Mission Creek Festival 2023
April 6-8 in Iowa City (various venues)
“Community is explicitly listed in the Mission Creek Festival tagline — ‘Music. Lit. Community.’ — which you won’t find with most other prominent music and arts festivals,” said Elly Hofmaier, marketing and programming coordinator for the Englert Theatre, which produces the festival.
The Englert’s senior programming manager and festival director Brian Johannesen added, “Mission Creek is really a community-wide festival, with partners stretching from Hancher to Big Grove. We always want to highlight and elevate Iowa City and all its arts offerings.”
Little Village readers may be familiar with Hofmaier and Johannesen. In addition to their tireless work with the theater and festival, they are also local musicians who have their feet firmly planted in the local scene. The charismatic shock-blonde Hofmaier fronts garage-scuzz indie rawkers Penny Peach — and has also performed with Elizabeth Moen, the Iowa Women’s Jazz Choir and other jazz combos — while singer-songwriter Johannesen has spent the past decade building a catalog of albums steeped in quiet, melancholy beauty.
Closing in on its second decade of rocking Iowa City, Mission Creek Festival continues to bring in nationally and internationally prominent musicians, artists and writers. However, the glue that binds it all together is an emphasis on local and regional talent.
“Year after year, about a third of the Mission Creek programming is sourced locally,” Hofmaier said. “As a nonprofit, artist-led festival, we think very differently about how we engage our local talent.
“When we think about putting together our local roster,” she continued, “we’re not thinking about who is going to have the biggest draw or sell the most tickets. We’re thinking about how we can best showcase the ingenuity, talent and vastness within the Iowa music scene. We’re thinking about the people who are ready for that extra push, that next step in their artistic careers. We’re thinking about the artistic voices that give fresh perspective to our cultural zeitgeists.”
Festivals are an integral part of building local scenes, because apart from the exposure artists get from playing in front of new audiences, it’s also about supporting each other.
“I think supporting local art remains a priority of the festival,” Johannesen said, “because everyone on the programming team — Andre Perry, Elly Hofmaier, Nina Lohman and myself — are all local artists. We know what it’s like.”
The other thing that sets Mission Creek apart from other typical music-oriented festivals is the incorporation of literature and other art forms, which stems from Iowa City’s official status as a UNESCO City of Literature and its history of attracting artsy oddballs whose roots are deeply planted in underground culture. Mission Creek connects the dots across the eclectic range of musical genres, mediums and styles of expression, creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
“Instead of the festival having a singular motif — music or literature or visual arts — the undercurrent is humanity itself,” Hofmaier said. “The beating heart of the festival is people coming together for a communal experience.”
Mission Creek is designed for folks to explore and open themselves up to new experiences, and the flow of the festival has been carefully curated so that audiences can stumble across innovative artists they might not have otherwise gone out of their way to see.
A music fan might buy a festival pass to see the iconoclastic Cat Power and then be lured into the keynote author talk by Michelle Zauner, a bestselling memoirist who also fronts the indie rock band Japanese Breakfast. In this way, Mission Creek provides a comfortable place for people to experience other art forms without feeling too out of their depths.
“This is how it worked for me as a music-lover new to Iowa City,” Hofmaier said. “I see a festival with a sick music lineup and a handful of other activities I’m curious about, but maybe wouldn’t have gone out of my way for. I go to the zine fair and I go to the readings and of course I’m hooked and I’m now seeking these experiences and artists out on my own. It works the other way around too. Mission Creek is a playground for adult children with an open mind and a willingness to explore.”
As a longtime festivalgoer, my advice is to float like a feather in the wind and trust the intuition of Mission Creek’s programmers, who have put a lot of thought and care into engineering the way the events flow and connect with each other. That strategy has yielded many a pleasant surprise, introducing me to acts that have become favorites, but if you want some extra guidance, here’s my rapid-fire round-up of local and regional artists you can experience.
Des Moines’ Extravision creates a spacious, psychedelic vibe that is imbued with reverb-drenched oceanic guitar sounds, which can be heard in the song “Heart Is a Nest of Snakes.”
Occupying the same ecstatic, musically transcendent territory is mars hojilla, an Iowa City band fronted by University of Iowa undergrad Myles Evangelista, who has a gorgeous voice and a knack for writing catchy, melancholic songs. The group’s drummer extraordinaire, Chloe Weidl, made me TikTok famous when she was a student of mine at the University of Iowa — but that’s a story for a different day.
Hailing from a bizarro, upside-down universe in Cedar Falls, Mr. Softheart rattles bones with post-punk guitars, baritone goth vocals, glacial synths and rock’n’roll performance art, and the band does a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper” that sounds downright evil. If you want to swim deeper in avant-garde soundscapes, check out BCJsPs (“bee-see-jays-peas”), a group of University of Iowa graduates whose mix of field recordings, found sounds and ambient textures can fry synapses.
The burgeoning Des Moines hip-hop scene is represented by FlyLife, a prominent member of the Us vs Them (UVT) rap collective whose laidback flow glides over spacey beats and makes his performance a must-see.
Also hailing from the state capital is Greg Wheeler & The Poly Mall Cops, a loud-hard-fast garage rock trio that can blister concrete — not for the faint of heart, which I mean as a compliment. But if that’s not your speed and you just want a good-time party band with an old school hip-hop vibe, look no further than The Uniphonics.
A wonderfully eccentric crown jewel in Iowa City’s musical landscape is Karen Meat, a project created by Arin Eaton and which will be performed by an all-star Iowa City supergroup that includes a brass section. I also urge you to check out Pictoria Vark, an Iowa City-based vocalist and bassist whose bottom-heavy compositions complement her airy, higher-register vocals — a special quality that helped place 2022’s The Parts I Dread on many end-of-year best albums lists. The 23-year-old was also highlighted by Rolling Stone as an artist to watch in 2023.
Pictoria Vark jokes that she’s “the Carmen Sandiego of indie-rock.” The songs on her excellent debut ‘The Parts I Dread’ take her from Brooklyn streets to Iowa prairies.
Read Why she's our latest Artist You Need to Know. https://t.co/lzoNP7T5yI
— Rolling Stone (@RollingStone) February 5, 2023
I would be remiss if I did not give a shout-out to some of Iowa City’s most rockin’ writers, like Rachel Yoder, whose debut novel Nightbitch has been adapted as a film starring Amy Adams that is set for a 2023 release by Searchlight. And I’ll close with one more action item: a reading by Lauren Haldeman, a multihyphenate poet, visual artist, computer programmer and puppeteer whose event will include projected images from Team Photograph, a groundbreaking graphic novel/memoir/poetry hybrid that is as visually stunning as it is emotionally moving.
Kembrew McLeod is available throughout the week of MCF for free psychic consultations. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 317.