Experiencing this year’s Mission Creek Festival after having just returned from SXSW brought a few things to mind. First, there can be no argument: These are two of the best-run and brilliantly programmed festivals around.
Hosting a mind-boggling assortment of shows simultaneously at various venues around a city-center hub is a concept SXSW pioneered 23 years ago in Austin, Texas. The musical feeding frenzy would never work, however, if organizers didn’t go to the trouble of making sure that each act was of the highest caliber. Because SXSW planners work so hard to create a great schedule, that festival has grown into the wonderful monster it is today.
Mission Creek’s crack team of producers has set our own festival on a similar track, growing an event that one day could–as SXSW does today–help define a city.
Mission Creek founders Andre Perry and Tanner Illingworth have had to be proactive in building a successful festival. They scout shows and festivals locally and around the country (including SXSW); they listen to music blogs, their friends, old-fashioned CDs. The point is that they don’t rely on tastemakers like Pitchfork–they immerse and educate themselves to become tastemakers.
Both festivals are geared toward the musically adventurous, people hungry to discover something new. The fact that this quest is geared around live music, an ephemeral experience at the mercy of equipment failure and off-nights, only makes it that much more heroic.
Probably the most musically adventurous of anyone, the artists themselves, also use festivals to discover new music. Northampton, UK chanteuse VV Brown, who played SXSW for the first time and emerged as one of this year’s select buzz acts, discovered a band called Octopus Project while in town. She said she was looking forward to playing Mission Creek because of the students. “They’re so animated and fresh,” she said, adding, “Both festivals are a platform for discovery for me as an artist.”
At last year’s SXSW, Iowa City’s Doug Roberson discovered The Pepper Pots, a Motown/ska/reggae act from Spain that played on the same bill as his band, The Diplomats of Solid Sound. (The Diplomats graced both festivals this year.)
My own top discovery of the year came at Mission Creek: tUnE-yArDs, who rechristened Gabe’s with an amazing jam of world music, loops and punk energy.
And speaking of VV Brown, Andre and crew were savvy enough to bring her to Mission Creek just in time for a show before an adoring crowd at the Blue Moose on April 2. Next year, she’ll probably be priced out of the market.
So what’s in store for Mission Creek? Could it become a mini-SXSW, drawing audiences and media attention from outside the area? SXSW made its name partly because its founders were journalists who leveraged a national network of independent newspapers. Little Village’s growing involvement is promising.
At this point Andre isn’t making any claims or predictions. Neither is he ready to say the festival has played a role in any recent cultural uptick.
“It’s really a critical mass, a lot of things coming together,” he said, “people booking clubs, promoting house shows, etc.” Describing the Iowa City scene as an “intense feedback loop,” he said Mission Creek “helps remind us of all the cool stuff that’s happening around Iowa City during the rest of the year.”
But there’s no reason why Mission Creek couldn’t become a launching pad for local and regional acts. SXSW started off as an event showcasing the best of what Austin and surrounding Texas had to offer. Though it has grown far beyond that, local musicians remain a focus. Mission Creek has wisely kept a spotlight on the local scene as well.
Mission Creek could drive a larger cultural identity for Iowa City, a force so far limited to University of Iowa writing programs.
Mission Creek’s Greg and Pieta Brown show at the Englert made the best case yet for the town possessing its own musical legacy on par with the rich line of Texas singer-songwriters centered around the late Townes Van Zant, which early on SXSW helped bring to national attention and mythos.
SXSW played no small part in making Austin a place where musicians want to live–to find audiences and musical peers, labels and recording studios. And that helped attract jobs, workers and all sorts of economic and cultural vitality. Mission Creek could help do the same for Iowa City.
And Mission Creek has SXSW beat in some areas. As great as Austin is, it currently has no SXSW venue as homey as the Mill (fried egg sandwiches anyone?), as intimate as Public Space One or as stately as the Englert. The city’s unsurpassed literary reputation also lends extra credibility to the festival’s growing literary component.
My only suggestion is that Mission Creek consider a name change. Naming it after a similar event in San Francisco makes about as much sense as calling it SXSW. How about Midwest-by-Midwest?