This August, Northfield will be transformed into a living history set piece as dozens of period bands sweep across town.
Not a fan of the baroque brass quartet playing outside the library? It’s OK! You can walk across town to hear a joyful German polka band instead. Maybe you prefer early 20th century Americana… Well, that band is playing out by City Hall. Are you a Civil War history buff? The 34th Infantry Division band will be decked out in perfect Civil War uniforms, playing refurbished instruments from the 1860s at Veterans Memorial Park. That’s not even mentioning the traditional Belgium band, jazz band, Matterhorn alphorns, mariachi band or wind quintet.
It’s all part of the Vintage Band Festival, which takes place during the first weekend of August. More than 35 bands will arrive in Northfield to stage concerts showcasing hundreds of years of musical history. And with more than 100 concerts planned for four days, there’s something for everyone.
According to Vintage Band Festival Artistic Director Paul Niemisto, the festival started as a happy accident and quickly took on a life of its own.
Niemisto, who has been a band director in Northfield since 1978, came up with the idea to organize a musical event in Northfield after hearing residents talk about how well suited the town is for arts and cultural events.
“Everyone was saying, ‘There should be a really nice arts festival here,’” he said. “The town has all the trappings for it — an historic emphasis, an ‘old’ look.”
In 2006, Niemisto invited the International Society for the Promotion and Research of Wind Music to visit Northfield for a music conference he hoped to organize. As planning continued, he decided to add some entertainment for his international guests, who were coming from Austria. Wanting to show society members what wind music groups were like across the U.S., Niemisto started inviting bands to come play in Northfield at the same time. By the time the conference took place, Niemisto had brought together nearly 40 bands from the U.S. and Europe.
“We started to talk to some bands … and then we talked to some more bands,” he said. “We began to see the possibility of something coming together for this. It wasn’t more than a couple months later that it became very clear to me that what I had was a band festival with a conference as a sideline, rather than the other way around. That’s how it started.”
Niemisto said the first event was a grand success, much like he had anticipated.
“All of those things that I said to myself beforehand came true,” he said. “The town embraced the idea. The next question was, ‘When should we do it again?’”
Starting a tradition
Niemisto said it took a while for the event to gain momentum as a Northfield tradition, because there was so much involved in planning it. However, he eventually gathered a group of people together to form a nonprofit organization and start receiving grants from other organizations such as the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council and Minnesota Arts Board Legacy Fund. The board of directors is made up of 12 volunteers, who meet at least monthly throughout the year, and hundreds of other volunteers help make each event possible.
Because of how much work goes into planning a four-day musical extravaganza, the festival doesn’t take place every year. Instead, it has come to Northfield in 2006, 2010, 2013 and 2016. Besides connecting with bands, VBF volunteers also need to work with the city of Northfield to obtain permissions for things, work with area organizations such as the Northfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, set up sponsorships with local businesses and coordinate for space outside pubs and restaurants.
“It’s a totally volunteer organization putting it on,” Niemisto said. “There’s nobody that gets paid, no executive director… It takes $120,000 to put it on, and we can’t come up with that kind of money every year. We like to take a little break, ease out a little, think about what’s going on, get time to communicate with other bands. This is the best we can do.”
Besides Northfield, the festival also hosts concerts as “satellite” communities, such as single-event concerts in Owatonna, Austin, Red Wing, Cannon Falls and Faribault in the days leading up to the actual festival. During the festival itself, Niemisto estimates that about 12,000-15,000 people will attend various concerts, and he added that about 80 percent come from outside Northfield.
“The first time, it shocked me,” he said, “but then I realized that is sort of what Northfield is becoming: a magnet for people from the larger urban areas for a nice day in a quiet village. It’s really great.”
Niemisto said that in between festival years, one way to keep interest high is by hosting mini-festivals, which take place during one Saturday in summer and feature a multitude of bands from Minnesota. Last year, 11 bands performed during the day-long event.
“[These were] at the demand of the public,” Niemisto said. “They want to have something going on in the town at that time, even if it’s only one day. It works as a fundraiser and attention-getter, [and it] keeps the spirit of the Vintage Band Festival alive in the off years.”
When it comes to finding bands to play at the festival, Niemisto emphasized the importance of offering a variety of music so that there’s something for everyone. He said one major type of band is the Civil War re-enactment band, with band members who show up in period-appropriate uniforms and play on authentic, restored 19th century instruments. This year, one such band is coming from Washington, D.C., and two others are coming from Nebraska and Arizona.
Another major type of band is the ethnic band, showcasing music from around the world. This year’s festival will feature German and Bohemian bands, Balkan country music, a mariachi band, a Banda band, a band that utilizes Alp horns, New Orleans-style jazz bands, Dixieland bands and old town “Americana” bands.
“[These have] a linguistic, stylistic tradition that is part of the American scene that needs to be celebrated and enjoyed,” Niemisto said.
There will be other types of bands as well, featuring brass quartets, string quintets, chamber music, a baroque trumpet band, a swing band, a British brass band and others.
Niemisto said sometimes bands approach the VBF board, and he will see if they can fit in somewhere. He added that the board tries to keep a balance between re-inviting “old friends” who’ve played at previous festivals and finding new bands to expand the available offerings.
“We try to keep the old, and try to find the new, and try to balance it out,” he said.
Niemisto said the festival has had around 35-40 bands for the past several events, which results in about 100 concerts throughout the four-day festival. Because of this, he recommends that anyone who wants to attend the festival first look up its schedule so they can plan which concerts to hit and when. Some days tend to have themes, while it’s also easy to hunt down a specific style of music that is continually offered throughout the day at different locations.
Another thing for music lovers to remember is that while the festival is free, donations are crucial for VBF to continue organizing future musical events. Niemisto recommends donating between $25-100, depending on how many days people want to attend.
“We rely heavily on donations from our audiences,” he said, adding that previous years have raised fairly robust donations. “[People] should consider this the same thing as going to a big festival in the city. We’re just counting on people’s honor to take care of this.”
But the biggest goal, Niemisto said, is to simply put on an event that music lovers of all ages and backgrounds can enjoy together.
“We want to be vigilant about changes that need to be made,” he said. “We’re not going to make changes just to be different, but we’re willing to look at what we’re doing and see what needs to be done. We want people to keep coming back.”