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'A celebration of local music': Winona welcomes back artists, fans for Mid West Music Fest

The 13th installment of the festival takes place April 29 and 30 in Winona, Minnesota, sprawling eight stages and seven venues.
Credit: Nate Nelson // Treedome
Mid West Music Fest

WINONA, Minn. — "It's almost like a family reunion."

Mid West Music Fest (MWMF) Executive Director Dylan Hilliker sat in his office Wednesday morning, staring at "like, 50 boxes of hand sanitizer" in anticipation of helming the festival's 13th annual gathering — the first, full-scale, in-person version of the event since the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the world, far beyond the Driftless region of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"A lot of people are kind of just trying to regain their footing and kind of navigate through a world that still has COVID," Hilliker said. "I think it's going to be a great time, and a good community building exercise, especially as we're, you know, getting out in public again — however cautiously that may be."

The 13th installment of the festival takes place April 29 and 30 in Winona, Minnesota, sprawling eight stages and seven venues that'll host more than 70 artists across genres — all within comfortable walking distance of each other. It’s this aspect, Hilliker says, that’s part of the event's allure.

"We try to keep all the venues close together so that people are only walking three or four blocks, max, and so that you can get as much music in as you want," he said. "There's music everywhere."

Credit: Nate Nelson // Treedome

Hilliker says in addition to the bands that help make the event happen, somewhere between 500 to 600 people work behind the scenes, some who started preparing for this year's fest as early as last summer. Hilliker says it was at that time that he joined on as executive director, jumping into 2022 head-first. As a founding member of Rochester's "ROCKchester" festival at age 16, Hilliker said he was able to bring some of that prior festival knowledge into his new director role.

"It was kind of like riding a bike," he said. "There were obviously some more challenges just because of the scope of the festival, but I've had a lot of help and a lot of support, from not only the community, but some of the board members and my staff as well."

Part of the scope Hilliker is referring to involves the regional star power headlining the bill, including dreamy Minneapolis synth-pop group Polica, and Twin Cities-based singer-songwriter-composer, Haley.

Credit: Nate Nelson // Treedome

Haley McCallum, who performs under the moniker Haley, will return to downtown Winona Friday night for the first time since playing a solo set in 2012. This time around, she's headlining the fest — and, she's bringing a band.

"I kind of don't really have a normal band; I like to switch it up," Haley said. 

Haley said her "essentially new band" is joining her on stage to serve a batch of fresh music to the crowd, while day-one fans can also expect to hear some of their favorites from the catalog. The new, unreleased material is part of Haley’s next album, which she says she hopes to release in the fall. Until then, MWMF will be one of few live shows she’ll play in 2022, saying the timing and circumstances of the fest simply just fell into place.

"I was just feeling super depressed and really detached from my music community, and people in general, and was like, 'I think this will be a good time,'" she said. "It'll give me enough time to psych myself up and get a good band back together and then play what I want to play."

Credit: Zoey Prinds-Flash
Haley McCallum

Bad Bad Hats frontwoman Kerry Alexander first appeared with the band at the festival in 2014, and has gone on to play there several more times. Recalling that first MWMF show, Alexander lets the nostalgia set in, and talks about the way the experience feels to her now.

"It was very, very exciting," she said. "We were playing a show opening for Caroline Smith [in 2014], who we're big fans of. I remember being very nervous, but also thrilled."

She went on, “It’s just nice to think about the journey of the band and starting out. This is such a celebration of the local music community, and it’s really special because it reminds us how important that’s been to us in our career.”

The Minneapolis-based, dream-pop-meets-90s-nostalgia-rock group will tour across the country in support of their third album, "Walkman," shortly following the fest. But still, Alexander says, nowhere else can ever quite really compete with home.

"We've always felt very grateful for the local community and the support we've had in the Twin Cities and in the greater Midwest music community," Alexander said. "To have something like Mid West Music Fest happening does feel celebratory. That we can get back to those things — being together, listening to music, enjoying music."

Credit: Zoe Prinds-Flash
Bad Bad Hats

Even though the festival's mission is to create a sense of community for artists and fans with roots regionwide, few of the artists will feel truly as at home as Winona-bred, five-piece outfit, Sleeping Jesus. 

"It always feels good to play in Winona, since that's where we started and that's where a lot of our fans are still," said Nick Elstad, founder and frontman of the band.

Elstad, who hits the stage with Sleeping Jesus Friday, says having the festival come back to a relatively normal format is huge for all local music, but particularly for young musicians.

"When I was younger, it was one of the first music things I was introduced to," he said. "Winona really acted as an incubator for local bands, and myself included, to make and put out original music and hope we could play [it] during the festival."

"It's really cool to see it coming back finally in full form. I hope it continues to grow."

Credit: Morgan Winston
Sleeping Jesus

The festival as we know it today has continued to grow throughout the years with no plans to stop now, according to Hilliker. The array of musical guests are once again sharing the stage with local makers, learners and adventurers, facilitating community focused initiatives, and serving as an outlet for regional artisans to showcase their creations. The festival has also organized activities for kids, outdoor-lovers and wellness seekers — all of which are free and open to visitors of all ages. Check out Mid West Music Fest’s website for a schedule of both ticketed and free events.

Tickets encompassing the entire two-day festival can be purchased ahead of time for $70, while one-day passes are available for $45. If you don't want to purchase ahead, tickets will be available day-of from any of the participating ticketed venues, beginning Friday at 3 p.m.

All festival-goers will be required to show proof of COVID vaccination or a negative test result before attending. MWMF is also recommending attendees wear masks, especially while indoors.

Credit: Nate Nelson // Treedome
Mid West Music Fest

For more information about the festival's COVID protocols, click here.

For more information about Mid West Music Fest, click here.

You can also find all the information you'll need to know by downloading the festival's app here.

For more information about Haley, Bad Bad Hats and Sleeping Jesus, visit their websites and social media links above.


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