by Joshua Pugh
Anticipation is building in the greater Lansing area as the calendar flips again to September and each new day brings us closer to the 2012 Old Town BluesFest. This year’s lineup will bring music makers with sound in their soul to the streets of Old Town, where thousands will experience BluesFest together, surrounded by shops, vendors—and the blues.
If you’ve heard it, you know. Peter Tork said the blues “brings you back into the fold.” If it’s inside you, it’ll get out one way or another, reminding you as it does that we have all had the blues, and that we are all in this together. It is performed by people who know and feel this, people who may see their glass as half-full or half-empty, but at this moment it’s overflowing.
That’s what you’ll hear this weekend in Old Town, in Big Willy’s high-energy original blues-rock, Eric Culberson’s Southern-fried jam, Sena Ehrhardt’s nuanced vocal stylings, and Bryan Michael Fischer’s powerful vocals and personality. And all of them are bringing another something special to this year’s BluesFest: an original tune, never heard anywhere before.
Old Town has had its share of the blues. In the early 1980s the intersection of Turner Street and East Grand River were surrounded by a “ghost town” on the north side of Lansing’s core. People were losing interest in local downtowns across the country, and Old Town was no exception. Local artists like Terry Terry of MessageMakers and the late Robert Busby of the Creole Gallery saw potential early on, in the neighborhood’s beautiful brick buildings and location on the shores of the Grand River.
They formed the North Lansing Art Association, which continued for about a decade until they ran into unforeseen limitations with the “North Lansing” label. Many great parts of Lansing lie north of the Capitol, but their interest and the region’s earliest commercial development were both in a tightly defined area. They rebranded the venture as the Old Town Business and Art Development Association (OTBADA) and continued their work to change the story of Old Town.
Soon after, they tried their hand at music festivals with “Snake Rodeo,” in which they invited artists to submit pieces incorporating a snake as a symbol of transformation, and hosted a celebration of art and music in the streets. OctoberFest followed in 1994, followed by the JazzFest in 1995, and the eventual addition of the BluesFest, with help from the Capital Area Blues Society. OTBADA would soon earn a national Main Street grant, helping to found the Old Town Commercial Association (www.iloveoldtown.org), which promotes, supports and recruits great businesses for Old Town.
Over the last three decades, Old Town has attracted the highest concentration of creative service businesses in the state, new outside investment, active and vibrant streets, restaurants, art galleries, and much more—much of which is owed to the small group of artists that formed the North Lansing Art Association in the early 1980s. The people of Old Town were prepared to proudly display the hard work they had invested to create something beautiful in a deserted neighborhood.
Today, OTBADA has grown into the Michigan Institute for Contemporary Art (MICA), but its goals have remained constant. MICA serves as a catalyst for community development through quality arts programming. This arts programming includes the MICA Gallery in Old Town, Lansing JazzFest, Michigan Mosaic Music Festival, Old Town BluesFest, and the Burning Desires poetry performance.
MICA works hard to create an open space in the community to connect with old friends, meet new ones, and engage in conversations about how to make a better community. It also works to encourage economic development and the preservation of historic buildings through quality arts programming, bringing people together to share the joys of music, expression, discussion, and so much more.
Run entirely by volunteers, MICA is blessed by the talents and commitment of dozens of dedicated people, who you can read more about in the next few pages. Their remarkable time commitment keeps the festivals free, and allows MICA to dedicate all resources directly to the community.
What’s next? For now, MICA is working on taking our vision of arts-driven development through bold and innovative ideas statewide. This weekend, you have the opportunity to join in, by coming down to Old Town to celebrate the blues and our community with thousands of old and new friends.