An Ode to the Des Moines Arts Festival®
There’s nothing better than sipping on a festival vodka lemonade and standing in the middle of Downtown Des Moines (DSM), listening to a live band surrounded by beautiful art, delicious food and a perfect sunset on a summer evening. At least that’s what I remember before taking on the role of production and program manager for the award-winning Des Moines Arts Festival® (DMAF). Actually, that description is still pretty accurate, minus being a bit more sweaty with a chatty radio attached to my hip.
The Des Moines Arts Festival® has seen a variety of musicians play the streets of Downtown DSM. Over the past 10 years, the DMAF has welcomed national touring musicians, all free of charge for our guests thanks to the support of our generous sponsors.
If you’ve been an avid DMAF fan, you’ve seen the stages change. The Hy-Vee Main Stage has always been placed on the lawn of the Pappajohn Higher Education Center, centered between 12th Street and 13th Street. After trials and errors, we have been able to place the stage at an angle just right so the sound reverberates in certain areas to not disturb conversations between artists and guests.
The Jazz and Wine Pavilion was introduced in 2010, located where the Krause Gateway Building now sits. With an initial focus of exactly what you’d think the Pavilion contained, this tent and stage was moved and renamed the Acoustic Stage in 2016, sitting in the lot between two of our partners, Des Moines Radio Group and Flynn Wright.
As the acoustic stage became less acoustic sounding, we were seeing a trend on the musicians being booked for this stage. They fit more in the Americana, rootsy, singer-songwriter realm. In 2019 The Roots Stage was born. The stage has a more intimate feeling and an up close and personal view of the musicians and small bands. While the stage is set up under a 30x60 open air tent; the energy of the musicians and guests overflows the space. The goal for the space is to make guests feel like they’re hanging out in our backyard with their favorite musicians, patio lights included.
When booking our musicians, I like to look at it as if I’m curating a show. I ask myself the following:
- Do they complement each other in the lineup?
- Who would be a good band, for example, an after work happy hour gathering (5 p.m. on Friday)?
- What musician/band would pump up the crowd for the headliner?
- Who’s trending forward on specific genre charts?
- Where have they played in the Midwest and what was their live show like (either a show I’ve seen personally, others have raved about, or the trusty YouTube)?
Call it what you will, but I also put the bands in a Spotify playlist and listen through the lineup to see how it flows. You may have also noticed the Friday night headliners tend to be targeted toward a younger audience and Saturday to an older demo and that’s by no mistake. We want DMAF to include something for everyone. Our stages may be secondary at the Des Moines Arts Festival®, but we put time and effort into making sure the lineups are the best they can be for our guests.
In 2009, the DMAF brought in the first nationally touring musicians to play at the festival. The organization was in need of additional “flare” to keep guests entertained and make their length of stay longer, assist in beverage revenue and, in general, take the festival up a notch. Collective Soul opened for pop rock singer Gavin DeGraw. Green River Ordinance wrapped up the lineup that year.
DMAF National + Local Musical Acts Through the Years
- Katelyn Epperly: An Iowa girl who found fame on American Idol, now working under the alias name Everly in Nashville
- Fundamental Elements: This musical act is known for good ole’ soul.
- The Smithereens: A mainstream rock act with hits “Blood and Roses” and “Girl Like You.” Lead singer Pat DiNizio passed away in 2017 at the young age of 62.
- Scars on 45: An indie rock band from across the pond.
- The Envy Corps: A local act that’s making the Iowa alternative rock scene proud.
To celebrate the Festival’s 15th Anniversary, the team organized a Friday night, all-Iowa lineup featuring: The Nadas, Thankful Dirt, Rebel Creek, James Biehn and Bonne Finken.
- Aaron Neville: An R&B soul vocalist and musician.
- Los Lobos: They’re a crazy compilation of rock, tex-mex, country and folk.
- Alejandro Escovedo: A Texas singer-songwriter. Personal note: Alejandro is totally underrated. I saw him at The Continental Club in Austin for $5. The place was packed and he was amazing.
- 10,000 Maniacs: The best early 90s college rock sound around.
- Bodeans: The Bodeans are our Midwest neighbors, hailing from Wisconsin. The band stretches across rock genres.
- Iris Dement: She now calls Iowa home, and we’re lucky to have her. John Prine coined her “America’s Sweetheart.”
- Mat Kearney: A soft rock musician who has a handful of radio singles you know.
- Eddie Money: RIP… you’ve definitely sang his songs at the top of your lungs in a bar.
- Greg Brown: One of our local acts who has helped pave the way for fellow Iowa folk musicians, Greg is also married to Iris Dement (see 2014).
2016 (the launch of the Acoustic Stage)
- Gin Blossoms: Their first hit “Hey Jealousy” hit the charts in 1989. Feel old? I do.
- Grand Funk Railroad: I’m sad I missed this show. I heard the VIP Club was lit when GFR hit the stage!
- Matt Woods: A three-time Iowa Blues Challenge winner who brings the blues sounds with some foot stompin’ and hollerin’.
- The Well Pennies: A folk-pop duo, husband and wife team who now call DSM home by way of Boston.
- Saint Motel: Get ready to dance when these Indie pop rockers take the stage.
- Big Head Todd & The Monsters: During the 2017 festival, the DMAF team had to pick the band up from the airport. Chris Vance drew a “pick up” sign for the team to take to the airport on an unused coroplast sign. I now have my own original Vance piece at my desk.
- The Pines: These Iowa guys are making great folk music. It’s no surprise considering two of the members have Bo Ramsey as their dad (see 2019).
- Joe Purdy: A talented singer-songwriter, Joe should be on every folk playlist.
- Spin Doctors: Best known for “Two Princes” and “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” you can’t help but sing this rock band’s songs when they come on the radio. You probably aren’t getting even half the lyrics right, but we won’t judge you.
- Sir Sly: This indie rock band can tear up the stage floor with their moves.
- Jukebox the Ghost: A power pop band from the D.C. area. Fun fact: One of our interns met them and cried.
- Jeffrey Foucault: An American songwriter with influences from across genres.
- Joe Pug: This American songwriter, hopped off the stage and played directly to the front row. He also has a podcast called “The American Songwriter.” In my opinion, he’s one of the most eloquently spoken musicians.
2019 (The Roots Stage is born)
- The Strumbellas: This act is made up of Canadians who cross over into alternative country, indie rock and gothic folk. Fun fact: One of the guys needed a hair tie (hair ties were not on the rider). I gave him mine and used a crappy rubber band to hold my hair up the rest of the night. I hope he appreciated that. Also, they were lovely.
- The Mowglis: An alternative rock band that are the perfect for a summer playlist.
- The Family Stone: The hits this band has is unbelievable. The band consisted of original members and some children of members. If I could see Chaden Halfhill, owner of Silent Rivers, DMAF Board member AND amazing VIP Club builder, dance like that again, I’d book them over and over.
- Bo Ramsey: Talk about an Iowa legend! Bo is a singer-songwriter with not only his own albums, but has taken part in acts such as Greg Brown and Lucinda Williams.
- William Elliot Whitmore: Another Iowa gem in the folk world! Fun fact: He lives on a farm in SE Iowa. He doesn’t play a lot around here but when he does, you don’t want to miss it!
Even though we won’t be on the streets of Downtown DSM in 2020, please enjoy this playlist on your patio at home with your beverage of choice, with delicious food and a beautiful summer sunset. We can’t wait to bring you another stellar lineup in 2021. And, don’t forget, support your local music scene.
Downtown Des Moines (DSM) is a growing, vibrant community that offers the energy, sophistication, housing and attractions of a burgeoning city with a brilliant future. It’s also easy to visit with plentiful and affordable street and ramp parking options.