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Lamp Light music festival: the vanguard of Grand Rapids' DIT music scene

Lamp Light Music Festival is an innovative take on the house concert. Raising it to new levels, John Hanson and company are organizing this year's event to include expanded and improved programming.
Lamp Light 2012

Lamp Light 2012 /Steph Harding

Don't miss the morning brunches

"I really loved the Sunday brunch from last year," says Hanson. "It was so awesome. We had yogurt and apples and mint and pancakes... It was so much of a blast that it was like all right, this year we're doing this twice."

-John Hanson

Lamp Light 2012

Lamp Light 2012 /Steph Harding

2012 Hen House venue

2012 Hen House venue /Rose Beerhorst

Lamp Light's inception began in July of 2012 with a group of friends meeting to discuss strategy and planning every few weeks. For five months the input sessions continued, drawing nearer to the launch date; for the last month they were meeting every week.

The idea: to take house shows to new heights.

Eastown, known for its quirky liberalism with a lively nightlife and food culture, was residence to a handful of organizer John Hanson's friends, all relatively within walking distance of one another. This provided the template for mapping out venues, each located in one of four early 20th century houses. This tiny cluster of venues on Eastown's west end would become the destination for festival goers, walking and bicycling their way from living room to living room.

Hanson's experience as a traveling musician has oriented him to numerous folks across the Midwest. Based in Chicago, then moving to Grand Rapids, Hanson was quick to recognize the local talent and enthusiasm in the music scene here. It didn't take long for him to connect his numerous accrued contacts with the variety of musicians in Grand Rapids to foster new relationships.

A similar idea Hanson experienced while in Raleigh, North Carolina has inspired him to broaden his perspective on what a music festival can be.

"A festival doesn't have to be at a farm or on a big fairground. A festival can actually be in different venues," says Hanson. "It's amazing when you can get a map of the city and just kind of hop around and explore parts of the city. I got to hit all these different spots in Raleigh that I would've never seen before."

When it comes to choosing which bands to showcase, Hanson admits he initially chooses music that he likes. His attention to musicians who are progressing in their craft is something that doesn't go unnoticed either. Fresh set lists or previously unrecorded songs are part of the Lamp Light criteria along with an adaptability to the performance space. Often bands will have to scale down or play acoustic to fit the intimate living room atmosphere that has become an expectation from such types of concerts.

House concerts are nothing new. From basement punk shows to the early rap scene, many contemporary house shows are derived from those modern models. Even before that one can look to folk music and developing American genres such as blues and jazz for precedent.

Yet Hanson's vision is taking it further. An evening becomes a weekend. One house becomes five.

Each event's organization presents its own set of obstacles and Lamp Light is not without its own difficulties. Organization is key to pulling off a successful event. Much effort is poured into the website that serves as the main information hub for musicians and donors.

After evaluating last year's event, certain scheduling issues needed to be addressed. The lack of an early evening crowd on Friday and early Saturday has led to a new approach this year.

"What we tried to do this year is to schedule our some of our favorite acts early on Friday and Saturday so that people who come will be pushed to come out a little bit early and have the chance to check out all the other music," says Hanson.

Hanson says he wants to empower people, so to do that he is introducing five educational, hands-on workshops that are included with a weekend pass.

"What we have developed this year, which is entirely new, is a series of workshops that are going to take place throughout the weekend- Saturday and Sunday- that are sort of lifestyle workshops. We have bicycle maintenance, fermenting, quilting, zine making and gluten free," says Hanson.

More than a mere gathering of people, Hanson sees Lamp Light as culturally relevant to this particular time and place that can have a lasting impact on the community. He has sought out local businesses to sponsor Lamp Light, where they donate anything from dollars to food, coffee and beer. Grand Rapids' burgeoning culinary scene is clearly undeniable and Hanson is delighted at how readily certain restaurateurs have come aboard. 

"I love that it's about Grand Rapids and that it's our time to have this gathering," says Hanson.

And yet that doesn't limit its ability to grow into something larger. When speaking about the future of Lamp Light, Hanson talks about growing a reputation, garnering the attention of national acts and utilizing a local theatre. Using the Lamp Light brand to form a record label that could be a year round sustainable entity providing resources and education is yet another of Hanson's ideas.

"I love thinking about Lamp Light in terms of people that don't live in Grand Rapids getting to come here and enter into the lives of Grand Rapids and see the culture first hand on that ground level," he says. "People get the nitty-gritty of the raw cultural element of that life here."

The Lamp Light ethos is one that necessarily must remain local. It is born from the community and Hanson intends for it to stay Grand Rapids centric.

"What's it going to take to start entering the music that's coming out of Michigan into this national conversation of independent music?" Hanson asks.

It may be that he and other Lamp Light organizers are already living the answer to that.

Click here for more information about Lamp Light 2013.

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