Northern Michigan Attractions: For three days in July, thousands of music devotees and 100 musical acts converge at a farm field in beautiful Bliss Township to immerse in the folky, friendly, full-of-howdy thrum of Blissfest. As the North’s storied music festival heads into its 33rd year, we ask one veteran attendee be our spirit guide and take us inside.
Patrick Ivory: Full Immersion
Musician and Traverse City–based sign maker Patrick Ivory has attended a generation’s worth of Blissfests, starting in the early ’90s. We invite him to share a few images from his mental scrapbook and clue us in to the culture.
Traverse: Blissfest started in 1981, so it had been going a decade or more before you first attended. What pulled you in?
Patrick Ivory: I had started playing music more, getting into it more, and I met some people down my block in Traverse City who played folky Blissfest kind of music. They said you should come to Blissfest. I wasn’t really fully into that groove, but I went anyway. The first time, I went for just one night.
What was your first impression?
I almost felt like I’d entered a church, like people were so devoted to this idea of Blissfest that they’d formed a community around it, and I kind of stood back at first for that reason, just kind of checking out that world.
Who tends to be there?
It’s definitely hippified to some degree. I mean you see a lot of VW busses and painted vans, that kind of thing. But I don’t think of it as just hippified. There is a wide range of people. A lot of people like me I guess, who have encountered the hippie world and appreciate it but aren’t really hippies themselves. Really it’s just people who really love music.
And you became a regular.
For many people, Blissfest is the highlight of their year, and it was for me for a period of my life. I was kind of a Mr. Blissfest there for a while.
What were some of the things that connected with you early on?
One thing that intrigued me early is that, in front of the main stage people sit and critique each musician’s performance. They tend to be people who really know music, and they just say what they liked or didn’t like, and their comments are really insightful and knowledgeable. Blissfest is really well run for a music festival and each act plays for about 50 minutes, then there’s 10 minutes for setup for the next act, and that’s when the critique happens, during that little break.
What has struck you about the music over the years?
I think one of the really unique things about Blissfest is the wide variety of music they have. It’s not all acoustic and folky. They bring in unexpected bands like African fusion or French Canadian, electric blues bands. There are always bands that surprise and just blow people away. Everybody I talk to feels this way. It’s very ambitiously curated. Very knowledgeably curated. Well-researched and high-quality music.
Talk about the music environment, the way you are immersed in it and access it at Blissfest.
What comes to mind is how, at night, you are walking along and there are all these campfires. And you walk by one campfire and there’s some random guy playing solo guitar and maybe the music is just okay. And you walk by some other campfire and somebody might be playing something that is just amazing, sublime. I once heard a guy playing that song from The Music Man, “Till There Was You,” on a mandolin, and it was just beautiful in the night, just beautiful. And of course there are always people walking around carrying their instruments. And, really, everywhere you are you are hearing music close up and far away.
What about the sitting-in part? Can you give us a memory there?
That is something I did a lot of, playing at people’s campfires. One of the first times I did it, I’d been playing lap-style slide guitar on Dobro for about four years, and Dobro is good because it lends itself to playing with others. And so, it was dark, and there were maybe 30 or 40 people sitting around this campfire. I was walking, and I first heard the bass, this really cool groove of this standup bass. And I was just drawn to it, the gathering and the energy around it in the night.
Tell us about navigating that entry, moving from walking by in the night to sitting there, being in the song.
First, you just sit down on something, like on a log, or I sit on my instrument case sometimes, and you kind of wait, listen to a few songs. You figure if the chord changes are something you can handle, whether you can blend in and be a part of it. And this one campfire, I remember had something cool happening that I wanted to be a part of. And so I sat in and started playing a bit, and then the lead guy was like, ‘Hey Dobro guy, why don’t you take it, Man?’
Quite a moment for you …
Yeah. It was. And he was called the Sun Mountain Fiddler. I guess he was part of the Greenwich folk scene and had a farm in Vermont or something. Anyway, he was really good. So, sitting-in, it’s all part of a process, of being somebody, being somebody who is up to taking it away. And after I played, people were coming up to me and saying they really liked it, and even the Sun Mountain Fiddler guy said, ‘Hey, what’s your name? We’re going to be in Ludington tomorrow—want to meet up and play there?’ But I wasn’t able to make that.
Is that pretty common, professionals playing around the campfires?
Not so much. There’s a little bit of stratification there. You are kind of either a parking lot camping musician or one of the people on stage kind of thing. But everybody’s okay with that. The people on stage are the people everybody aspires to be like. There is a real appreciation for good musicians there. It’s an amazing thing: if you play well, you are respected there.
What about people who don’t play, people who just want to listen, are they comfortable there?
How’s about a favorite performer memory.
Well, there was this guy, Chris Newman, who played on the main stage. He was a flat picker guitarist who played with a harp player. And I was just amazed at how beautiful it sounded. Chris Newman is a British guy, but he played all this American folk music, kind of a Doc Watson style. He was one of the best picking guitarists I’d ever heard in my life. And I looked at the program and I saw, well, hey, he’s teaching a flat-picking workshop in the woods. So I went to his workshop. He is a very English sort of guy, crooked teeth and all. And he just tore it up. The fluidity and brightness of the music that he was playing … it was just amazing. And afterward, I just sat and talked with him for like an hour. And that’s one of the things about Blissfest, the access you have, how close you can be to some of the best musicians in the world.
Another one like that?
Well, it’s not just like that, but I guess Leo Kottke. I started listening to him when I was 14 years old and had been listening to him for probably 30 years. And here he was at Blissfest. I walked up to the edge of the main stage and just stood there, a few feet from him. I don’t know, just that idea of being a few feet away, and there he is. And he played great. And he’s always been funny, and he was funny that night too.
What’s your enduring image?
The second stage stuff is really cool. Everybody who plays the main stage seems to also do a second stage thing too. That stage has seating for maybe 300 people and a dance floor up front near the stage. And they pair up a couple different songwriters. And it always feels intimate, and everybody is so attentive, and there’s this sort of electric energy about that. Like, I remember Peter Ostroushko sitting there with his mandolin trading licks with a great guitar player from Italy, Beppe Gambetta—impressively good, impressively handsome kind of thing. I’ve seen some of my favorite musicians there, Vassar Clements, John Hartford, Jonathan Edwards, Tom Rush, a band called The Duhks. So for me, the enduring image is hanging around the second stage. It’s summer, it’s a beautiful night, and some of the best musicians in the world are sitting right in front of you.
A useful tip?
Well, it’s rich and beautiful, but it can be grueling too. It’s Porta-Potties and dust and not enough sleep and sitting in an open field under the sun on a hot July day. So be ready for that. Definitely bring an umbrella for the sun. And think twice about bringing little kids your first time.
You talk about entering the Blissfest world, what about leaving it?
At Blissfest, everybody welcomes you, greets you, it’s all “Howdy!” kind of thing, kindred spirits who get along, and you are part of that. And so, when I’d pull away, I’d be back to just one car, one person, on the road on a Sunday night. And around Pellston or somewhere, I’d pull into a gas station to get gas and a drink and there’d be some guy working there, and he wouldn’t greet me like, “Hey, man, I’m excited about music and excited to be here.” Just kind of a normal exchange. You’d really feel the difference. But then I’d think, it’s okay just being me again, out of that world and just being in the daily world.