Mission Creek 2019: A look back (VIDEO)

R.O. Kwon, author of ‘The Incendiaries,’ hosts a reading at Prairie Lights Book Store on the first day of Mission Creek Festival. Tuesday, April 2, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Each Mission Creek Festival has its own flavor that weaves through the nights, the venues, the conversations, the drinks and cigarettes to create an identity more than the sum of its parts.

One major shaping influence is the nature of the Mission Creek Festival ethos, which makes it an event that would be impossible to imagine elsewhere — it is one part experimental, one part traditional, one part Iowa City, one part books, one part music, one part conversations. It is a celebration of the Iowa City community as much as it is a celebration of art. The community consists of those who have stayed, those who return, and those visiting for the first time: there’s a place for everyone to find a space for joy and belonging in the midst of the aesthetic offerings.

Other factors contribute to the flavor of a Mission Creek: The bands and writers shape things, of course, in the works that they choose to present. Current styles and trends make a difference. The weather plays a role: A week of cold and rainy nights feels far less friendly than a day of 70-degree sunshine after a particularly cruel and relentless winter, but the cold lends itself to a kind of huddled intimacy that heat — especially when bodies are massed together — does not. And while each individual’s encounter with Mission Creek will differ depending on the shows seen, the friends found, etc., conversations after concerts tend to center on certain themes that coalesce, commonalities among communities created to see a moment before scattering into the night.

This year’s Mission Creek Festival kicked off with an opening celebration at Goosetown, followed by a reading by R.O. Kwon at Prairie Lights (both of which I missed), and then four fantastic performers (whom I did get to see). The Watson Twins were an act that seemed both retro and timeless, high energy, jubilant. Jenny Lewis appeared as a glam goddess on a stage lit with neon telephones that served as unnecessary props. Her sex appeal had nothing to do with drawing leering gazes from men; it was more a way of owning exactly who she is.

My favorite song of the night was “Happy,” but I went in as a fan of Rabbit Fur Coat, her earlier album (with the Watson Twins) and I was happy to hear more than a small handful of tracks performed from that (including a three-song encore with the Watson Twins). But I expected to love the Englert line up. After, I headed to the Mill and was riveted by the astounding Noura Mint Seymali, a West African vocalist who commanded the stage (and audience) with small but effective hand movements. Her vocal delivery was incredible, floating over the African blues guitar that drove the songs forward.

Noura Mint Seymali performs at The Mill for Mission Creek Festival. Tuesday, April 2, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Wednesday night, I went to see my friend and former officemate Gabriel Houck read from his collection — but was floored by the eloquent vision of Jennifer S. Cheng. Her collection of Letters to Mao, paired with her meditations on the moon, were riveting, as were her answers during the Q&A. I knew I’d love Houck’s voice (and I was thrilled at the opportunity to see him read live), but Cheng’s work was, for me, a lovely, surprising triumph. Following the advice that there’s no wrong way to do Mission Creek, I skipped the musical offerings that night to spend a deep time in conversation with a friend.

Thursday night was a night of jazz, starting with Jaimie Branch. Branch was the act I was most excited to see this Mission Creek, given her performance at 2018’s Witching Hour, and the group did not disappoint. The songs intentionally merged together in a flow that allowed the group to shift its tempo — and clearly have fun doing so. Mark Guiliana, performing next as Space Heroes, provided stellar drumming, accompanied by his band. Aside from an occasional drum solo, one doesn’t often see drums foregrounded as an instrument for excellent musicianship: Giuliana’s joy at drumming with excellent musicians was on display in a different way the following night at Gabe’s where he performed as Beat Music. He and his bands were smooth, skilled, incredible music makers.

Jaimie Branch performs during Witching Hour. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Friday night was the only night I really bounced around from place to place. I arrived later than I had planned, missing most of the Lit Walk readings, and ended up getting to the Englert just in time to see Mitski, with whom I was totally unfamiliar. She commanded attention through a strangely transfixing series of yoga moves on a desk. Her poses were on point, her voice never wavered: The audience (with more college students than attended other shows) went wild, each time. I did not mind the performance, although Mitski seemed disconnected from both the band and the audience — almost robotic, which was interesting. I felt alienated by the effusive applause of the audience for what appeared to be relatively normal motions (albeit on a desk).

I went to watch Becca Mancari, then headed to watch Kweku Collins and his joyful, smooth delivery, and then back to the Mill for the Cactus Blossoms. Each time, I felt the power of Mitski’s performance in the background — something about it jarred me out of other sonic settings I may have enjoyed. That said: I didn’t regret staying for Mitski as long as I did — it was interesting, even if the audience seemed a bit overly effusive.

Saturday was my favorite day of the festival. The weather was perfect, which always helps. Although I’d planned to head to Big Grove to see Flash in a Pan perform, I ended up getting involved in a conversation with Lyz Lenz (Rumpus) and some people from the Iowa Writer’s House and Prompt Press during the Lit Fair at the Mill. I got to the Englert and was able to see Nadalands perform again, John Lindenbaum’s talent becoming deeper and more evident as he continues to mature as an artist. It was a great transition from the weather and conversation into a night of engagement with art.

It also provided a beautiful set up for the raw, visceral, powerful sound of Liz Moen. A local favorite, I’d never actually seen Moen perform in person: Her reputation is well-deserved. Her blend of blues and soul was tonally on point for the night, but her knack as a performer — to know when to smile, when to growl, when to have guitars punctuate an expression or a held note — is amazing. I’ve seen very few performers who instinctively know when to command the space of a stage and then release it, fully and with humility, when necessary. Moen has all the skills of a rock star without any of the egotism: That, in addition to ample and evident talent and practice, made her performance a stand out surprise.

Hurray for the Riff Raff was a band totally new to me, and their sound hit the note that I’d wanted to find on Friday: It was even better for the wait. The performance lacked the flash and glitz of Mitski, or even Jenny Lewis: It was just music being performed by people who came together to make it, gathering everyone in the crowd who needed to hear it. It was powerful in its lack of spectacle.

I went over to Gabe’s before the performance ended in a rare heartbreaking choice for this year’s festival, wanting to see Makaya McCraven. It was a good choice. I’d loved Universal Beings and had been listening to it for months: To see McCraven and his band was a gift.

I had fewer expectations for Black Moth Super Rainbow, and those dwindled as Gabe’s became packed with human flesh for the most crowded performance of the year; however, I decided to give the band at least three songs before heading to bed. Their sound, played behind a screen that enclosed the band in projected images, ended up being perfect for the night. I stayed through the encore, bathed in dreamy synths.

Sunday’s performances do much to define the tone of a Mission Creek Festival: they’re the element that brings everything together. It’s one of the reasons why Wye Oak’s performance struck me with such power in 2011. Kishi Bashi’s ecstatic celebration was tonally perfect for 2017’s Mission Creek, even though I didn’t personally care for it, and Jamila Wood’s 2018 finale was a cool aftertaste. This year, John Moreland closed the week — and at the Mill, rather than the Englert.

It was perfect. The crowd was a blend of the faithful Mission Creek patrons whom I’d seen night after night, year after year, and fans of Moreland — one of whom had driven from Arkansas to catch his act. It was worth it. The crowd was hushed: Moreland’s voice sang ache over exquisite guitar and we strained to listen to each word and inflection. The noise of a glass dropping, late into the set, was startling because it was so loud in contrast to the atmosphere of the bar.

I have ended some Mission Creek Festivals absolutely exhausted, rushing from place to place in the hopes of catching an act, pausing to bear witness to one sound to check it off a list before seeking after the next experience. This year’s Mission Creek had a different personality: I saw a lot more people pausing to linger. The acts I saw — especially the jazz and experimental music that built slowly over time — rewarded my attention.

The musical acts that I didn’t catch (Moor Mother, Dryad, Lilly Hiatt, Middle Western) as well as the literature (Stephanie Burt, Maxwell Neely-Cohen, Jericho Brown) I heard discussed in wholly positive terms. Not having a list of “must-see” elements this year (especially ones in conflict) let me just relax and enjoy the week — deeply engaging in one set of sounds in one environment rather than always looking toward what was next on the list. The slowness let me find people around me with whom I could chat between sets, for a time.

Moreland’s voice and guitar made Sunday’s finale was perfect for me, cradled me to end a week that was nourishing rather than depleting. Although 2019 featured no band that I had been dying to see, and nothing in the headliners or supporting acts that I felt desperate to witness, that ended up being one of my favorite ways to experience both the artistic acts from around the world that come together in a beautiful way and the joy of living in Iowa City and seeing the community come to life. Thanks to everyone involved who put this together, who volunteered, who performed. It was wonderful.

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