Every year has new artwork.
Last weekend, I got a real treat!

The fates (and the finances) aligned themselves so that Gordon and I got to drive up to Michigan for the weekend, surprise our parents, and go to one of my favorite Grand Rapids summer traditions, Festival.

Festival (follow them on twitter!) is the largest all-volunteer arts festival in the country. The first weekend in June every summer sees downtown Grand Rapids shut down, marquees and stages go up, and hundreds of thousands of people descend to listen to music, people-watch, sunbathe, eat food off sticks, watch performances, create art, and more! It's a tradition to get your first sunburn of the year at festival, and it marks the start of summer in Grand Rapids.

I remember going to Festival when I was little, and it was a wonderland. As a kid, you can ride in a giant tire swing hung from an iron sculpture. You can create masterpieces with wood pieces at the Glue-in. You can paint pictures. You can do swing art, which is when you suspend markers above a large piece of white paper and swing it back and forth and around to create spirally, loopy, helixy patterns. There's a station where princes and princesses can make crowns and hats. There are buckets of sidewalk chalk to mark up the paths.
From the iron sculpture hangs a giant tire swing, the di Suervo Swing.

For adults, there's music at almost every corner, a pavilion where local artists sell paintings, sculptures, jewelery, what have you. Monroe street is lined with booths from local communities offering every kind of food from Mexican to Polish, American, Bosnian, Indian, Vietnamese...Things that don't even look like food, but smell like heaven.

In addition to all of the things out in the newly-summery sun, the art museum is free the whole weekend! If you feel like you're about to get sunstroke out in the street, you can head into the cool of the museum. In the museum, you can see the Art Prize winners from the previous fall.
Click to view full size!
My mom and I only went one day this year, Sunday, the last day. We were in a mood to praise Festival as one of the triumphs of Grand Rapids, after all of this business with Newsweek allowing idiots to post things saying that my pretty city was dying. And as we walked through throngs of people in tank tops, shorts, tshirts, and sundresses, right down the middle of the street, through clouds of wafting smells, hearing snatches of music, I realized that not only is Grand Rapids emphatically NOT dying, it is improving and becoming a better place to live every year.

I only get to go back every few months, so the changes are really apparent to me. I notice how things are getting cleaner and newer. Every time I go home, new buildings are being renovated. Every time I go to an event downtown, it's more successful. Every time I hear about Grand Rapids, it's something positive.

And this year's festival was full of people to reinforce that.

Calder Stage, with Calder's sculpture, La Grande Vitesse. 
There were many stages at Festival: the Calder Stage (right in front of the sculpture by Alexander Calder that is the symbol of the city,) the Fountain Stage (on the corner of Monroe and Fountain streets,) City Stage (on the corner of Monroe and Ottawa streets,) and Circle Stage (a permanent stage in Rosa Parks Circle, which can be seen in the ubiquitous lip dub.) There is no way anyone can see all of the performances throughout the festival, and admittedly, some are better than others. My mom and I had no interest in the mediocre gospel choir, but back at the Clock Tower stage we found a duo we liked and sat in the sun to watch

On the stage were two men, one with a guitar (Bruce Evans) and one with a bass (Gene Brott.) They were playing a popular Matchbox Twenty song we both knew, which is what drew us in, but primarily they play classic rock. They admitted to the audience after the song that they were only two of a complete band, but the soulfulness of Evans's voice and the fullness of the music could have fooled me. They were a part of a cover band called CounterBalance, described in Festival's program as "a 1968 to 1988 classic vocal rock band." After the Matchbox Twenty song, they played a few songs from those years, and then closed with "Freefalling," and it was a perfect summer moment for me. The sun was hot, and there was good, live music in front of me.

Bruce Evans and Gene Brott of CounterBalance
After the duo from CounterBalance finished, we decided to wander off and see what else there was to be seen. At the City Stage, we found the Ardan Academy of Irish Dance  performing. They were young people, from a tiny 7 or 8 year old girl in white-bright blond hair, all the way up to teenagers. The music was energetic and modern, and the dancers matched every beat of the intricate music under the bright sun as if it were effortless. Even the tiny girl hit every mark. When they came out as a group, they were in sync. They were a joy to watch, and there was not a seat to be had in the audience. My mom and I jostled for a good view, and when the dancers finished, we clapped enthusiastically along with the full audience.

Festival this year was hot and crowded, just as it should be. It remains one of my favorite parts of the year, whether I get to go all three days or just one, whether I stay for hours and do everything, or stay only a short time and enjoy the ambiance.

And it reinforces to me the values that are evident in Grand Rapids: Community, innovation, involvement, and enrichment.

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