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The Journal Gazette

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Saturday, September 24, 2016 10:01 pm

Catching the Middle Waves

Matt Kelley

Listen. Hear that? It’s the sound of Fort Wayne rising.

You can hear it around every corner. Dining and living options abound. Sporting events send cheers through the night. Cranes dot our skyline and new buildings ascend. (And they’re surrounded by food trucks.)

But it’s music that fills the streets and invigorates our souls.

Over the past decade, there’s been an uprising in our live music and festival scene. And it grows louder every day.

That volume came to a crescendo with last weekend’s first-ever Middle Waves Music Festival, which took over the entirety of Headwaters Park for two days.

Middle Waves is a "destination music festival" – think a smaller (for now) version of Chicago’s Lollapalooza or Pitchfork Music Festival – which encourages patrons to spend the weekend at the event. With three stages of music, food, beer, art and activities galore, attendees "choose their own adventure" and build their own festival experience.

Touring bands use summer festivals to circle the country, and so it’s not necessarily the national acts that make a festival special. Instead, it’s the way the event embodies, invigorates and captures the soul of the community it calls home.

Middle Waves sought to do just that.

Its three stages – St. Marys, Maumee and St. Joseph – welcomed 30 performers. Twenty of them call northeastern Indiana home.

From musicians who have shared their art with Fort Wayne audiences for more than a decade, like hip-hop impresarios Andromeda or melodic rock marvels The Orange Opera, to those who have more recently arrived on the scene, like folk pop wonders Oferle and rock dynamos The B45’s, Middle Waves didn’t feature something for everyone so much as everything for everyone.

Artists and groups like Theoplis Smith, Frank Allen, Photanical, Cinema Center and more each offered pop-up art experiences. The festival’s unique and interactive vibe installations were created, quite literally, by a family of volunteers. And, food and beverages were provided by many of Fort Wayne’s finest food trucks and restaurants.

These Fort Wayne jewels were joined by buzzy national acts at, or just approaching, the height of their careers, including the surf rock of Best Coast, garage rock of Bully, hip-hop of Oddisee and electronic pop of Tanlines.

Saturday night’s headliners, The Flaming Lips, performed a sensory-overloading 90-minute set so dazzling that many audience members will spend the rest of their lives recalling two eras in their life: before that performance, and after it.

As a nonprofit festival for and about the community, we were pleased to present two of the three stages and arts/food village as free and open to the public, with tickets required only for the main St. Marys Stage.

In the movie School of Rock, teacher Dewey Finn (played by Jack Black) implores his students: "This is serious business! We’ve got a mission. Putting on a great show is the most important thing you can do. One great rock show can change the world!"

Dewey’s words served as a rallying cry to those who made the festival happen.

A couple of dozen volunteers did the behind-the-scenes work planning, booking, marketing and producing the event, and hundreds more served the event over the weekend, sleeves rolled up, ready for anything.

Our steering committee, simply put, spent the last 18 months all-in, supported by Riverfront Fort Wayne, the Parks and Recreation Department, The Brass Rail and One Lucky Guitar.

We are a community that has sometimes been known to be risk-averse, but Arts United’s leadership had the courage to support a start-up festival with a scope and scale that were unprecedented.

Vendors took a chance on a first-year festival, and rocked and rolled with us for the entire weekend.

Our sponsors, including title sponsor Sweetwater, main stage sponsor Parkview Health and the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne, saw Middle Waves as a game-changing way to build community pride and attachment – taking the findings of the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community study head on– and supported us with incredible generosity.

Most importantly: our patrons. Middle Waves featured 18 hours of music, and whether a downpour or a sprinkle, it rained during half of them. And still, Fort Wayne turned out. Millennials, young families and empty nesters alike soaked up the festival, and the rain, by the thousands.

On Facebook, Sean Veith commented, "This was the best weekend in Fort Wayne since I moved here in 1993."

Valerie Leek said, "I just moved here from Chicago, and I felt like I was in the middle of a big-city festival. So excited for Fort Wayne and do see what we do next!"

(There are about 4,000 more comments just like these!)

In 1982, Fort Wayne became known as "The City That Saved Itself" when citizens banded together on the banks of the St. Marys to hold back its rising tide. Last weekend, 34 years later, the river rose again, and our citizens came together once more, this time riding the tide. It felt like the city was saving itself, again.

One last thought. A few months ago, we overheard someone ask, "Am I cool enough for Middle Waves?"

The answer is, resoundingly, "Yes."

Fort Wayne, you are cool enough for Middle Waves.

Middle Waves is built on the shoulders of loud gigs in tiny punk clubs, bouncing parties in music lounges, block parties that pound the pavement, festivals that give our city soul, hang-on-every-note nights in tucked-away lofts, pop-up shows, tear-down shows and concerts that change lives in venues all across our community, on any old night of the week.

This is not who we are trying to be.

This is who we are.