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Folk

Handmade happiness

This Christmas, Mittenfest celebrates home-brewed music, community and literacy

MT photo: Doug Coombe
Homeboy: Brandon Zwagerman toasts Michigan music.
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Published 12/20/2006

Mittenfest's handle is inspired by our state's famous shape. But the daylong event with music from more than a dozen acts nestled in the thriving Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti folk and indie pop scene also counts Christmastime among its inspirations, and winter, which brings the kind of chill that mittens were made for. You know, the homemade kind, knitted with tender, loving care by a silver-haired grandmother or maybe an urban chic member of the stitch 'n bitch nation, kiwi-colored with sprigs of furry flyaways at the frayed hems and the two hands connected through the sleeves by a length of braided yarn. We've all heard of comfort food, especially during the holidays. But there's such a thing as comfort memories too.

Brandon Zwagerman, a lanky guy with a fashion sense somewhere between bookish and indie rock, had gotten involved with local music as both a fan and booker while studying at the University of Michigan. He received his master's degree in urban planning last April, and moved to New York City for work in August. Given that he missed the music scene as much as he did his family and friends, he decided to book Mittenfest for one of the days he was home for Christmas.

"It's something I really miss, the whole music community in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti," Zwagerman says by phone from Manhattan, where he works at an architecture and urban design firm. "I knew I wanted to book a show when I was coming back home, because it would be fun to see a bunch of great music while I was back.

"I expect at least a few Christmas songs to be pulled out of someone's bag too. It should be interesting."

Taking place all day Dec. 23 at Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti, Mittenfest features a crosscut of artists from the area, most of whom work from a folk and indie pop template. It's a scene that's proven incredibly fertile over the last few years, spawning such notable groups as Great Lakes Myth Society and Saturday Looks Good to Me, as well as a clutch of talented singer-songwriters and bands where experimentation often rests comfortably alongside gentle melody.

"Mittenfest ain't nothing if not the classic Ypsi-Ann Arbor folk lineup," Emily Bate says. "We've all played many a show together by now, so this one will be like a family Christmas party." (It's also a farewell show for Bate, who opens Mittenfest; the indie folk singer is moving to Philadelphia in January.)

In addition to Bate, "Act One" of the fest includes sets from Emily Jane Powers, I Am a Bolt of Lighting, Frontier Ruckus — a new group employing a mandolin and wailing vocals for a sort of Palace-meets-bluegrass sound — and the Victrolas, the sleepy, country-ish side project of GLMS's Gregory McIntosh.

After saluting Zwagerman for his work booking the event, McIntosh gets philosophical about Mittenfest.

"In my experience all the handsomest and most intelligent girls and boys are drawn to mittens like moths to flames," he says. He also anticipates a hangover for Sunday.

A helping hand

Mittenfest's second act features anti-folk jester Patrick Elkins, singer-songwriters Jim Roll, Misty Lyn, and Matt Jones, SLGTM's Fred Thomas, a special set from Chris Bathgate and Friends (featuring members of the indie pop band Canada), and the one-man indie weirdness of Actual Birds. Santa & Rudolph, the comedy duo of Forest Juziak and Brian Hunter, will also perform.

But in addition to music, memories and friends (and beer, of course; it's being held at a brewery, after all), Mittenfest is also about charity: All proceeds from the event will be donated to 826michigan, a nonprofit Ann Arbor-based tutoring and writing center that runs a series of workshops and programs designed to promote and improve students' writing skills.

"If we're going to have a big show, drink beer and watch good music," Zwagerman says, "someone else may as well benefit from it."

Zwagerman was originally approached with the idea of making Mittenfest a charity event by his friend Amy Sumerton, a program director at 826 who also plays cello in the band Canada.

And 826 is hard-wired into the local music scene. "Chris Bathgate teaches a songwriting workshop for students here," Sumerton says, "and Actual Birds and Frontier Ruckus have been involved in 826 benefits before. Many of the others on the Mittenfest bill — Misty Lyn, Jim Roll, the Victrolas, Fred Thomas — have wanted to be involved for a while."

Since moving to New York City, Zwagerman has been booking a show or two here and there. But he knows it's the community aspect of the Ann Arbor-Ypsi indie scene that he misses almost as much as the music.

"I tried to give everyone participating in Mittenfest equal time to play, because I think there's a real strong music community in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti that you don't see in a lot of areas, especially for such a small population. There's a lot of people involved, and they all support each other.

"From the fans who go to the shows to the bands themselves," he continues, "people are just networking better now, and they enjoy supporting each other. Shows like this, they'll play them for the fun of it, even if it's not a real payday. It's become part of the culture in Washtenaw County, and I think that's a really special thing."

Almost as special as opening a new pair of knitted mittens on Christmas morning.

"The scene is kind of like my second family," Zwagerman says. "It'll be great to come back and be surrounded by all these people once again."

Johnny Loftus is the music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to jloftus@metrotimes.com.

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