March 3, 2024

Downtown Sound

Crooked Tree Arts Center and Blissfest Music Organization team up for an eclectic slate of performers
By Ross Boissoneau | Feb. 18, 2023

The sounds of Americana, blues, sweet vocal harmonies, Afro-Cuban jazz—they’re all part of the Downtown Sound Performing Arts Series at Crooked Tree Arts Center (CTAC) in Petoskey. From touring artists to Mitten Smitten performers—musicians who call the Mitten State home, many of them from our very own neck of the woods—the winter/spring concert series spans genres and geography.

Megan DeWindt, the president of CTAC, says the shows reflect the variety and vitality of both the music scene in general and the audiences’ appreciation for it. Plus, “We focus on Michigan-based [artists],” she adds.

The series is a collaborative effort between CTAC and Blissfest Music Organization, the latter best known for its annual summer music festival. Some of the shows are booked by and for Crooked Tree, others by Blissfest, and a third group that are a marriage of the two. “We’ve always worked well together. We rented space [at Crooked Tree]. This is the first year we did a co-presentation,” says Caroline Barlow, artistic director for Blissfest.

The series reflects a “stronger together” motto, with the two organizations cross-promoting all the shows. “My feeling is that if it’s going on in our theater, we should be promoting it,” says DeWindt, regardless of whether it’s an event with the Little Traverse Theater, Blissfest shows, or performances managed by Crooked Tree.

New Performers, Audiences, and Vibes

Among the shows that have been well-received thus far are a solo show by Brian Vander Ark, frontman for The Verve Pipe, and one by Earth Radio, a Grand Rapids-based band that leans toward what Justin Avdek, the band’s bassist, calls progressive neo-soul.

“The crowd loved Brian Vander Ark. It was a packed house. He brought in an audience that wasn’t Crooked Tree or Blissfest,” says Barlow.

DeWindt says the cozy facility, which seats 200, makes for an intimate show. And its location in the middle of downtown Petoskey, near a bevy of restaurants and bars, makes it both easy to get to and fun. “It creates an evening vibe,” she says.

“This has been such an exciting season,” she continues. “We’ve seen a lot of new faces.” That includes both audiences and performers, such as Cut Time Simfonica and the Irish band Steel City Rovers. As we go to press, CTAC and Blissfest are preparing to welcome the socially-conscious songs of Crys Matthews.

Barlow is hopeful the collaborative effort between the nonprofits continues. She says not only do the two organizations work well together, she believes they can add to one another’s audience. She says she hopes to expand the reach to other roots-based music, such as Rev. Robert B. Jones and Matt Watroba, who she saw at a recent Folk Alliance conference. “I’d like to dig more into the Detroit music scene. There’s such a rich history of music there that I feel we’re lacking.”

One challenge both DeWindt and Barlow acknowledge is that the pandemic changed everything. With venues shuttered, audiences found new means of entertainment, including enjoying streaming shows and performances from the comfort of their own home.

“At the Folk Alliance, we were told the couch has a strong magnetic pull,” says Barlow. The decision to attend a show is also coming a lot later for those prospective audiences. “With ticket sales, people are buying late,” she adds.

“Most [sales] are at the door,” agrees DeWindt. “We went from nine [tickets sold] to 80 in a matter of days. It’s what we have to accept.” Throw in the vagaries of weather in the winter, and hosting performances is a dicier proposition than it used to be.

DeWindt says the shifts in population due to COVID have also impacted their audiences, but in a good way this time. “As we all know, our population increased. With remote work, people are where they love to be, not where they have to be. So there are definitely new faces.”

Artists often find the audiences to be even more enthusiastic than they were previously, and that energy is reflected back and forth between the two. “Consumers are looking for more. They want to be enlightened and entertained,” says DeWindt.

Upbeat, Happy, and Danceable Beats

There are still more shows yet to come, before summer happens and audience members turn their focus to outdoor activities. Among the upcoming is Tumbao Bravo, a Latin jazz group from the Detroit area, performing March 18. Flutist and saxophonist Paul Vornhagen leads the sextet.

Vornhagen says after playing at CTAC previously he’s excited to return. “I had my quartet there a few years ago,” he notes. “The audience really enjoyed it. I expect this will be very much the same.”

This time he’s bringing the sounds of Afro-Cuban rhythms. “We’re bringing the sounds of a warmer climate,” he says with a laugh. “It was my vision from the beginning to have those Afro-Cuban rhythms—mambos, cha chas, rumbas, boleros. Then I began writing original jazz over those rhythms.”

The result is a program that typically consists of original compositions with classics by the likes of Mongo Santamaria. “It’s been a surprise how well it’s been received,” Vornhagen says. Though when he describes it, perhaps it shouldn’t be. “The music is upbeat, happy, danceable, polyrhythmic. It’s a marriage of cultures.”

Also upcoming are Gina Chavez with the Crane Wives duo March 4 and Annie Capps and a Badass Band of Women with Keynote Sisters March 10.

For details on all the shows, go to CrookedTree.org/DowntownSound

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