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Red Wing native's music festival grows

Minneapolis-based songstress Dessa performs as part of Mid West Music Fest’s 5th Birthday Party Wednesday April 23 in Winona.

Red Wing native Sam Brown has changed the landscape of the music scene in Winona.

On the verge of its fifth year, Brown’s musically masterminded Mid West Music Fest in the small college-driven river town has boasted bigger, better and broader bands year after year.

This year’s three-day festival runs April 24-26 and has more than 120 bands sprinkled over 13 stages in the downtown area.

Headlining performances include Dessa, Nicholas David, Caroline Smith, Charlie Parr, John Mark Nelson, Lizzo and the Cactus Blossoms among many others.

“It all builds into one thing — building community through music. That’s been the tagline ever since the beginning,” Brown said. “It’s helped me keep the vision of what it is and what it means to the community. Bringing people together and getting them all excited to be here in Winona for the festival is pretty cool.”

The 2003 Red Wing High School graduate has a lengthy and successful history of founding music-related festivals.

Take a look back at his high school years, for example.

“I always liked the talent shows,” he said, remembering his teenage years, “but felt there was something missing for all of us rockers that wanted to play more music for people.”

With support from students, staff and citizens, Brown organized Loud and Local, a student-based concert packed with developing high-school talent, showcasing acts from duets to garage bands.

The overwhelming success of the show led to an ongoing school tradition and that eventually became part of the River City Days line-up where it annually is resurrected.

Fast forward to today, and several thriving festivals later, to find Brown catapulted into one of the Midwest’s biggest blossoming events.

His ability to creatively conceptualize festivals while helping the community collectively to dust off the dancing shoes has landed him under a significantly larger spotlight year after year.

Now a Winona resident, Brown’s debut MWMF in 2010 was the first-of-its-kind event in the area that brought together more than 70 bands and musical acts at various venues to raise funds for local non-profit organizations including Winona Semcac Head Start, Winona Fine Arts Commission and Winona360.

Since then the festival has grown into a three-day event with more than 120 bands and 17 venues.

“It’s kind of magical, people are just excited to be there,” he said.

But Brown takes all the work in stride.

“I see it as a really positive contribution to society,” he said.

This year, Brown has handed the directive torch over to friend Parker Forsell, saying it’s been a good transition.

“Rotating out of the helm to being more of a supportive role for Parker, I’ve made myself available to help guide him, but at the end of the day it’s his job to put on festival this year,” Brown said. “We make a really good team — where he is very spreadsheet- and detail-oriented, I have long-range planning and that sort of thing.”

In fact, MWMF is in the process of filing for 501C3 Non-Profit status.

Plans to take the festival outside its typical three-day run are also in the works. Brown wants to have year-round presence in Winona.

“I’ve gotta pinch myself to realize that all that hard work has changed into something bigger than expected,” he added. “The festival has become a fabric of Winona’s culture, identity and arts community. I think that’s cool.”

Festival-goers can expect everything from polka to pop and bluegrass to barn dances.

People are giddy, Brown says describing the festival’s atmosphere, and it’s like opening a present on Christmas — but actually discovering a new band.

Additions to this year’s festival include a new stage built in Levee Park, workshops for musicians, official MWMF merchandise and an on-site screen printer, printing T-shirts live, of course.

The festival kicks off with a fifth-year birthday party set for Wednesday April 23 complete with performances by Nicholas David, Shoe Shop, Dessa and Apollo Cobra.

As Brown prepares for the overwhelming week ahead, he also looks to the future, noting he is very interested in building communities through music in other nearby towns as well.

“I’m very proud of what I’m accomplished to this date and hope to continue to make significant contributions to the event and organization in the future,” Brown said.

For more information about MWMF or to see the complete musical line-up, check out or find the festival on Facebook.

Tickets are $20 per day and $60 for a festival pass. Discounts are available, including six-person group rates.

If you go …

What: Mid West Music Fest, beginning with a special 5th year birthday party Wednesday April 23.

When: Thursday April 24-Saturday April 26

Where: Downtown Winona

Cost: $20 per day, $60 festival pass, $40 festival pass for six-person group rate

More info:

Stacy Bengs-Silverberg

Stacy Bengs has been a photojournalist at the Red Wing Republican Eagle since 2010. She holds a bachelors degree in journalism and art from the University of Minnesota.

(651) 301-7880