Hi, y’all. I’ve been hitting the festival circuit the last couple of weekends and thought I would share the joy. Here is a summary of three of the best ones.

Tug Fest is brilliant. I just can’t help thinking that the whole thing started as a bet after a few drinks. “Hey, I could pull your ass in the Mississippi River if we had a tug-a-war across it”, says drunk number one. “You’re on”, is the inevitable reply from drunk number two. Twenty-one years later, even sober people agree that it was a great idea.

Thousands of people descend upon the small towns of LeClaire, Iowa and Port Byron, Illinois on the second weekend of August for a spectacle that is part county fair and part athletic competition. While the individual tugs are taken seriously, you can’t help but notice that the whole event feels like one big gag and everyone is in on it. Carnies line the riverfront, armed with old school games of chance that entice suckers with large stuffed animal prizes. When you get hungry, you can have a hand-dipped corndog, then choose either the fried Twinkie or fried Snickers bar for dessert (or both, I suppose, if you are a true glutton). If you opt for the Twinkie, like I did, bite into it carefully – the creamy mystery substance in the center comes out of the fryer nuclear hot. Hunger sated, you can grab a bland but ice cold mass-produced beer like Miller or Budweiser to wash it all down, then take a seat to watch the athletes line up and pull.

The main event, the tug, pits Iowa against Illinois. For three hours, the Mississippi is closed to all commercial traffic. Organizers lay out a 2400 foot rope and stretch it from bank to bank. Huge quantities of sand high above the river bank create a platform for the tugging. Teams of 20 or so tuggers take their positions in the sand along the rope, with several drill sergeants standing ready. When the signal to begin rings out, teams grunt and grind and dig in for three minutes, with drill sergeants screaming instructions and insults at tuggers, calling out orders for strikes and counter-strikes. This scene plays out some ten times, as twenty teams of competitors, including two teams of tugging women, vie for personal and state pride In the end, the competition is as much against the sheer weight of the rope as it is against the team across the river. The winning team is the one that has pulled the most rope out of the Mississippi. Even at peak tugging, the rope barely pokes its head above the water. No one gets wet, at least not from being pulled in the Mississippi. For those of you keeping score at home, Illinois won the event this year, giving them an 11-10 advantage in the all-time competition.

See more pictures of TugFest here.

River Roots Live
The D-port riverfront is a happenin’ place tonight. The Swing nine are knockin’ balls outta O’Donnell Stadium; the Rhythm City Casino is bright, shiny, and hummin’; and hip roots bands are makin’ music next to the Mississippi.

The bands are here for the RiverRoots Music Festival, an annual event aimin’ to spread the gospel of indigenous music, layered with the hopes of makin’ a few bucks for the River Music Experience, a cool interactive museum about the music and musicians of the Mississippi River valley. If they can find more performers like William Elliott Whitmore, let the preachin’ begin.

William Elliott Whitmore is an original. On a night celebratin’ originality, he stands out. Hell, I’m no music critic, and I barely understand what goes into creatin’ a piece. But, I know when I’ve heard someone special. Some have compared him to Tom Waits. Maybe it’s the gravelly voice or that fact that they both create music that does not easily slide into an existing category. Whatever. The man is brilliant. Try cuttin’ three CDs about death and loss and makin’ each one feel fresh and sincere. Add to that a stage presence, fueled by booze, that insidiously pulls you in, wraps its arms around you and makes you feel loved, even as he wails about the pine coffin encasing the person he loved. Write his name down. Go to iTunes or Amazon.com or your local record store or wherever the hell you buy music and get a CD. Now.

Celtic Highland Games

Weight throw

Men in skirts, whirling and twirling about, cradling large heavy objects, grunting and screaming, throwing the objects as far as they can. What is this thing? No, silly, it is not some strange S & M ballet, although it may look like that at times. This is the Celtic Highland Games, an annual event where men in kilts gather at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds in Davenport, Iowa to compete in games imported from Celtic homelands.

Big, manly men compete in manly games, such as:

  • Hammer Throw: Men in skirts twist and turn like a Whirling Dervish with a 16 pound hammer swinging at their side, then let go at the exact moment to fling the damn thing as far as possible.
  • Sheaf Toss: After piercing a bag of hay with a pitchfork, men in skirts rhythmically rock from side to side, then quickly fling the sheaf upwards and, with any luck, over a crossbar. Don’t try that at home.
  • Caber toss: Firmly grasping a long, hard pole, a competitor gently works his grip down the lower third of the shaft, then quickly rises and releases the pole in such a way as to turn it upside down and land it pointed back directly at himself, the tosser, who is, of course, wearing a skirt.

If that is not enough for you, while these burly men in skirts are exhausting themselves in difficult, physical contests, a bagpiper wanders the grounds, providing atmosphere for the games. Naturally, he too is wearing a skirt.

See more pictures of the Celtic Highland Games here.

Bad Decision of the Day: Forgetting a hat…again. The sun is very intense this time of year, and I keep getting sunburned at every festival because I forget my damn hat.

© Dean Klinkenberg, 2007