By Patrick Mares
The Steel Bridge Songfest in Sturgeon Bay the weekend of June 9, is a unique beast. Founder pat mAcdonald likens it to a modern Arcadia, a week of community and songwriting that explodes in a weekend of original music linked by the spirit of the bridge. If you think he’s just saying that, try to explain why so many musicians, over 100 artists from as far away as L.A. and St. Peterburg, Florida, show up, unpaid, to show off their best. And it’s their best, mAcdonald says. Performers are asked to play only original material, so “People come here purely for the love of discovering new original artists and music.” Steel Bridge Songfest, like the bridge, serves as an anchor between two communities, bringing Sturgeon Bay and a national music community together in a definitive summer event for everyone within driving distance of Door County.
When a group of activists set out in 2005 to save a 1931 veterans memorial bridge, mAcdonald managed to create something with a purpose that surpassed preserving a town landmark. After the bridge had been added to the National Register of Historic Places, the festival’s role in nurturing the area’s music scene came to the fore, “I knew the crowd was amazed that there were people singing about our town and our bridge. That never happened before in Sturgeon Bay. Sturgeon Bay never had a musical identity that pertained to the place itself.” While the bridge will always be deeply linked to the event, the current festival is more concerned with spreading the love for the structure—as both an historic landmark and a symbol for creative collaboration—than fighting to save it.
But what mAcdonald calls the heart and soul of the festival actually takes place in the week leading up to it.
The collaborative effort known as The Construction Zone began in 2006, when songwriters holed up and got down to work in the city during the week prior to the main performances, taking inspiration from each other and the bridge. This is where 2016’s slogan, “Music so fresh, it hasn’t even been written yet,” comes to life. Invited writers are given accommodations at the Holiday Music Motel. Macdonald’s partner and Purgatory Hill band mate melaniejane told us, “This year there will be approximately 50 writers involved. In years past, we’ve had as many as 74, but it was simply too large and chaotic to try to host that many musicians for a week in the small space of The Holiday!” She first attended as an invited songwriter herself in 2007. Today melaniejane tells us she manages the Holiday Music Motel and donates volunteer time with mAcdonald, to enable “a wonderfully supportive mentoring atmosphere where the young writers can collaborate with veteran songwriters.”
17 year old Genevieve Heyward will be attending her second Construction Zone this year. The 2016 Wisconsin Area Music Association Rising Star ran over the details from her first experience. “They have a bottle that spins and it’s got a laser pointer in it. And you spin it again and again and you get connected to two other people. Those are your songwriting partners for the night. They have three recording studios and … you’re up till four or five in the morning recording. The next night everyone goes into the Tambourine Lounge and listens to the songs that were produced from the night before. You do the bottle spin again and you get connected with two more people. It’s just writing and recording and you’re meeting all these great people.”
It’s that simple mAcdonald says,“A lot of it is driven by sleep deprivation and camaraderie and laughs. … And everyone has an intense work ethic too. Because it just never stops. During that week there may be a party going on at the bar with a few peripheral people … But the songwriters, there’s nothing they’d rather do than just be in a hotel and see how many songs they can write in a week. They’re nuts.” Newcomer Marja Johnson agrees, “Everyone in this crew, even the ones that seem cool, are complete and total music nerds. It’s a big, happy family. We check our egos at the door and soak up the goodness of seeing familiar faces and getting to know new ones. I feel very grateful, it’s a big honor to be asked to join the ‘zone.’”
Veteran James Hall fronted Mary My Hope and Pleasure Club and has toured with the likes of Rage Against The Machine and Better Than Ezra. After taking part for almost a decade, he thinks it is a real help, especially for some of the young men he’s seen struggling, “I think that girls tend to learn the value of collaboration a lot earlier. Unfortunately guys… A lot of guys throughout their entire twenties were just [favoring] divide and conquer: I’m the strong writer, I’m the brilliant one, I’m the one with a pen.” His own son Liam Hall is already booked this year, urged on by local talent near his age like Tarl Knight.
James Hall has been publicly acknowledged as the writer of Marilyn Manson’s “favorite song in the whole goddamn world” (“You Want Love”) so it means something when he tells us, “I will say that the song’s I’ve written over the last 9 years are far stronger than anything I’ve ever written due to the collaborative nature of this festival. If you get a chance to attend/enjoy this festival, go. It has made me a better musician, parent, husband, songwriter than I ever thought possible.” Don’t believe him? Then maybe you should check out steelbridgeradio.com the only music station we know of that has a deep enough archive to play their own work 24/7 without getting stale.
By the end of the week the artists should have great stories and a supercharged repertoire. Heyward remembers one collaboration with San Francisco based singer and guitarist Eric McFadden, “One night, Eric and a bunch of other people were sitting in the lobby [with me] waiting to get our songs recorded. And Eric and I were just jamming a little bit. … Eric would sing along and a lot of people would echo it. [We ended up with] a song called ‘The Jesus Gonna See You Naked’. And it sounds funny, but it’s actually a deeper meaning. When you die or you go to heaven and see Jesus, if you’re a billionaire he’s not going to see you with that. You’re going to be stripped down and Jesus is going to look at you like a person. We ended up recording it the last day of the festival, like 4 in the morning. We all got together. Eric was like, ‘I got a song guys! We’ve got to record it!’ We recorded that and that was the last song played at the festival on the big stage.”
All of this spills into the four day festival at the end of the week. The Steel Bridge Songfest kicks off with Door County Appreciation night on Thursday June 9 where starting at 6 p.m. all venues are free as additional artists come into town to join those already rocking out through the Construction Zone. At 9 p.m. that night the nightly pub crawl begins with free trolley transportation and cabs home from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Over 150 musical acts can be found in venues throughout the town during pub crawls Thursday through Saturday from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Performances will continue Friday and Saturday as The Construction Zone crew will be playing the songs they wrote at the Holiday Music Motel at the Third Avenue Playhouse from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m and throughout Sturgeon Bay’s historic district. On Saturday and Sunday the main stages will fire up with free shows outdoors from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Holiday Music Motel right across from the Steel Bridge itself. If it rains these will be moved to the Door County Fire Company where general admission “Supporter” passes will be required.
Collaboration and focus on original content makes the Steel Bridge Songfest something you won’t see every day. As mAcdonald stated, “That’s what makes it a one of a kind festival. I think there are festivals that have dabbled in this… but this is a festival with a whole different reason for being.”