Kristen McFarland, acting event coordinator for this year’s NedFest up in Nederland, has spent the last nine months keeping the festival alive, on schedule and, with some help at the box office, on budget. But despite the fact that she was one of Michigan Mike Torpie’s volunteer assistants in shows past and got to watch Torpie in action (and help, as much as he would let her), whipping the show together over the years, she is still astonished at the festival founder’s year-to-year success despite his maddeningly haphazard organizational ethic.
“The longer it goes, the more amazed I am,” she says. “I’ve gained so much respect for Mike. Now, at this point, I kind of feel like a heel for giving him so much shit over the years. It’s really incredible what he managed to accomplish.
“Out of everybody involved here, there’s six of us really doing a ton of work. And he didn’t really delegate that well. We all helped a little in the past, but not nearly as much as we’re doing now.”
Keller Williams | Photo credit: C. Taylor Crothers
In most of the real world, festivals are typically mini-businesses pieced together by committee, often by promotion companies farming out the various competencies involved (booking talent, coordinating with local agencies, crowd control, vendor relations, etc.), but NedFest was always Michigan Mike’s baby. Most of us in the local music press recall Torpie in the weeks leading up to NedFest as a study in pure Newtonian inertia; a phone in each ear, lists of lists, sparks dancing off loose ends, a Jackson Pollock portrait of divine chaos, with Torpie running on autopilot and jousting with exhaustion, sprinting toward festival day when he could zigzag across the festival grounds like a crazed free radical, his fingerprints imprinted deep into the back of his clipboard.
It might have made sense, then, to sunset the event after Torpie’s death late last year. But NedFest had quietly grown from a Mike Torpie enterprise, an extension of the various club shows and late-night jams he hosted in and around Nederland in the 1990s, into a genuine community event. A group of volunteers, mostly friends who lent Torpie a hand with the show over the years, founded the nonprofit Peak to Peak Music Education Association (PPMEA) to keep the festival running and channel any extra proceeds to local schools’ music education programs.
Kyle Hollingsworth | Photo credit: Nitai Vinitsky
Torpie’s personality, of course, still lingers over the proceedings — several of the acts climbing the stage are returning from earlier years, and pretty much everyone associated with the festival has a Michigan Mike story that circumscribes the energy of an impassioned, and sometimes tortured, spirit. But we couldn’t help asking McFarland if she thought that music festivals are better executed by committee or, in Torpie’s case, the blurred baton of a single conductor.
“That’s a difficult question to answer,” McFarland says. “I’d say we’re getting a few of the things done … less ‘last minute.’ … I only work half-time, so I’m able to devote the rest of the time to NedFest. But none of us are doing it full time. Mike’s parents and family are coming out to the show this year, and I’m looking forward to seeing them, because I want to tell them how hard he worked at this. We all thought he was a slacker, but boy were we wrong.”
Apart from losing its founding light, this year’s NedFest has also faced a couple of scheduling challenges. The USA Pro Cycling Challenge bicycle race drops its sixth stage right at NedFest’s front door on Saturday, with the riders climbing Boulder Canyon on their way north along the Peak to Peak toward Lyons. McFarland says that the NedFest folks are providing a little incentive to minimize the potential supernova of tie-dye Los and French-labeled spandex.
“The bike race is only going to affect us for one hour of one day, Saturday. But we’re running a promotion called ‘Beat The Bike Race’ — everyone who arrives the first hour on Saturday gets a free gift. … Our gates open at 11:30 [a.m.], and the last we heard from the bike race people, the canyon will be closed from noon to 1 p.m., during which time they’ll be directing people up Coal Creek. So we’re encouraging people to come up early.”
The scheduling of Yonder Mountain’s Kinfolk Celebration at Planet Bluegrass in Lyons on the same Friday and Saturday raised a few eyebrows in the local music scene as well, but McFarland says the NedFest folks got very early notice on that.
“Craig Ferguson from Planet Bluegrass, many many months ago even a few months before they announced Kinfolk — emailed me and gave me the head’s up. So we kind of backed off from having bluegrass headliners. We have some bluegrass during the day … but mostly this is more of a jam band show.
“Mike, over the years, usually had both, but I just leaned a little more toward the jam band thing this year, so as not to compete with Kinfolk. And Kinfolk isn’t on Sunday; I’ve heard a lot of the Ned folks tell me that if they are going to Kinfolk, they’ll be at NedFest on Sunday.”
And when asked, on the record, if NedFest is confirmed for next year, McFarland was unequivocal.
“Yes. We’re confirmed for next year.”