Steely Resolve: Steel Bridge Sonfest 4

(Left to right) Jackson Browne, headliner, and pat mAcdonald, event organizer, will return for year four of Steel Bridge SongFest. Photo by Dan Eggert.

I met Christie Weber to talk about the fourth edition of Steel Bridge SongFest at Sturgeon Bay’s Café Launch, a 3rd Ave. restaurant that pays homage to the city’s industrial ship-building heritage. The restaurant is located just beyond shouting distance from the Michigan Street Bridge, the historic span that inspired the Sturgeon Bay music festival, and even closer to the new bridge under construction that’s meant to ease its burden.

Historic Michigan Street Bridge. Photo by Dan Eggert.

The old bridge is a passion of Weber’s, a civic activist who fought for years to save it from the wrecking ball, eventually channeling her energies into the SongFest as a means of educating the public about the value of the effort.

Historic preservation isn’t often associated with live music, taverns, or festivals, but the arduous struggle to preserve the historic symbol of the city has given birth to an annual, thriving songwriting festival and a fermenting music scene.

Steel Bridge SongFest returns June 12 – 14 at the foot of the historic Michigan Street Bridge. Headlined once again by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jackson Browne, it is an event of uncommon purpose and has a singular hold on its participants that keeps them coming back, as well as has new participants lining up each year.

Eric McFadden and pat mAcdonald perform at the Hitching Post in Valmy. Photo by Dan Eggert.

Singer melaniejane of Milwaukee was introduced to Door County when she came up for last year’s Steel Bridge SongFest, lured by the persistent overtures of the event’s brainchild, Weber’s brother and musician pat mAcdonald.

“I really think you should do it,” she recalled him pleading. “And when you do, you’re gonna say ‘wow, to think I almost didn’t do it.’”

Like so many other musicians, she found she just couldn’t resist mAcdonald’s enthusiasm.

“Pat’s spirit is so infectious,” she said. “He’s so big-hearted, so open-minded.”

The weekend left an indelible mark on melaniejane’s psyche.

“Everyone always had this kid-in-a-candy-store kind of look on their face,” she said of last year’s festival. “I didn’t want to sleep because you’d lay down and think ‘oh my god, I might be missing something right now.’”

She took part in the Construction Zone, a weeklong songwriting festival run in conjunction with Steel Bridge. Construction Zone musicians arrive June 8 and spend the week in an intense drive to collaborate and write songs using the bridge as a theme. Last year the first volume of songs from the zone was released, and a two-disc collection of songs recorded at last year’s festival will be released at this year’s event.

The musicians who take part in the festival form a bond with each other and the city that goes far beyond what transpires at any regular gig.

“Other festivals like this you have to pay to go to, and you have to pay a lot,” melaniejane said. “Here you have all these people dedicating food, service, time. I really don’t know of anything else like it.”

When last year’s SongFest ended, melaniejane found it difficult to let it go. “I remember leaving Steel Bridge and crying,” she said. But she was pulled back to the county later in the summer, lured by a peninsula appreciative and embracing of its artists.

Jackson Browne, headliner of Steel Bridge SongFest. Photo by Dan Eggert.

“I just love the community up there,” she said.

Steel Bridge is pulled off with 100 percent volunteer support. The organizers and artists aren’t paid, and the bulk of publicity is generated by participating musicians over the Internet, with heavy use of MySpace and old-fashioned word of mouth. Weber said the festival’s image and feel is all a reflection of mAcdonald’s personality.

“Pat doesn’t want the corporate image,” she said. “You could run this like other festivals and make lots of money, but it’s not about that.”

John Hanson owns the Beach Harbor Resort in Sturgeon Bay and credits Steel Bridge organizers for bringing something new to the city and doing so on an otherwise slow weekend.

“To do this on their own is incredible,” he said, referring to the fact that it wasn’t created out of the visitor bureau or a business association. “It’s great publicity for the county and it puts people in rooms. It’s more vibrant downtown on that weekend than any other time of the year. And they just did it. It’s the first real thing created in the city in so many years.”

Hanson said he realized a 30 percent increase in bookings in the first year of the festival.

“Pat’s kind of created a new holiday,” said Mark McClellan, the 30 year-old owner of Valmy’s Hitching Post Tavern, where many Steel Bridge participants have gone on to play the past couple years.

The “new holiday” will operate amidst two significant hurdles in 2008 – the stall of the Holiday Motel repairs and the ongoing reconstruction of 3rd Ave.

“We’ll work around it as best we can,” Weber said of the 3rd Ave. construction. The trolley ferrying revelers will have to take a few more turns and probably cost a few more dollars, but Weber said festivities should carry on just the same. The Holiday Motel, however, is a different story.

Owned by a combination of Steel Bridge principals, including mAcDonald, Weber, and Browne, the motel was originally expected to be a centerpiece of this year’s event, but insurance delays have stalled repairs to the building made necessary by a fire last August. The motel will likely be open near the end of June, but not in time for the festival.

As a result the Construction Zone will be moved to the Beach Harbor Resort. A pontoon boat will ferry participants from the resort to 3rd Ave.

“It’s a good thing we’re used to operating by the seat of our pants,” Weber said, “or these problems would have gotten us down.”

As the festival has evolved so has its purpose. In 2005 it was all about creating awareness and visibility for the struggle to preserve the bridge.

“Originally the goal was to change peoples’ minds,” Weber said. “We had to prove that this whole effort has merit.”

Now more energy and focus is being put toward making money for the bridge preservation fund.

That money is going in three directions, the first of which is the cost of producing the festival – the stage, insurance and support. Another chunk goes into recording the music created and donated by the artists, which is then sold to bring in more money. The last avenue is the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a fund which currently holds $25,000 for future bridge maintenance.

Last year organizers held a post-festival forum with the community to gather feedback. Weber said serious complaints were minimal, but they did receive valuable suggestions.

“We found out that we could be more organized,” she joked. “But greening of the festival did come up as well. People criticized us for being about preservation and not preserving the environment.”

In response Steel Bridge organizers have taken several steps to reduce the event’s environmental footprint.

“This year we’ll have commemorative, reusable cups so there’s not as much trash,” she said. “We’ve implemented a green committee working with Sustain Door to help coordinate greening of the festival. We’re reducing waste, using recycling bins, and working on a way to monitor those bins to make sure people use them.”

She also said they’re looking at offsetting the energy used for the stage with solar panels and asking all their vendors to keep waste reduction in mind.

Near the end of our conversation, all eyes turned toward the restaurant’s large front windows. The new Sturgeon Bay drawbridge was opening for the very first time a couple hundred yards from its time-tested predecessor.

“That’s history,” Weber said. “That’s history right there.”

One wonders if it too, will one day be worth fighting for.

Related Organizations