Steel Bridge 2019

Downsizing the festival to nurture the dream

A message from pat mAcdonald

Not everyone is cut out to be P.T. Barnum. Some of us shy away from any glint of grandiosity, finding greater fascination in subtler, more mysterious constructs. All the people I’ve met in my life could maybe fill a stadium, but I doubt you’d find any P.T. Barnums in there. If I did meet one and she had the time, maybe I’d recruit her to help us grow Steel Bridge Songfest into “The Greatest Show On Earth” (if greatest meant biggest), but I’m neither anxious to meet, nor do I seem to attract, that kind of person.

The people I tend to get close to are struggling artists. They’re not trying to make it big; they’re just trying to make it better, whatever “it” is. And if better happens to be bigger, that’s fine. But big is beside the point. The Steel Bridge (our trusty role model) is no bigger than it needs to be for straddling the water.

A small percentage of the world’s population thinks and feels much like we do. They fill Third Avenue Playhouse six nights a year for Steel Bridge, Dark Songs, and Love On Holiday. They come from everywhere to honor our community with songs and performances. These are the people we never want to disappoint. This is why Steel Bridge Songfest will continue into the future in whatever form it takes.

With the aid of friends and other like-minded benefactors, we’ll continue to extract songs from the local landscape and culture, to expand Sturgeon Bay’s legacy while becoming better songwriters and hopefully better people in the process. We’ll pursue this kind of plein air painting that digs into the ground to find buried treasure.

The typical festival is alcohol-driven, where beverage sales equal success. As in many bars, music is there to attract drinkers. When the music crowd drinks less than the regulars, the bar stops having music. There are notable exceptions to this and we’ll love and support them as they’ve supported us, but the economics of a pub crawl doesn’t fit our vision anymore. Until the masses start supporting these events for the music itself, we need to pursue a smaller, more alternative route.

Here’s a shocking truth: most of our best songwriters are nondrinkers. This doesn’t mean we’re prohibitionists. (I’m proud of my parents’ bar business, and yes, I need to say that, but I’m not lying.) It only means we’re not liquor-driven. It’s not in our business plan.

And being a nonprofit, we’re not profit-driven either, yet we do want to improve the experiences we create – not just for the public, but for ourselves, too. The trick is to give as much as we can without killing ourselves, and keep it fun and meaningful so we don’t burn out or become bitter. Why use up all our energy on things that other people are doing better? We want to focus on the things we do best, the things that make us unusual.

What makes us unusual is the way we approach collaboration – the big circle, the bottle spin, the theme writing – and the fact that we’re creating a body of work, not just a momentary thrill. We’re like a construction crew building collections of future campfire songs (little bridges floating in air).

So why does the bridge, like beer or wine, deserve its own festival? There are plenty of reasons. Sturgeon Bay’s Michigan Street Bridge is arguably the centerpiece of Door County; it’s a vital part of our infrastructure, a technological oddity and the greatest metaphor of all time. It has inspired 14 volumes of Steel Bridge Songs, the majority being double discs. And with each passing year, our efforts to find new ways to glorify the enduring monstrosity climb to such absurd heights; the results are increasingly weird, ridiculous and profound. There’s something truly exhilarating in trying to exhaust a topic. As with love or death, the possibilities are endless.

This year at TAP, seating is assigned, so if you want to choose your night or your seat, or if you’re coming in a group and want to sit together, please go online to get your tickets early at or stop by the Holiday Music Motel. Tickets are good for the TAP shows and all after-parties (venues TBA). If you can’t make it to a show, you can still make a tax-deductible contribution at


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