Steel Bridge Songfest "Take It To The Bridge" Concert, June 2010.

LAKELAND BOATING: SEPTEMBER 2010

“BUILDING BRIDGES”

 

Grammy-nominated musician pat mAcdonald, best known for his 1980s band Timbuk3, cofounded Steel Bridge Songfest.

Johanna screwed up her face and glared at me as I tried for a third time to shoehorn her wriggling body into the bright yellow PFD from West Marine. It was only 11 a.m., and my 15-month-old’s first major boating experience was already starting to head south. I glanced at the Four Winns 378 Vista waiting for us at the fuel dock and gritted my teeth. There had to be a better way.

As with so many things in parenting, there was. I quickly gave one last push on her arms and plunked her down on the dock so she could see a clear path to her father. She immediately forgot the offending PFD. I managed to catch one chubby hand before she scuttled off toward the boat, beaming.

Thank goodness. We were bound for Steel Bridge Songfest, and we were looking forward to sharing the festivities with our little daughter.

The Bay and the Bridge

Years ago, when my husband and I decided to leave our jobs in Florida and return to my beloved Great Lakes to build a new life and start a family, we knew there was only one place we wanted to be: Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. This hard-working city of roughly 10,000 year-round residents lies at the heart of the state’s spectacular Door Peninsula, yet it has its own unique vibe.

Sturgeon Bay isn’t a quaint village with fish boils and fresh cherries, although you can certainly find both here. Rather, it’s a busy shipbuilding and marine manufacturing center with worldwide ties, home to Palmer Johnson, Marine Travelift and Bay Shipbuilding, now owned by Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri. It’s a maritime crossroads, courtesy of the 1880-81 ship canal that allows commercial and private vessels to avoid the tricky Death’s Door passage at the peninsula’s tip. It’s a boating and watersports mecca, literally awash with state-of-the-art marinas, boat ramps and parks with impressive public access.

Plus, a tremendous influx of talent from around the country, and even the world, catalyzed an explosion of creative endeavors, cultural offerings and special events, particularly in the last decade.

Then came the fight over the 1930 Michigan Street Bridge, which landed Sturgeon Bay on the front lines in the fight for historic preservation. And when all those creative minds focused on the old steel bridge, something interesting happened. The city became a convergence zone for songwriters and musicians, an authentic hub in the contemporary music scene.

The Michigan Street Bridge is a Sturgeon Bay icon, an easily identifiable landmark that greets incoming boaters like an old friend. The rare schwerzer-type overhead counterweight bascule bridge, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, is currently locked in the up position for rehabilitation and is due to reopen in 2011.

Its future, however, was once far from certain.

In the 1990s, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation decided to tear down and replace the aging bridge. Local resident and preservationist Christie Weber formed a grassroots group called Save Our Bridge, later renamed Citizens for Our Bridge and reorganized as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, to fight the decision. The group raised money to help pay for experts in the planning, preservation and design-review process, and in 2005, it kicked off an unusual new fundraiser: Steel Bridge Songfest.

Weber’s brother, Grammy-nominated musician pat mAcdonald (his preference), cofounded the music festival. The singer-songwriter, who was born in Green Bay and is perhaps best known for his 1980s Timbuk3 hit “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades,” said the now annual event has come a long way since its inception.

“In the first year, it was basically a Jackson Browne concert,” he explained. “That was the draw. Today, the event itself is the draw. People expect to experience new things, to be amazed.”

Prior to each SBSF weekend, invited musicians attend a weeklong songwriting retreat at the Holiday Music Motel, a restored 1952 motel owned by a group of musicians and enthusiasts that includes Browne. During the Construction Zone, songwriters create and record original material that will eventually be available on CD. This year’s compilation, “Steel Bridge Songs: Volume 6,” is scheduled for release in summer 2011.

SBSF then kicks off on Thursday night with the first “Take It Inside” musical performances, held at venues throughout the city. Those indoor performances continue on Friday and Saturday nights, while daytime hours on Saturday and Sunday are devoted to the “Take It to the Bridge” street festival, held at the foot of the Michigan Street Bridge.

“I came in 2007 to be one of the musicians,” said melaniejane (her preference), who performs and tours with mAcdonald and now makes her home in Sturgeon Bay. “At first I wasn’t sure about giving up a whole week, but then I saw everyone so fired up and saw all these great songs being written. I fell in love — with the bridge, the Holiday, the town, the people. It just all made sense.”

At Songfest’s Heart

We cast off the docklines at Skipper Bud’s Quarterdeck Marina on Sturgeon Bay’s west side. As we motored smoothly toward downtown, Jo stared intently at the other boats and then seemed to get lost in the churning water astern.

She cracked a smile when a few fellow boaters waved, laughing outright as we slipped past Great Lakes Yacht Services at the old Palmer Johnson south yard and beneath the Michigan Street Bridge. After a sharp turn to starboard, we spun neatly and backed into a slip at the Stone Harbor Resort & Conference Center.

Operated by Bay Marine, which also runs the Sturgeon Bay Yacht Harbor, this marina was the ideal spot to tie up. The Holiday Music Motel, with its parking lot full of food and beverage vendors, was just across First Avenue, and the arts and crafts tents were easily accessible along First, across from Stone Harbor and GLYS. Best of all, the main stage at First and Michigan was so close, I could’ve hit it with a rock.

We were just in time. At noon, SBSF’s “Take It to the Bridge” street festival officially launched with the Great Sturgeon Bay Ship Horn Soundoff. Simultaneously, the three bridge tenders, all in-port Great Lakes ships, the U.S. Coast Guard, Sturgeon Bay’s fleet of working tugs, the Door County Maritime Museum’s restored John Purves tug and the new Harbor Lady excursion boat sounded their horns with the “Great Lakes Salute,” three long blasts and two short ones. Their subsequent two-minute jam session was a delightful cacophony.

The horns, and laughter, stopped at 12:03 p.m. Corinna Rae performed an opening song, and then Early Thomas and the Tyranny of Evil Men took the stage. They were among 192 scheduled performing acts.

Of these, nearly 70 were songwriters who participated in the Construction Zone. They comprised quite a mix, from fledgling creative talents to more experienced musicians with established careers — such as the Violent Femmes’ Victor DeLorenzo — who have stayed out of the mainstream.

“We had three studios going 24-7,” mAcdonald said. “More than 75 songs were written and recorded in just a few days’ time!”

The Holiday Music Motel features two professional recording studios. A third is located across the bay at the Beach Harbor Resort. This year, musicians stayed in both places, as the Holiday couldn’t accommodate them all.

“We actually couldn’t take everyone who wanted to play,” melaniejane said. “We had literally hundreds of people offering to play for free. To choose who comes, we have to screen their music — it must be original — and they have to understand the bigger picture.”

Steel Bridge Songfest "Take It To The Bridge" Concert, June 2010.

“We make sure they know that we appreciate musicians who don’t come here just to showcase themselves,” mAcdonald added softly. “They need to come here to witness, to enjoy the work of others. There are no rock-star attitudes here.”

“There can’t be,” melaniejane concurred. “It’s about the music.”

That spirit has infused the entire community. Tim Nyberg, a local artist who became a national personality as one of The Duct-Tape Guys, created the ship-horn soundoff in conjunction with Bob Desh, a former U.S. Coast Guardsman who now is executive director of the Door County Maritime Museum. Maritime historian and author Jon Paul Van Harpen, who is becoming known for his traveling pirate exhibits, helped ferry musicians and festival-goers between Stone Harbor and the Beach Harbor Resort by pontoon boat.

Fred and Dawn Wittig, owners of The Healthy Way store and the New Leaf Cafe, were on hand to provide their famous crepes, and the list of “Take It Inside” evening venues read like a Who’s Who of Sturgeon Bay’s best cafes, pubs and restaurants.

Bring on the Boaters

We shouldn’t have worried that the loud music would upset Jo, or that the boat would disrupt her routine. She seemed to get a kick out of the varied “Fathers and Sons, Mothers and Daughters” performances, bobbing unsteadily in her own free-form dance. Afterward, we easily organized her lunch in the Vista’s fully equipped, port-side galley.

Even naptime wasn’t a problem. We set up her Pea Pod sleeper tent on the large forward berth and read a story in the wide-open salon, with Adrienne Hatkin and Right On John providing an inadvertent “Goodnight Moon” soundtrack. Blanket in hand, Jo allowed me to slip her into the Pea Pod, and I closed the forward stateroom’s privacy curtain.

Soon she was asleep, gently rocking with the boat, unperturbed with the live music and noisy merrymaking at Stone Harbor’s new tiki bar. And while our Jo enjoyed the longest nap of her life, we put up our feet in the Vista’s spacious cockpit and enjoyed cold beverages as the Italian group Solo Per Adulti took the stage.

Later, after freshly made gyros and the Wittigs’ decadent Nutella-and-cherry crepes, we found Jo’s grandparents and chose a spot on Michigan Street where the road sloped down to the stage, offering a unobstructed view. We danced openly, Jo bouncing cheerfully in her stroller. And we weren’t alone.

For boaters, SBSF is a perfect event. It lies within easy walking distance of the Stone Harbor and CenterPointe marinas, and transients at Snug Harbor, Bay Marine’s Sturgeon Bay Yacht Harbor or Skipper Bud’s Quarterdeck Marina can undertake a longer walk or simply ask for a ride. Most marinas will happily provide courtesy car service; there are taxis in town as well.

If you’re staying farther away, at facilities such as Wave Pointe Marina & Resort on Little Sturgeon Bay, simply book a slip at Stone Harbor for the day. The same applies to trailer boaters taking advantage of one of the city’s five launch ramps. It’s worth the short cruise into town to have such a great location — and such a comfortable base camp. We noticed more than a few longing looks from footsore passers-by who didn’t pack camp chairs.

When you do leave your boat, you’ll appreciate the city’s compact size and walkability even more. We pushed Jo’s stroller up and down the blocks we know so well, marveling at all the changes as the bands played on. The recession has been rough here, as it has been everywhere, but it’s encouraging to see the results of “creative destruction.”

New Amid the Old

Blen’s Family Restaurant has opened in the building that once housed the Pudgy Seagull, Family Thyme Restaurant has taken over Sage, and The Company Store Cafe is now where Cafe Launch used to be. The Wittigs opened their New Leaf Cafe in a long-empty cafe building, providing the community with all-natural, organic meals and a variety of vegan, vegetarian, gluten- and dairy-free options.

Andy Mueller, former chef at The Glidden Lodge, refurbished the old Nautical Inn pub and reopened it as a full-service restaurant. Chef Andy’s Nautical Inn is already renowned for its steaks, seafood and prime rib.

On the west side, Andre’s has reopened under new ownership, while the defunct bar The Stein has been impressively transformed into Kitty O’Reilly’s Irish Pub, complete with shepherd’s pie and proper pints of Guinness.

Perry’s Cherry Diner is no more, but boaters with onboard pets must visit the vintage building’s new tenant, Stove Dog Bakery. The owners prepare homemade treats in the commercial kitchen, sell every possible pet product and, on nice days, host events on their deck or in the parking lot next door.

If you are jonesing for that milkshake, however, stop at Door County Candy. This business used to be called Copper Kettle Confections, but seeing a need in the marketplace, its owners moved into a larger shop and expanded their offerings. Between it and the venerable Door County Confectionery down the road, no sweet tooth need go unsatisfied.

Make sure to pop into the Fairfield Building across the street and visit Gallery 42, Nyberg’s art gallery. He frequently hosts painting-to-live-music events and special G42 receptions with complimentary wine and coffee, and his contemporary artwork is worth experiencing.

Sturgeon Bay has a number of working studios and private galleries; many of these artists have joined Nyberg in the new Sturgeon Bay Artists Collective. The Miller Art Museum hosts art exhibitions year-round, and if you’re interested in the performing arts, check out the Third Avenue Playhouse.

History buffs won’t want to miss the Door County Historical Museum on Fourth Avenue, or the Door County Maritime Museum, whose world-class facility lies just across the bay. DCMM is currently showing “Ghosts! Haunted Lighthouses of the Great Lakes” in its second-floor galleries, and it hosts a summer concert series on its waterfront lawn.

This past summer, the city of Sturgeon Bay launched a second concert series. Titled Harmony by the Bay, it’s held on Tuesday evenings at Martin Park. Once the site of a community pool, the east-side park also features a Wednesday night farmer’s market to complement its Saturday-morning sister at nearby Market Square.

At the waterfront, don’t miss Graham Park. Created when the old Peterson Brothers Inc. shipyard property was redeveloped, the park incorporates a lovely promenade and a series of historic markers. Or visit west-side Otumba Park, where Bay Shore Outdoor Store rents kayaks, paddleboats and stand-up paddleboards.

You may prefer to tour the city by bicycle. In that case, stop at Path & Paddle Outfitters, which rents classic bicycles in addition to selling kayaks and other outdoor gear.

Holiday Vision

At the end of the day, we packed up our tired girl and headed back to the Quarterdeck, where families were already preparing elaborate picnic suppers in the marina’s open-air pavilion. If you have a cruising boat, you’ll tuck into your marina when night falls; if you’re a trailer boater, however, you’ll need a place to stay.

Fortunately, Sturgeon Bay has a range of options, from full-fledged resorts to historic bed-and-breakfasts — and don’t forget the Holiday Music Motel. While the Holiday was booked with musicians during SBSF, it’s open to guests year-round, and it hosts events such as writers’ nights, open mics and house concerts. There are even plans to develop an artist-in-residence program.

It’s been quite a journey for the new owners. Just a few weeks after Holiday Motel Management purchased the Cubist Modern facility in 2007, fire broke out. The Holiday closed its doors for the next two years.

“We opened just in time for Steel Bridge Songfest last year,” mAcdonald said. “(Now) there’s a lot of energy and hope around this place.

“The idea was for this motel to facilitate an influx of creative talents to infuse the town and all its venues with great music,” he continued. “Our vision was to bring about an awakening of music and arts in Sturgeon Bay.”

In the wake of the 5,000-plus turnout for this year’s SBSF, pat mAcdonald and melaniejane are already thinking about improvements.

“We’d like to have more kids’ activities, like an ‘instrument petting zoo’ and maybe a community mural,” melaniejane said. “We also need to do more with all-ages stages. Kids want to see musicians like Eric McFadden and Geri X too. And we need to seek more youth bands like Orpheus…”

“They were pretty much a one-band ska revival,” mAcdonald interjected enthusiastically. “When people experience something like that, they leave with the impression they saw something amazing that they never expected.

“We envision that one day hundreds of songwriters will converge on Sturgeon Bay,”  he continued. “A lot will be spontaneous and unorganized, because it’ll take on a life of its own. Sturgeon Bay is where all this talent can coalesce — there’s something about the energy here.”

We agree.

For more information about Steel Bridge Songfest, visit www.steelbridgesongfest.com and www.holidaymusicmotel.com. To learn more about Sturgeon Bay and Door County, visit www.sturgeonbay.net and www.doorcounty.com.

pat mAcdonald photo courtesy of Ty Helbach Photography.