Above the Bridge 2013
I went to the 6th Annual Above the Bridge Songwriters Weekend (6/20-6/23) not knowing exactly what to expect. Presented by the Erickson Center for the Arts, in the town of Curtis, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, it was my first songwriter’s retreat of any kind. Festivities took place mostly at the historic Chamberlin’s Ole Forest Inn, with a Saturday night concert at the Erickson Center. “Above the Bridge” is a reference to the northern-most of Michigan’s two peninsulas, connected by the magnificent Mackinac Bridge. I’d heard raves about ATB from friends who had attended in previous years, so when this year’s event was announced some months ago, I decided that it was time to see for myself. Participants range from beginning songwriters (there were some who wrote their first songs ever this past weekend) to those with professional credentials and CDs under their belts.
I went to ATB confident of my skills in performing and writing, looking more to just hang out with a bunch of songwriters and musicians than anything else. I can’t say I didn’t “learn” anything, however, because I certainly did, on a number of levels. I did opt to present three songs for critiques from staff members and participants, in small, five person groups. I presented one new song, and two that I wrote about 35 years ago. I’m very excited about the new song; it breaks new structural ground for me, and addresses two of my favorite pastimes, playing harmonica (or “blowin’ a little horn”) and drinking Michigan-made India Pale Ales. The two older ones were written in classic country and country-rock ballad styles respectively, and while I was generally happy with them, I had a few minor issues with each that I was looking for feedback on. All three were very well received, with only minor cosmetic changes suggested for the youngster. The positive reinforcement was most appreciated, and all three are strong candidates for the next CD.
I also went to ATB, not only to connect with fellow songwriters , but to get to know “staff” members Jay Stielstra and John Latini, and renew acquaintances with Jill Jack, Jamie-Sue Seal and Chris Buhalis. The camaraderie and interaction among “staff” (all five stressed that everyone in attendance was an equal, and they damned well meant it) and participants was inspiring. These are great human beings; they care sincerely about the growth of every participant, and they proved it again and again throughout the weekend.
There were Thursday and Friday night Open Mic sessions for the participants, and both were tons o’ fun. Just about every one of the participants performed, and there were no clunkers in the bunch. I signed up for spot #3 on Thursday night; I played and sang “In My Element” on 12-string and harp and shifted to an alt-version of “Drunk Bug Swimmin’” with only harmonica, toe tapping and audience hand clapping in support. “In My Element” was especially appropriate, as I opted to camp out for the weekend in my Honda Element, which is just what the song is all about. I love the recorded version of “Drunk Bug Swimmin’” with my 12-string and David Mosher’s banjo and bass, and I usually perform it solo on just 12-string. The harmonica version also works very well, and allows me the use of a certain hand gesture to emphasize the line, “Fishin’ you out with the old middle finger,” if you catch my meaning, if you get my drift.
I also enjoyed taking part in the late night Thursday and Saturday night jams, and we had some doozies both nights. I played a lot of harmonica, only picking up the 12-string a few times on Thursday. I don’t get the chance to blow harp in support of other singers’ songs as much as I’d like to, so this was a big bonus for me.
On Saturday night, Jay, John, Jill, Jamie-Sue and Chris performed in the round at The Erickson Center for the Arts in Curtis, with each taking turns and singing some of their originals; Chris also sang one of Jay’s songs. A sizable crowd of both ATB participants and the public was in attendance, and those singer-songwriters did not disappoint in the least.
Special mention must be made about Chamberlin’s Ole Forest Inn. It’s a charming building, built in the late 1800s, and moved to its present location overlooking Big Manistique Lake in 1924, rolled on logs and pulled by horse teams; you can read more about it here. Proprietors Bud and Kelly Chamberlin spare no effort to make guests as comfortable as possible, and are great supporters of live music, not only hosting this event, but also present music in the main dining room on a regular basis.
I soaked up everything I could at the 6th Annual Above the Bridge Songwriters Weekend, and returned home with much more than I took up with me. I made a lot of new friends, and found new music opportunities as well. This event will go on my calendar as soon as it’s announced next year, and unless I get some gigs that are just too good to refuse, I will return. Many thanks to the fine folks at the Erickson Center for the Arts, Chamberlin’s Ole Forest Inn, the songwriting staff and participants for making this one of the real highlights of the year for this ol’ boy. Special thanks also to Mark Jewett for being the consummate road trip buddy and co-driver, not to mention a helluva musician and songwriter.
For those who are interested, there are lots of good pictures from the weekend on the ATB’s Facebook event page.