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.