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Inaugural MI Fest will rock in Michigan's Irish Hills

for Journal Register Newspapers

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Michigan’s Irish Hills are rocked by the sound of NASCAR engines throughout the summer.

Now the sounds of rock ’n’ roll are coming to the Michigan International Speedway.

The inaugural MI Fest, taking place Saturday, Sept. 17 on the southeast portion of the race course’s grounds in Brooklyn, features 25 acts playing for nearly 12 hours on three stages, along with a marketplace that features Michigan food and beverage products as well as artists and photographers who will display and sell their work. It will be a high-volume musical celebration of the mitten, which is exactly what MIS and the Farmington Hills-based TGIF Entertainment Group had in mind when they came up with the idea.

“It’s a unique festival,” notes TGIF’s George Gikas, who’s hoping for a first-year crowd of about 15,000. “It really lets us celebrate our musical lineage, which is one of the most unique industries in our state. You can’t deny that beyond automotive, everybody knows Detroit and the state for the music it’s produced for the world.”

And, Gikas adds, Michigan’s reputation for “the great outdoors” makes a the MIS environs, the largest registered campground in the state, “a perfect setting” for the event.

“I’m proud to be part of it, being I’m a Michigander (and) been here all my life,” says Mark Farner, the former Grand Funk Railroad frontman who will perform with his own band at MI Fest. “I’m proud to be involved with it, most because it’s a Michigan festival. I know we’re gonna go down there and knock ’em live, dude.”

Farner is part of a bill that showcases both Michigan’s musical heritage — with Mitch Ryder, the Rockets, the Romantics, Alto Reed’s Allstars, the Howling Diablos and Jill Jack — as well as up-and-comers such as Ty Stone & the Truth, Jessica Hernandez, Bear Lake, the Juliets, Whitey Morgan & the 78’s and the Ben Daniels Band. Actor/singer-songwriter Jeff Daniels is part of the bill, while Detroit native and former White Stripes principal Jack White reactivated the Raconteurs, who have been dormant since 2008, for the festival and created a special stage for his Third Man Records label that will feature the Thornbills and rapper Black Milk.

White’s Third Man Rolling Record Store will also be on site selling, among other things, “Leck Mich Im Arsch,” his new single collaboration with Insane Clown Posse.

Organizers did not close the borders for the MI Fest, however. Sheryl Crow, who spent the summer on tour with Kid Rock, and country singer Ronnie Dunn, in the midst of his first solo tour after splitting from partner Kix Brooks, bring a bit more national headliner sizzle to the festival.

“We are terming this as a multigenerational, multigenre type of event,” TGIF’s Gikas explains. “We don’t want it to be one type of music or one demographic. I think we’ve got a great blend between the ones that started it all and the ones that are carrying the torch.”

Inspired by the 1970 Goose Lake Festival — a three-day, Woodstock-like affair in Leoni Township — TGIF has been plotting a Michigan music festival for more than a year, says Gikas. After successful staging the Alto Reed Allstar Thanksgiving Celebration benefit at the Fillmore Detroit in November, the company began talking to MIS about a wine festival, which in turn led to discussions about developing “a music environment” similar to those that other NASCAR tracks around the country have been instituting.

“The instant inclination was, ‘Let’s do it inside the race track,’” Gikas recalls. “Then we drove around the property ... and all fell in love with this natural setting, a bowl-shaped amphitheater with trees and ponds and everything else. We felt like we could do a great festival in this area.”

MI Fest attendees will be able to camp at the site on Friday and Saturday nights, and Gikas says that while the majority of advance tickets have been purchased in Michigan, the festival is also luring fans from throughout the Midwest as well as New York, California, Kentucky and even England. He also suspects that some potential attendees are waiting for weather forecasts before buying their tickets, although Gikas says organizers carefully researched weather patterns and determined “we won’t have any more chance of severe weather” in mid-September than in July or August.

As for booking, Gikas acknowledges the MI Fest team did approach “all the big-name touring artists that represent our state from a headliner perspective,” such as Bob Seger and Kid Rock, but “not everyone was available.” (There are hopes, of course, that Rock will join Sheryl Crow for a song or two.)

With Jack White, however, MI Fest hit pay dirt.

“We knew there was no touring going on for Jack or any of his bands,” Gikas notes. “We knew the White Stripes had basically been mothballed, so we assumed if Jack did perform it would be with the Dead Weather. When they came back and said, ‘We’d like to have the Raconteurs perform,’ that was a huge surprise.

“And then after that we talked about creation of a Third Man scenario, since they have some Michigan-based artists on their roster, and that grew into its own Third Man stage and then the Rolling Record Store.”

ICP, meanwhile, has offered to come out to Brooklyn to perform “Leck Mich Im Arsch” with JEFF The Brotherhood, the Third Man group it recorded the song with. “We put in a call (to Third Man) and told them we’re open to do anything,” says ICP’s Violent J (nee Joe Bruce). “If they wanted to do something, we’d be all for it.” J adds that he’d like to check out the MIS grounds as a possible future location for the Gathering of the Juggalos, ICP’s annual fan festival in August.

Other MI Fest performers have their own big plans for the festival. The Howling Diablos, or instance, are still riding the momentum from their new album, “Ultra Sonic Gas Can,” while the Rockets plan to play more of the new songs they’ve been working on since resurrecting the group name last year. And Luis Resto, the former Was (Not Was) guitarist and currently a keyboard player in Eminem’s live band, isn’t on the festival bill but is playing a nearby show on Friday night at Jerry’s Pub in Brooklyn.

Mitch Ryder, a Goose Lake veteran who’s also performed at MIS before, says he and his band “plan on doing a different show than we normally do,” including rarities such as “Long Neck Goose” from the 1971 “Detroit” album and some of the songs from his European-only releases.

“I don’t know what the reaction is going to be,” Ryder confesses. “I’ve always been hesitant to play that material because people over here don’t know it, but (MI Fest) seems like an opportunity to do something a little different and special. So we’ll just run it out and see what happens.”

Ryder is also going to make something of a run at the Rockets, which was founded by his former Detroit Wheels bandmates Johnny “Bee” Badanjek and Jim McCarty.

“I’m always gonna be competitive,” Ryder says. “I did apply for that job (with the Rockets) but didn’t get it. My band’s in good shape, and I’m not afraid of anybody else, but (the Rockets) being there adds a little fuel for me.”

For the youthful Detroit sextet Bear Lake — which released its debut album, “If You Were Me,” this year — being part of MI Fest is a chance to claim its own corner in Michigan’s musical lineage. “We look at a lot of these bands that are playing as just the best of the best, so it’s cool to be part of that,” says the group’s Jon Rice. “It’s really kind of humbling. I’m not sure what to expect, but obviously a good time and some awesome music.”

Beyond the music, legendary Detroit artist Mark Arminski has curated an Artist Gallery for MI Fest that will include work by Carl Lundgren, Stanley Mouse and the Rockets’ Badanjek, as well as by photographers such as Tom Weschler, Steve Galli and Leni Sinclair. Familiar food names such as the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, SoL Garden, El Guapo and Bob Evans will be selling food, while the Walker Tavern Farmer’s Market will offer fresh produce and baked goods. A variety of Michigan merchandisers will hawk music-related goods and other products as well.

And while Gikas and company are geared up for the MI Fest, he says they’re “already talking about next year” and even beyond. TGIF has a four-year deal with MIS for future festivals, and organizers hope that the 2012 edition will be “at least two days” long with, of course, even more people trekking to the site.

“We intend to grow this,” Gikas says. “This is just the first year. We want this to be a longterm event, something that people will expect and look forward to every year.”

The inaugural MI Fest takes place at noon on Saturday, Sept. 17, at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. Tickets are $79-$109. Call 800-354-1010 or visit www.mi-fest.com.

Web Site: www.mi-fest.com

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