The promoters of the Hoxeyville Music Festival could easily be accused of false advertising. Their event is not the typical festival and it might be better described as a family reunion (with attendees ranging in age from newborns to at least 72 years of age) with great music. Situated in picturesque northern Michigan and with an emphasis on homegrown Michigan music, complimented by emerging regional acts and established national headliners, the tenth edition of this reunion was a rousing success. The weekend started early with a brief Thursday pre-party featuring the Joshua Davis Band, a Michigan songwriter of significant talent (the first of several featured in the lineup), whose set, which included a cover of the Faces’ Ooh-La-La, established the mellow playful mood for the weekend.
The Friday lineup began with a set from the Talking Heads cover band Naïve Melodies. The northern California group provided a bouncy set that was satisfying even to those of us who were not particular fans of the actual Talking Heads. With a side-by-side stage set up (featuring a newly constructed second stage) that for the most part eliminated set overlaps (a remote “Mitten” stage was on its own schedule), the music continued with a performance of the Beatles’ album Abbey Road by the combined efforts of the Red Sea Pedestrians and the Corn Fed Girls. As a whole the project was successful with the musicianship being far more consistent than the vocal efforts.
Next up on the mainstage were 7 Walkers, the Bill Kreutzman led project featuring Papa Mali on guitar, Matt Hubbard on keys, trombone and harmonica, and the extraordinary George Porter Jr. on bass. With a mixture of new tunes and Grateful Dead classics the set propelled the audience into a dancing furor. Highlighted by the new Robert Hunter penned tunes King Cotton Blues and (the eponymous) 7 Walkers as well as the familiar Sugaree (featuring a hearty Porter vocal) the band delivered a memorable performance.
The rest of the evening was left to Michigan performers with Seth Bernard and May Erlewine taking to the second stage for a brief set that showcased their considerable songwriting talents. Following Seth and May, Michigan bluegrassers Greensky Bluegrass took the mainstage and delivered one of their trademark epic sets, complete with doses of traditional bluegrass, new-school jamgrass and spiced with their unique take on the Bruce Springsteen song catalogue. The first set ender of No Lies > Dancing in the Dark left the crowd breathless (and would have had Courtney Cox looking for a gingham dress and a hula-hoop). The band returned with an almost twenty minute version of All Four that soared and spiraled with exceptional intensity. But it was toward the end of the second set (which featured guest saxophonist Bob Hemenger for its entirety), when the band returned to the Springsteen songbook, that the first bit of Hoxey magic emerged as the band performed a spellbinding version of Atlantic City. With a final tune to end the evening’s audible entertainment (there were after set silent disco sets on Friday and Saturday, but per Hoxey policy there is no amplified music after 11:30) the Hoxey family retired for the evening with the universal wish that, like the previous year, Greensky had been scheduled for multiple sets. (It should also be noted that the UV Hippo set was, most unfortunately, scheduled to coincide with Greensky thereby forcing festival goers to choose between two of their favorite Michigan bands)
Day two began at the Mitten stage with a wonderful acoustic set from Seth Bernard and Greensky’s Paul Hoffman (on guitar instead of his usual mandolin). It is this kind of set, friends simply playing music together, that is a Hoxeyville specialty. And it is the fact that those two friends just happen to be among the better songwriters around that makes Hoxeyville a special experience. By the time the set ended with a raucous sing-a-long on Look at Miss Ohio those in attendance knew they had been part of more Hoxey magic.
Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellies’ mainstage set provided a nice accompaniment to a late breakfast before Joshua Davis took the side stage. With a set of well-crafted tunes, mostly drawn from his recent trip to Israel and Palestine, Davis delivered a solid set that maintained the musical momentum. Davis was followed by more Michigan music from The Crane Wives a quintet from Grand Rapids whose popularity has, justifiably, grown tremendously since their Hoxey appearance the year before. With distaff harmonies that evoke thoughts of the Indigo Girls this band is destined to become a festival staple in short order. Next up were some inter-gender harmonies as Jen Sygit and Sam Corbin graced the Mitten stage with another set of sweet Michigan music.
Next on the mainstage was Airborne or Aquatic, an ever-changing assemblage of Michigan musicians anchored by Seth Bernard and festival promoter Jake Robinson, who delivered a solid set of rock and roll. They were followed by the MacPodz, the funky, jazz quintet from Ann Arbor that is on a crusade to prove that the guitar is not an essential element of the musical universe that continues to deliver the type of high energy sets that has made them festival favorites.
Strange Arrangement, an on the rise quartet from Chicago, were up next of the mainstage. With a solid rhythm section as its foundation, guitarist Jim Conry and keyboardist Joe Hettinga trade raging riffs to create a dancier take on the jamband. Having just hosted their inaugural Stranger Danger Music Festival earlier this summer, to great local acclaim, this band seems on the fast track to headliner status. Unfortunately, some had to cut short their Strange experience (or even miss them altogether) because their set coincided with that of the Twin Cats, the excellent Indianapolis based jazz/funk quintet that has generated national attention after being the house band for ESPN’s SportsNation during the last Super Bowl week. Their high octane set was highlighted by a colossal version of Bonefish Groove which featured a sit-in by Funktion trumpeter Terrence Massey. This is another band that you can expect to see on bigger stages in the near future.
Day two concluded with a mainstage set by Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers. Hornsby led his cohorts through a set that featured both hits and a couple of rarer arrangements. In recent years, Hornsby has spent more and more of his time on stage not behind his Steinway but up front with a dulcimer. On this night, this trip to center stage provided the most amusing moment of the weekend as Hornsby and Company led the audience in a bluegrass version of the Rick James classic Super Freak. But the highlight of the evening came when Bruce returned to the stage for his encore. After thanking the audience, Bruce started a story that any Hornsby fan knew was going to segue into Rainbow’s Cadillac (a tune which was quite appropriate given the locale’s close proximity to Cadillac, Michigan) when he was interrupted by a fan’s passionate request for the Fortunate Son. After the briefest of pauses, Hornsby obliged the request and began a stunningly beautiful solo version of his sad ballad about a Vietnam veteran that left the audience speechless. Knowing that he could not leave on such a bleak note, Hornsby returned to his original plan and closed the evening with a joyful rendition of Rainbow’s Cadillac. Paul Hoffman from Greensky joined Hornbsby on stage for Rainbow's Cadillac.
The final day began with a trip to church courtesy of the gospel tinged set provided by Rachael Davis (no relation to Josh) and her band. Her sweet voice was the perfect Sunday morning eye-opener. The mood shifted when the Go-Rounds hit the mainstage. This Kalamazoo based colossal assemblage of musicians created a danceable beat but one with a distinctly somber almost Radiohead-esque tone. The mood lightened when the Breathe Owl Breathe brought their breathy vocals to the stage. The genre defying trio delivered a set full of whimsy that left the many children in attendance (as well as the young at heart) agog.
Cadillac native and New Orleans resident Luke Winslow brought his Ragtime Millionaires to the stage for a homecoming set that provided a nice change of pace. Winslow’s trio, with his slide work backed by a double bass and clapboard, could easily have graced the casino stage of any turn of the century steamboat. Next on the side stage was Chicago pop/rock band Van Ghost who took the opportunity to delight the crowd with a set full of tunes from their new album. Michael Berg’s clever, thought provoking lyrics are evidence that the promoters aim to employ as many great songwriters as possible did not stop at the Michigan border. But it was Jen Hartswick’s spine shivering vocal on the beautiful torchsong “Drowning” that easily was the weekend’s most memorable moment. The Chicago natives, or anyone who cut their teeth on the blues, had to be disappointed with the blues efforts of Little Frank and the Premiers who were the only true disappointment of the weekend.
The penultimate performers of the weekend were Ann Arbor based festival stalwarts The Ragbirds. Erin Zindle led the “five boys in the band” through one of their typical multi-cultural sets but with an emphasis on songs from their new album (named Travelin’ Machine in honor of their french fry powered tour van, no doubt). With highlights like The Lemon Grove and the Ross Huff (trumpeter from their brother band the MacPodz) sit-in on Get In, the set was the perfect introduction to the weekend’s final performer.
For the second consecutive year the festival’s closing slot belonged to the Mickey Hart Band. Last year Mickey brought a nascent band (which has since seen several changes, most notably the presence of Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools), but this year’s model was a road tested music machine. Also promoting a new album, Hart mixed several new tunes, including a cosmic Time Never Ends and a soulful Starlight Starbright, with the expected Dead classics such as a thundering Other One (which Schools should be required to play this every night). Hart and company fittingly put the festival to bed with a lull-a-bye as Crystal Monee Hall’s honeyed voice leading the crowd in beautifully slow Brokedown Palace.