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July 15, 2005

Thirty years of rocking revolution

Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival marks three decades
with ‘the best party on the planet

Hart, Mich.--All they wanted was a good time. Thirty years ago, when a teen-aged Lisa Vogel and her friends organized the first Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, they didn't realize they were launching one of the most enduring cultural institutions of what was then still called the women’s liberation movement. They only knew they didn’t want to drive to Chicago just to catch a good show.

Now, three decades later, the festival still delivers a good time--Tribe 8's Lynn Breedlove calls Michigan "the best party on the planet." But for most who make the annual pilgrimage to the fern-cushioned campsites under the ancient oaks, the festival is more than merrymaking. It's one week of respite from a world still steeped in sexism. It's a family reunion, even if you don't yet know anyone there. It's a place of physical freedom, of connection with the land, bodies, and the fearless night sky.

“I love that everyone is encouraged to be whomever or whatever they are with no apologies," says one festivalgoer.

"I love the opportunity for my daughter to see all the ways one can look and all the things women can do," says another.

And when the week is done and the gear is packed, says a third: "I go home with my heart burst open, believing in myself."

The artists featured in the 30th anniversary line-up are as diverse in generation, geography and genre as the audience itself. Producer Vogel calls this year's program "a celebration of the history of the lesbian feminist movement and of women in music and the performing arts." It's a dynamic fusion of the legacies that each generation can claim as their own.

Icons of the 1970s--Holly Near, Ferron, Cris Williamson, Teresa Trull and Barbara Higbie, Mary Watkins, and Alive!--share this year's stage with punk/ pop phenoms the Butchies, Le Tigre, and Tribe 8. Long-time festival favorites Indigo Girls, Betty, Toshi Reagon, and Ulali will get down with more recent sensations like Bitch, Paprika, and Animal Prufrock.

Two of last year's hottest newcomers return, East Coast rap duo God-Des and Canadian hip-hop rocker Ember Swift. Headlining on the Night Stage for the first time is Gail Ann Dorsey, fresh off tours with David Bowie and Ani DiFranco. Michigan first-timers include Sistas in the Pit, a funk rock trio from San Francisco; Slanty Eyed Momma, political poetry performed over beats with electric violin; and Yvette Narlock, a Canadian troubadour who has toured with k.d. lang.

Even with three stages and nearly forty separate sets, accommodating all of the artists who wanted to play the 30th was a challenge, according to Vogel. Not only was it a gig they couldn't miss, many performers plan to stay the week for the opportunity to sit in on each other's sets. Several venues offer built-in camaraderie: the acoustic stage's Singer-Songwriter Spotlight, Round Robin on the day stage, and the fuse that fires up the festival's high time: the opening celebration on the August 10 night stage.

This year's opening night offers a high-energy tribute to the power chords and throbbing bass lines that said "girl power" before the phrase was invented. "30 Years of Rock Chix Lix," directed by Betty’s Alyson Palmer, features performers from the entire week's line up paying homage to the mainstream music that has rocked women's worlds: anthems by Pat Benatar, Blondie, Melissa Etheridge, Heart, Queen Latifah and more.

And that's just the music. Acclaimed comics Elvira Kurt and Suzanne Westenhoefer, and performance pioneers the Dance Brigade return with an eclectic range of theatrical artists. From the "land down under" come not one but two irreverent musical comedy duos: New Zealand's Topp Twins, and festie-virgins Novak ’n’ Goode from Australia. Hanifah Walidah's one woman show Black Folks Guide to Black Folks explores sexuality, health, love, faith, and fear through an entire neighborhood of characters. In another one-woman tour de force, Julie Goldman's Third Party will ignite the house with her timely and righteous political rant.

The festival closes August 14 with traditions old and new. The morning showcases concerts created by festigoers in Ubaka Hill's Drumsong Orchestra and Aleah Long's One World Inspirational Choir. When night finally falls, Ruth Barrett closes the circle with the hush rituals of the Candlelight Concert. In between, the afternoon's energy will fly through the air with the greatest of ease, at the second annual Circus Fever, featuring the aerial and acrobatic arts of Lava and Wise Fool New Mexico, who performed at the Cleveland Pride festival.

With a steady but ever-changing audience of 4,000 to 5000 women and children, the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival is more than a series of concerts. It is a highly-organized, self-sustaining community. “Festi-goers” meet women from around the world through workshifts producing vegetarian meals or making all the systems hum: child care, health care, transportation, recycling.

You name a job, and there's a woman having a good time doing it. Time not spent at concerts or workshifts is passed learning American Sign Language at the Community Center, engaging in some of the hundreds of workshops, running the Lois Lane 5K, taking in the Film Festival or Crafts Bazaar, joining the Butch Strut or the Femme Parade, or simply wandering the paths with a smile for all you encounter.

Holly Near, who performed at the first Michigan 30 years ago, says, "The festival now is like a wise old city. Many of us gather ideas and cultural response so we may go back out in to the world, energized and ready to end the war in Iraq, confront the Patriot Act, and close down kid jails. But what is also fun about the festival is that you can choose to arrive with no plan, forget about the world, listen to great music, find a cute girlfriend and dance all night!"

Thirty years later, Lisa Vogel shows no sign of calling it quits. "I plan to keep at it as long as it is a fun, stimulating, and rejuvenating space for women," she says. "As much progress as we've made in gender politics, this planet is still a conservative place to be a radical woman. Young women who come to the Festival today tell me they need this space as much as we did 30 years ago."

The price for the full August 9 to 14 period of camping, meals, and all programming and services is $350 - $410 (sliding scale) if purchased before July 16; and $385 - $435 after then. Entrance fees from Wednesday through Sunday are reduced. See the festival web site at for details, or call 231-7574766.

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