Northern Michigan Music: We slithered down from our Upper Peninsula home to Blissfest Music Festival, north of Petoskey, as part of an effort to shed some of the cynicism that's enveloped us lately. We want to spend a summer weekend soaking up music—real music—and tune out the social media stream forever lapping at the edge of our attention spans. We want to stay young and rediscover cool, but parenthood, age, or maybe just the cholestrerol of everyday life seems to be hardening our spirits like Midwestern arteries. Our souls could use some stretching, some loosening, some smooth pulse, We could use a little bliss—Blissfest Music Festival.
We come closest to finding it toward the end of the second day, on this farm where Blissfest Music Festival is held. We fill the wagon with grub and bounce downhill to Blissfest Stage 2, a large open-sided white tent where crowd-favorite Breathe Owl Breathe is performing. The band’s bearded leader, with his running shorts, tank top and fanny pack, looks as though he went out jogging in 1975 and somehow ended up on this stage. Sweat beads and rolls off him as he crouches, leaps and pours himself into the song “Swimming,” a quintessential summer tune that reminds me of yellowing Polaroids and the smell of Coppertone.
I scoop up my daughter and my camera and head around to the side of the stage to take some photos. The faces in the audience are so young, happy and present. Isla bounces in my arms to the music. She’s spotted a baby boy with huge blue eyes that match his protective earmuffs. He’s peeking over the shoulder and past the dreadlocked head of his dad, Buddy, who’s running the concert lights. Buddy’s eyes meet mine and we share a parental “I’m getting my butt kicked but loving it mostly” look, then continue on with our work.
Dusk is closing in, and it’s been a long day at the Blissfest Music Festival for our little groupies, but Kristen has spotted a special show she really wants to check out. We decide to bribe the kids with ice cream. I take my place in line and find I can hear all three stages from here. A sax solo wails from the main stage ahead.
Behind me, Breathe Owl Breathe has the crowd on its feet with the erratic chiming of a small-children’s music toy. While from over at the edge of the woods, at Stage 3, I’m overhearing a rousing conversation between a mandolin and a fiddle, punctuated by the analog stomp of a bare foot on pine boards. I feel bathed in music.
Ice cream dripping in hand, we hustle back up the hill and enter the woods to catch our favorite singer-songwriter, May Erlewine, doing a rare solo performance at the Song Tree, a small concert area beneath a towering beech tree in the center of the forest. The woods are dark now and echo with what seems like the yowling of a thousand feral wookies. Young partiers on the prowl jostle our wagon, interrupting the kids’ ice cream binge. The darkness, the bumping closeness, the protective parent in me … I admit it: the uptightness is edging in.
Then we’re in a clearing and there’s May, just a lady in a red dress with a guitar and a voice that makes it seem like everything’s going to be all right. The wooden benches are full, and folks stand along the back and to the sides, but when she starts in on the song “Sweet Days” it’s as if she sings just for Kristen and me. It’s a song about stepping back, taking a breath and about seizing and cherishing moments simultaneously—basically all the stuff we’ve been struggling with.
About halfway through the song the ice cream runs out and the kids enter what I’m pretty sure is the toddler version of fission. We offer a “what can you do” look with those around us, who mostly don’t have kids, and whisper “Happy Bliss” as we pull our wagon into the night.