tenuous grip on power and the event turned out well.

My personal favorite act in the show was Shovels and Rope. Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent are a husband-and-wife folk duo who perform a lot of high octane songs about historical events, which is basically catnip for me. They both sing, play guitar and drum, switching parts throughout the live show to maintain their high level of energy.

But most folks came to the show to see Wilco. This venerable Chicago alt-rock band seemingly holds magical powers over Generation X, a notoriously difficult group to impress. Lead singer Jeff Tweedy engaged in quirky stage banter and proved quite quick on his feet. The band sounded great, even though I knew 99 percent fewer lyrics than the die hards in the crowd. A full moon rose into the crisp September night.

Ingrid Wickelgren, writing recently in the journal Scientific American, explains research showing how the human brain sorts our experiences into clearly delineated categories of “good” or “bad.” Even experiences that are mixed in reality, become sorted this way.

This helps explain why, no matter how overwhelmed my wife and I felt in the crowd, when we woke up the next morning we felt something unexpected. By golly, we had a good time. We might even do it again.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


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