Festival to ‘brighten the days of January’

Winter Music Festival brings back favorites, debuts Gospel Gumbo Gathering

Dec. 9, 2017 — Florence Events Center (FEC) will showcase national, regional and local talent Jan. 12 to 14 during the 16th annual Winter Music Festival.

“The overall idea is to bring business into Florence at a time of year when the local establishments need it the most,” said festival producer Howie Cusack. “We’re trying to brighten the dark days of January. We’ve got a three-day celebration of internationally known music and world-class artisans. No one else in our region has that.”

The festival, presented by Friends of the FEC and Sea Lion Caves, has a whole slew of Florence-area and Oregon-based sponsors.

Cusack and his two teammates, Friends of the FEC President Kirk Mlinek and Kids Concert Producer Rachel Pearson, create what he called “a triangle of energy” for the 2018 show.

“In 2016, we felt we wanted to move away from the traditional Bleeker Street folk type of sound and bring in something that might bring in a little bit of a younger demographic. So, we paired Jonathon Edwards and the Shook Twins. That breathed some life into it,” Cusack said.

2017 was another year for newer sounds and more life — something organizers want to see continue in future Winter Music Festivals.

“There is a long-range building plan, and it is dependent on us doing well,” Cusack added.

For Pearson, new life came to the festival through the sponsors, many of which have not been involved in music or art events in the past.

She said the sponsor package the team put together elicited great responses, including Brandborg Winery, KLCC and Ninkasi Brewing, Cusack said.

The wine and beer vendors will be “exclusive pourers” during Florence Regional Arts Alliance’s (FRAA) Artisan Fair Jan. 12 and 13.

“FRAA is wonderful with this event,” Pearson said. “The collective is returning for its second year, and Claudia Brown is coordinating.”

“People will be able to walk around the building with a drink in their hands,” Cusack said. “It will loosen people up and engage them a little bit more.”

Admission to the Artisan Fair is free. Vendors include FRAA members, local groups such as the Rhododendron Quilt Guild and many more fine artists.

“We’ve got a really slam-bang event with more art,” Cusack said. “Claudia has pledged to raise the level of artistry to as good as the music. We’re trying to take everything uphill together.”

Winter Music Festival will open on Thursday, Jan. 11, with two exclusive Kids Concerts by Katie Jane Lubiens and Castletown. This invitation-only series for kindergarten through fifth-grade is why Pearson got involved with the festival.

“It’s fun, and always full,” she said. “We never have a problem, except for where to put all the kids.”

Then, on Friday, the festival really gets started with the Friday Night Throwdown. This performance will open with Jeff Scroggins and Colorado and will be headlined by Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands.

“The stage will ignite, they’re so hot,” Cusack said of the opening act, adding that Lewis’ Appalachian bluegrass stylings are welcome to play long into the night.

“We added Castletown last minute to start us off Saturday with a bang,” Pearson said. “At 10:30 a.m., people will be dancing. And we’re ending with a bang, too.”

Saturday’s performances — called the SuperSession 16, in honor of Winter Music Festival’s 16th year — also include Calaveras, Cabin Fever NW, Pretty Gritty and Petunia and the Vipers.

“That’s a pretty strong lineup,” Cusack said.

However, Cusack said that’s not what he built the event around.

“I thought of Al Stewart because he had a $6 million selling platinum record and still gets played on the radio,” he said. “I found out John Craigie, who I saw at the Oregon Country Fair, was opening the entire summer tour for Jack Johnson. He’s only going to keep growing. So I thought, ‘Maybe we should build this around them. We’ve got something going here.’ And then we added a few more things.”

Craigie performed at Winter Music Festival in 2016.

Stewart is a Top 40 singer-songwriter and folk-rock musician famous for “Year of the Cat,” “Time Passages” and other albums.

Cusack knew of him through his 44 years of “doing shows” for the Rolling Stones, The B-52s, DJ Logic, Drake, Whiz Khalifa and more.

“I still keep my hands in things. It’s the bottom of the ninth, but I still have my fastball on certain days,” Cusack said.

“The third part of this is Kirk,” Pearson said. “He’s a big bluegrass guy and a player in this, and he’s the one who came up with the idea of adding a fourth part to our festival.”

Mlinek developed Sunday’s Gospel Gumbo Gathering with input from Pavilion Catering and Florence musician Marty Adams.

Adams specially invited local churches to encourage choir members to apply to be in a gospel choir. The group is already rehearsing, and will perform with live accompaniment by Adams’ five-piece band.

“This will not be a church service,” Pearson said. “It’s more that we want you to sing with us. Let’s all sing together.”

Cusack said the music will be a mix between traditional and contemporary.

“We want it to be a combination of religious and secular so we get that cross representation in the community,” he said.

There will also be a mix of local and regional, as Siuslaw graduate and local worship leader Billy Jones emcees the event and Eugene-based a cappella group On the Rocks takes the stage.

“They brings in a little different charge for this,” Cusack said. “We’re going to span the generations with the Gospel Gumbo Gathering.”

The University of Oregon students will wrap up the entire festival.

“The day will be a celebration of faith, life and music rolled into one,” Cusack said.

All that, and traditional New Orleans gumbo, too, for the hour before the music starts.

Pearson said it will give people a chance to gather together and eat before watching their friends, colleagues and community members perform.

“Most importantly, the people are going to get a great show,” Cusack said.

Sponsors have partnered with several of the individual performers with specials and even if a wine tasting.

Cusack can see this aspect expanding in the future, with more community involvement and more music and art in Florence businesses during the event.

“We’re bringing artistry into a small setting where we can be up close and personal with people. The FEC, at the end of the day, is a really excellent venue. Every seat in there is good,” he said.

The organizers hope that the caliber of music, art and vendors will encourage repeat visitors to Florence, especially as some groups, including On the Rocks, will appear in the area for the first time.

“We’re all united in trying to do something good for the community and promote Florence,” Cusack said. “We’re trying to grow the businesses and provide something that hasn’t been done quite to this extent.

“We have an incredible support team and group of advisory people. They’ve been incredibly generous with their time. It’s for us to execute their excellent advice. Once again, Florence is just a fountain of information if you know where to get the right drink. There’s a lot of talent here in Florence, and we intend to tap every bit of it.”

Winter Music Festival is held with support from the Friends of the FEC, area partners, sponsors and committee members, including graphic designer Karylynn Keppol and social media manager SK Lindsey.

“The people who have been on the committee for years have new energy, since they know this is going to work,” Pearson said.

Volunteers are still needed in several key areas during the three-day event, including as ushers greeters and facilitators.

For more information, visit wintermusicfestival.org.