Beaver Island Music Festival: 3 Melodious Days in the Middle of Lake Michigan

Falling Through April performs at the Beaver Island Music Festival on Saturday, July 20, 2019

Falling Through April performs at the Beaver Island Music Festival on Saturday, July 20, 2019

Music festivals are generally synonymous with a few things. Live music played at a high volume is a given, but other words and phrases and terms that might fit right in include: a weekend off the grid, lots of free spirits (or hippies, if you prefer), and perhaps a teensy bit of excessive alcohol consumption.

The Beaver Island Music Festival has these things — but it also has a little something more. Of those words and phrases and terms that describe what music festivals are and what kind of experience you can expect to come along with them, the term “family-oriented” probably isn’t one that readily comes to mind. But on Beaver Island, where a wide range of musicians, artists and performers have brought the middle of the woods to life every third weekend in July for nearly two decades now, it’s a term that’s more than fitting.

The 17th iteration of the Beaver Island Music Festival took place over the course of three magical days and nights this past week, from Thursday to Saturday, and it was likely the largest “family” gathering that organizers have put on yet, one unofficial estimation putting Friday night’s total alone at no less than 1,200 people. 

That may be small compared to the likes of Electric Forest and Faster Horses, but it’s not all about numbers for the folks on the island. It’s more about creating an environment where everyone feels welcome, including your typical festivalgoers, as well as older folks and families with young children. The best part about it was that these different groups could coexist with one another at the same festival, without anyone cramping anyone else’s style.

How is this possible? Well, it starts with the way the festival grounds are set up. The camping situation, as explained upon arrival, is fashioned in such a way that families have their own space near the entrance to the campground, while slightly rowdier festivalgoers can be found further in and the hardcore contingent that survives the whole weekend on approximately six hours of sleep (or thereabouts) are even deeper in the woods.

The pursuit of appealing to all age groups then turns toward the lineup itself, and in which order the artists perform on a given night. The early evening was filled with more low-key performances, which this year included sets from the likes of Escaping Pavement, a southeastern Michigan duo known for their acoustic ballads, and Zaynab Wilson, a Trinidadian-Canadian singer/songwriter who brings a mix of folk and Caribbean sound to the stage. 

An  Ethereal Acorns  original

An Ethereal Acorns original

As the night wore on, the acts ramped up a degree, the male half of Moonbeau, a synth-pop group out of Ohio, losing his shirt — and his mind — while jamming out with the help of a tambourine during a later set on Friday night, and the members of Flexadecibel, a seven-piece, groove-centric band from Muskegon, igniting the crowd with lively tunes punctuated by the trombone, saxophone and keyboard after dark on both Thursday and Saturday nights.

As the musical acts just mentioned might indicate, a third aspect of the festival meant to draw folks of all shapes and stripes is the diversity of the artists that step on stage. You might think a smaller music festival on an island, in the woods, would attract nothing but folk singers, but that is hardly the case. While there certainly were folk-y groups (Dave Boutette & Kristi Lynn Davis, BigFoot Buffalo), things also got funky (G-Snacks, Flexadecibel), downright rock ‘n roll (Falling Through April, Jesse Ray & the Carolina Catfish), and difficult-to-categorize (ClusterPluck, Hymn for Her).

All of them combined to put on a three-day festival that was, at times, emotionally stirring, and, at other times, contagiously dance-inducing. If we assume this dynamic is present year after year — and it seems safe to do so — it’s not difficult to see why first-timers become second-timers become third-timers, and on and on.

Aaron Markovitz and Emily Burns, the duo comprising Escaping Pavement, were first-timers this time around. They’d travelled up from metro Detroit to perform three sets at the festival, but on Saturday afternoon they found themselves sitting on the front porch of Harbour Market, fresh off a bike ride to Donegal Bay on the island’s west side. Their excursion had been cut a little short due to incoming rain, but that was all right, they weren’t about to let it put a damper on their weekend.

“We came in on Thursday, did a couple sets yesterday, doing a set later tonight,” Markovitz said. “(Friday) was awesome, though; it was like a wonderful, awesome, receptive crowd. Makes us feel good.

“Since it’s our first time, I didn’t know how big of a festival it was, but it seems like a lot more people rolled in (last night). It’s great that they can put on a decent-sized festival and pull that off — you know, getting everything over here and the way that they make that all happen.

“It’s kind of surprising how many musicians and everything they can get here.”

Surprising isn’t exactly the word Martha Loomis would use — not in terms of the number of musicians that made their way to the island, at least. The number of festivalgoers and vendors, though? The term would definitely be more fitting in that sense. Attending her second straight festival as a vendor, Loomis, the artist behind Ethereal Acorns (think handmade jewelry plucked straight from the great outdoors), could definitively say that attendance at the 2019 event blew the doors right off the previous year. 

“(Last year), there was a coffee vendor, New Holland Brewing was sponsoring, so they were giving out samples; there was a hammock vendor, a henna vendor — I guess there were like five vendors — and this year, there’s probably double that,” Loomis said, adding that the largest night in 2018 might have had something like 300 people in attendance. 

Compare that to Friday night this year, which, again, had an estimated 1,200 at the very least, and you get a pretty good picture of the way things are headed (granted, some inclement weather kept many from attending a year ago). 

“This is one of the smallest festivals that I do … but it’s good to see the growth,” she said. “I like to see that, and I want to keep coming back because of that. It means good things for next year: it’s just going to get busier.”

In case you didn’t know :P

In case you didn’t know :P

Putting something like this together obviously takes a lot of effort. You might say it takes a village — or in this case, an island — to pull it off, but since the festival’s inception in 2003, it has also taken the care and dedication of one particular family. From the site of the festival grounds down to the kids manning the merchandise booth, the Beaver Island Music Festival has the Burton family stamped all over it.  

Carol Burton, executive director and festival coordinator since the beginning, is the person largely responsible for making the event the family affair that it is today. On top of handling all the logistics; booking all the bands and performers; hosting the festival at Beaver Island Hideaway Campground, which she and her husband own; and, of course, advocating and marketing the hell out of the thing, Carol and her family, including five kids, make sure festivalgoers have the best experience possible when they travel to this little slice of heaven in the middle of Lake Michigan. 

This time around was no exception, as members of the Burton clan made themselves visible all weekend long, picking people up at the dock in St. James Harbor; running shuttles (AKA rented minivans) on the hour; serving up nachos, macaroni and more to satisfy all the “hungry beavers”; and doing whatever else it took to make sure everyone had the time of their lives.

From performances at the Breakfast Club each morning to wide-ranging conversations around the communal fire deep into the night, from trips into town for fresh supplies to time spent at the beach on the edge of St. James, from cold ones at the Shamrock to sitting back and listening to marvelous music makers from Michigan and beyond, it was a mission accomplished: another year, another successful festival in the books.