Arts Fest 2017 beats the heat with a jam-packed weekend

Local and regional artists came to town to display and sell at Iowa Arts Fest. — photo by Jason Smith

The 2017 Iowa Arts Festival was more spread out than in previous years, allowing more space between tents and less congestion in the streets. The Pedestrian Mall was filled with activities to introduce kids to the arts — not only the visual arts, but music (family stage) and literature (thanks to Antelope Lending Library and the ICPL) as well.

The sets of stalls in front of stores highlighted a long-standing problem in art, in terms of the interactions connecting commerce and creativity. Selling art at a festival provides Iowa City residents with access to innovative artworks — and provides a new market for artists. Artists need to sustain themselves, and the inoperative nature of art work (which “does” nothing) and the desire to create in terms of one’s own inspired muse tends to conflict with the mundane need for food, housing and health insurance. The sprawl of stores featuring simultaneous sidewalk sales blurred the line in an interesting way.

One staple feature of the Iowa Arts Festival is offering a line up of musicians — national, regional and local — for no charge. The primary financial backers are prominently displayed around the main stage, and their money was well used this year as the festival’s free-access music featured a lineup of artists that I found far more exciting than 80/35 or the Hinterlands festivals. I was particularly excited by the prospect of seeing Son Volt, Anaïs Mitchell and Elephant Revival, as well as local music from Family Folk Machine and Dave Moore.

Shifting the location of the main stage to the corner of Clinton and Iowa was a nice change, allowing for audiences to enjoy grass and shade and diminishing the effect of hot bodies in a concrete oven. By the time Dave Moore took the stage on Friday night, the temperatures had cooled to a point that allowed the audience to enjoy Moore’s unhurried performance, which seemed attuned to the humid night. The crowd gathered during his set in anticipation of Son Volt, and the cool air was a welcome relief to those packed, dancing, in front of the main stage.

It was my first time seeing Son Volt, whose performance shied away from some of their twangier elements — more in line with Jay Farrar’s solo work. The sound was nicely balanced, without much echo or distortion, loud enough to hear the band over conversations without being defining. The setting of the stage, with the Capitol building to the north and the flashing lights of the festival’s Culinary Row to the south was pleasant: Clear skies allowed stars to shine on their harmonies.

I went back Saturday afternoon to catch the Family Folk Machine, and was rewarded with a choir of Iowa City area residents. The band epitomized the festival’s emphasis on artistic creation and consumption, as children, adults and seniors offered heartfelt songs. The crowd was thin for their performance, as it was for the talents of the Feralings, who performed for a few fans clinging to the shadows and folding chairs occupied by hardy souls with floppy hats.

Family Folk Machine performs at the Iowa Arts Fest. — photo by Jason Smith

The cooling temperature and increased shade helped draw a slow crowd for Anaïs Mitchell, who performed amid the heavy smell of charred meat. Her performance was quiet — two voices, two guitars — but this sparse framework allowed for her fascinating voice to shine through, as it traced the textures of her tones, and also allowed the unusually excellent mix of poetry and narrative to emerge. Her final song allowed her to reconnect with Greg Brown, who she featured as Hades on her newly politically relevant (although written a decade ago) “Why We Build the Wall,” from Hadestown If nothing else, she makes folk operas based on Greek mythology great again — and provides justification for the importance of the arts.

Starting at 9 p.m., the atmosphere was perfect for Elephant Revival’s performance, which provided a wealth of voices and instruments to complement Mitchell’s reserve. They used these well, as each instrument and each voice sounded out with intricate precision that fed, rather than obscured, the sense of jubilation that the band induced. Superbly talented, their set seemed almost an insane self one-upsmanship designed to spotlight their distinctive talents.

Their instrumental numbers showed their prowess with a studied aplomb rivaled only by their a capella numbers. The effect of suspending the full range of their talents only allowed for a more full appreciation of the total sound of voices and sounds coming together. The encore was incredible: Following Bonnie Paine’s solo vocal performance, a masterful blend of jazz and blues tones, the band came up for a powerful song that was prayerful, almost hymnal, as the audience joined the band in howling at the moon.

I saved the Jeremy Kittel trio for Sunday afternoon: The streets were mostly emptied, with a few festival-goers crouching underneath tents or below trees, looking for shade. The main stage overlooked a desolate street, with only a few exceptionally determined fiddle aficionados braving the blazing sun. The grass on the Pentacrest lawn was also deserted — perhaps partly due to the fact that Kittel had also played on Saturday, perhaps because his talents had been featured alongside both of Saturday night’s headliners.

But despite the small and scattered crowd, Kittel provided a packed set, taking care to inform the crowd about the nature of the songs’ evolutions. It was a lesson on integrity, doing one’s best no matter how many are in the audience to enjoy it, as well as an education on the history of folk (and how traditional instruments, like Irish hornpipes, are taken into song structures even without the instrument). It was a stellar set, and I was happy that I had been one of the final few festival goers.

I watched the meat merchants pack up their grills as the lights turned off on Culinary Row. Overall, the Iowa Arts Fest is not just as an excellent local festival, but one of the better overall aesthetic experiences in the state of Iowa. I left excited to see where the directors take things next year — not just in terms of musical performance, but also in terms of aesthetic education. Whether or not there’s commercial potential, family-friendly festivals are crucial in helping children understand the way that the arts provide critical political feedback as well as create communities capable of causing joy.

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