Traverse City is a small Lake Michigan town, known for much of its history as the cherry capital of the world. In the last decade however, an annual world-class film festival has become the center of a cultural renaissance in TC. Founded by Oscar-winning documentarian Michael Moore, the Traverse City Film Festival - now in its tenth year - brings great films and filmmakers to northern Michigan for five days each summer. This year, the festival presented 250 affordable public screenings with 180,000 admissions at 9 venues – all in a town with a year-round population of under 15,000. As we saw it, the only thing missing was a saxophone quartet.
Live music has become a big part of the festival. Musicians perform before almost every film, entertain at festival parties, and give concerts on two outdoor stages - opportunities and challenges we'd been eagerly awaiting. After a quick fifteen hours in our rented Dodge Durango, we arrived in TC just in time to play at the festival’s Opening Night Party. Stationed just inside the party's entrance on Front Street, we greeted guests with music by Ljova and Alan Thomas.
Over the five days of the festival, we played six pre-film concerts. For each, we selected music to compliment the film's unique mood, setting, and themes. In our concert before Fishing Without Nets, a gripping drama about Somali pirates, we featured Guillermo Lago’s East-African-influenced Addis Ababa, along with Marc Mellits’ relentless Groove Machine and Ivan Božičević’s churning Coiling Clouds.
We also played concerts before the films 5 to 7, The German Doctor and Magic in the Moonlight, and opened the festival's "Evening with Larry Charles", featuring the comedy writer from Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. One of the highlights was a concert before the new comedy Fading Gigolo starring Woody Allen. We showcased some klezmer and gypsy jazz, and met with some great energy from the audience. After leaving the stage, we were surprised to discover a tweet from celebrity chef and Traverse City resident Mario Batali. What can we say...the man has good taste!
The largest festival venue is Open Space Park. Each night, thousands of people show up for a free, classic film screening on a giant, 50-foot-tall inflatable screen. Crowds gather hours before the film to stake out seats on the grass and enjoy live music. Our sound was amplified to reach people spread over a distance of nearly two football fields. As we played, we heard our sound reflected back at us by from buildings at the opposite end of the park. It was a bizarre experience - a bit like singing in the shower, if a shower were a quarter of a mile wide!
We took a break from playing for films to head to The Workshop Brewing Company. The Workshop partnered with the festival to present TCFF musicians each night of the festival. It's a great spot - a family-friendly brewpub complete with craft beers and food, board and arcade games, a small library, Soviet-themed ambience, and a stage with a full sound and light setup. We loved playing in this creative, vibrant atmosphere. The musical theme of the night was “Avant Garde / Experimental”, we split the bill with a group called George Morris and the Gypsy Chorus, a hard-hitting Detroit band with an undeniably compelling sound. We found ourselves returning to The Workshop throughout the festival for drinks, food, and music. Props and gratitude to Pete Kirkwood and Chef Scott Williams for creating this Traverse City gem!
Amidst the shuttling around, we had some time to take in the beauty of Traverse City and some of the festival’s movies. One of the most powerful films was a documentary about the remarkable film critic Roger Ebert called Life Itself. Ebert expressed his love for film in a simple but beautiful metaphor: “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.” It’s a great reminder about the power of the arts to open our minds and our hearts. If the films we played before at the festival were windows, we hope our music made them a little bigger and a little clearer.
We had an incredible week and we owe it to a few people. The TCFF Music Team – Mike Sullivan, Quinn McKay, and Brooke Porter-Jordan – worked tirelessly to make this experience a great one. We are grateful for the generous festival sponsorship and housing provided by the Schwimmer family. Special thanks to Jack Schwimmer and Amanda Glass for their support. Thanks to you all! And thanks to Traverse City for listening!