AtwoodFest 2020

a brief history of Atwood Summerfest and AtwoodFest from 2002 to Present
by Rökker
July 2020

VO5 onstage for AtwoodFest 2015 - photo by Dan Schneiderman

VO5 onstage for AtwoodFest 2015
photo by Dan Schneiderman

Rökker has been the music programmer for Atwood Summerfest and AtwoodFest since 2002 after the now 38 year old festival had been canceled for two years at the hands of inclement weather and the financial fallout that occurred the following year.

Atwood Summerfest started as a block party with stages on milk crates and existed as a community event for many years with the festival’s host the Atwood Community Center, and later renamed the Goodman Center. In 2002, professional staging and sound systems were brought in and the paradigm shifted as the Maximum Ink Rock Stage and the Harmony Bar Blues Stage boasted lineups of the best Madison bands that attracted ever growing crowds.

Musicians have to eat and Mama Rökker knows just what bands love to eat…. meatballs. The now legendary backstage hospitality of AtwoodFest started out in 2002 when Rökker’s mom began cooking all the food for the bands. Over the years, the backstage hospitality feeds more than 150 musicians and goes through more than 800 of Mama Rökker’s famous meatballs each year.

2007 was a big year for Atwood Summerfest as success from previous years provided a lager music budget which cleared the way for legendary boogie band and 1969 Woodstock alum Canned Heat. And they brought the heat (into the 90s) and the crowd. For the first time, and not the last, it looked like the staging area might not fit all the people.

The next year, 2008, the rock stage brought in the Deadstring Brothers from Nashville. The Bloodshot Recording artists were short a lap steel guitar player and solicited the services of local musician Tom Dehlinger to play with the band that night.

Falling ahead to 2009, maybe the quintessential step to Atwood Summerfest success….. the addition of VO5. They weren’t always the supergroup you’ve come to know and love, that first year they played very early on a very hot day, costumes, wigs, high heels and all. And people showed up to dance… to disco. It seemed we were oddly on to something… people were dancing in the streets.

The following years were marked by VO5 advancing quickly in the schedule to become the unequivocal headliner every year as throngs of crazed dancers showed up. Atwood Summerfest had become the happiest place on the planet and the magic has not stopped.

2012 was the next year a paradigm shift happened for Atwood Summerfest. The Atwood Community Center had changed to the Goodman Center and their director asked Rökker to program music for a Sunday addition to the festival. Previously, Atwood Summerfest was a single day event only happening on the last Saturday in July.

2012 was also the first year Jimmy K was added as an emcee of the Max Ink Radio Rockstage, a duty he holds to this day on the Madison Heritage Stage.

A good crowd for that Sunday’s stage opened the door to a full two day, two stage Atwood Summerfest in 2013 and Atwood Summerfest had become one of the climbing stars in a city known for music festivals.

The Goodman Community Center had stacked the deck before making a decision to step away from the annual festival planning to concentrate on their main functions as a neighborhood community center.

Atwood Summerfest as we knew it had ceased, and a period of uncertainty persisted until the Sasy Neighborhood Association created an alliance with the Barrymore Theatre and Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center to become the new hosts and organizers of the festival.

2014 would see many changes including location of stages, hosts, and most recognizably, the name. AtwoodFest.

One thing that did not change was the festival’s music programmer, Rökker and rock stage emcee Jimmy K.

That first year would see the main stage re-locate to it’s current location in the parking lot of Monty’s Blue Plate as well as starting a new tradition on Sunday nights with the addition of a local all-star band covering the rock and jazz music of Steely Dan aptly called Steely Dane. Steely Dane and VO5 have become the anchors of AtwoodFest!

2014 would have it’s share of heartbreak as local guitar hero Chris Aaron would pass away just a few months after playing AtwoodFest.

Legendary Chicago electric-pianist Barrelhouse Chuck also played in 2014 and we lost him as well in 2016.

Success breeds success and AtwoodFest saw contemporary guitar great from Nashville JD SIMO. Tragedy would strike again as scheduled AtwoodFest performer and local outlaw country favorite Owen Mays passed suddenly just a few days before the event. Eventually the name of the Winnebago stage was renamed to the “Madison Heritage Stage” in inspiration to Owen and each year on both stages, a list is read to recognize and honor Madison’s fallen musicians.

By 2016, AtwoodFest had become the quiet powerhouse of a music festival lining up the best local bands along with regional and national acts. One such act was Jane Lee Hooker from New York City. The all-girl hard blues band brought their big city feel while local rhythm and blues favorites the Jimmy’s nearly missed the show blowing out a tire on the road from Minnesota.

But it was Saturday night’s performance by Sonny Knight and the Lakers that stood of all. A singularly amazing night in front of a spectacular crowd. Sadly, Sonny Knight passed from cancer a few months after his amazing performance at AtwoodFest.

More changes for AtwoodFest were in store for 2017 after the death of legendary drummer Clyde Stubblefield as the festival renamed the main stage to “The Clyde Stubblefield Stage” in the funky drummer’s honor. On the Saturday night of AtwoodFest, the Clyde Stubblefield All-stars played the music of Clyde Stubblefield and James Brown to a roaring crowd and the Barrymore Theatre was presented with a Clyde Stubblefield Memorial plaque that hangs in the Barrymore’s lobby to this day.

The following year, as the crowd grew bigger, so did the artists as The Voice semi-finalist Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal wowed a nearly unbelievable crowd to near ecstacy. And then came Sunday’s performance by local reggae legends Natty Nation who performed the music of Bob Marley after Steely Dane’s amazing set.

It was getting hard at this point to imagine the festival growing. AtwoodFest had officially become part of the “Festyland” season along with the Marquette Waterfront Festival, La Fête De Marquette, Orton Park Festival, and The Willy Street Fair. Festyland is nearly unparalleled anywhere else in the country and remains the jewel of Madison’s eastside corridor.

But 2019 would bring together a community in a way never seen before. Saturday night’s headliner was the touring Pink Floyd tribute Echoes of Pompeii from Chicago and as the lasers shot above the audience the band captured the moment with the seminal song “Wish You Were Here” and in the middle of the song stopped while the many thousands of people sang in unison to the chorus. It was a moment that brought tears to the eyes of many. At the time, it was hard to imagine there would be no AtwoodFest 2020.

And here we are, 2020 without AtwoodFest or any other festival. Hope is not lost however, while we celebrate the music of AtwoodFest in 2020, plans for 2021 are in the works.

Every year an amazing amount of volunteers, organizers, musicians and fans bring us AtwoodFest and we thank them all for work well done!

I leave you with the lyrics of the Grateful Dead, “We will get by” until we can be “Dancin’ in the Streets” again.

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