Water Hill Music Fest
Ann Arbor, MI
May 6, 2012
When I was growing up, there was this 3-on-3 basketball tournament held in the streets of Lowell, Michigan, called Gus Macker. The weekend of the tournament was like Christmas for those of us who loved basketball. It didn’t matter whether you got a team together and entered or you just went to spectate, it was a weekend of pure basketball, played and watched for the love of the game. While there is still a great basketball tournament with that name – it’s actually a whole bunch of tournaments in over a dozen different cities now – anyone who ever dribbled one of those signature red, white and blue balls on a neighborhood street in Mackerville can tell you it hasn’t really been the same since it got too big for its birthplace.
But for a brief moment in the mid-1980’s, Gus Macker was basketball, the spirit of the sport stripped down to its essence. The entry fee wasn’t so steep that a four-man team of middle schoolers couldn’t scrape together the cash, and since the tournament was run mostly by volunteers, it was free to watch. Neighbors would sell lemonade and not worry too much about all the grass in their yard getting trampled. Everyone was courteous about where they set up their lawn chairs, and despite the fierce rivalries and competition that existed on the courts, the people at Gus Macker – men, women and children, young and old, alike – seemed to recognize that they were part of a community, no matter how brief and ad hoc.
Now I hadn’t thought about playing in Gus Macker in over 15 years, until I spent the afternoon at Ann Arbor’s second annual Water Hill Music Fest. This is unlike any other music festival I’ve experienced, not because it takes place in myriad locations about the west-side neighborhood all at the same time, but because the performance spaces are people’s porches, backyards, stoops, and living rooms, usually belonging to the musicians themselves. The event is free, parking is free, and while there’s a schedule and some rules about who can play (at least one member of each performance group must live in the neighborhood), the rest is joyously unorganized. The streets are not shut down, cars are parked here and there and everywhere, and though there are signs in yards indicating who is playing when, that’s about the extent of it.
But this is not unprofessional music – far from it. The highlight of my day was the Brennan Andes Family Band, made up of members of local jam band The Macpodz with some special guests, including a music teacher at my daughter’s school. They played in bass player Andes’ parents backyard, which gave the performance the feeling of a summer barbecue. I also saw Ann Arbor legend George Bedard rocking with Khalid Hanifi on the grand front porch of a historic and beautiful brick home and heard another local favorite, Chris Buhalis, sing a set of Woody Guthrie tunes from his own front yard, celebrating what would have been Guthrie’s 100th birthday this year. Several other well known musicians also played, including guitarist Dick Siegel, and Ron Brooks, the jazz bassist and former owner of the Bird of Paradise nightclub.
Part of the charm of Water Hill, however, is that it’s open to performers of all sorts. I watched a trio of elementary school kids play Bach on two violins and a classical guitar, sat through a set of funny children’s songs with scads of other parents while the kids who should have been listening went down the zip line in the guitar player’s back yard, and stood in the street blocking traffic to hear a middle-aged couple sing 100-year-old show tunes. The community spirit at the event was amazing. I went into one house to use the bathroom, as facilities were provided by generous neighbors at well-spaced locations around the festival. My daughter bought refreshments from one of her schoolmates who had set up a stand in her front yard and we stopped by at another of her classmates later to wash up. While we were there, we caught a few songs by a group playing legitimate swing-era big band music on their back patio, complete with a bombshell singer dressed in period getup.
While I attended the festival with my family, Water Hill didn’t bear any resemblance to the sort of canned entertainment that’s passed off in our society as “family friendly.” This was legitimate music, played in earnest by people who had invited the city into their homes to entertain them. The crowds included plenty of hipsters, old hippies, dogs, teenagers, old people, and just about every other demographic you could dream up. That they were all wandering the streets of Water Hill was fitting, as it’s a neighborhood that’s perhaps more economically and socially diverse than any other in our city.
What I didn’t see is worth noting: No drugs, no drunks, no cops and no self-absorbed idiots making a scene that ruins it for everyone else. Nobody seemed to be trying to cash in on the crowds either, save for a guy selling $1 records in his garage and another who put a “For Sale By Owner” sign in his front yard. (Somebody should buy his house, by the way, as it’s in a great location.) This is surprising, because the crowds were tremendous. Hundreds packed the yards of the performers who had name recognition, and kids and amateurs were pulling in crowds of fifty or more. The music was universally great, and even without huge PA’s and megawatt sound systems, it was easy to hear because people who wanted to chat were polite enough to just move down the street.
I had the best time at Water Hill, and I got a vibe that I hadn’t felt since I was a kid hanging out in Lowell in my high top Nikes. I looked around the neighborhood and saw a whole community of people enjoying themselves, being cool, united in the love of one simple thing. Then it was hoops, today it was music.
As fun as Water Hill was, however, it’s with a bit of concern that I write this article, knowing that publicizing the festival could lead to problems in the years to come.
By the time I played in Gus Macker in 1986, things were already changing. After spectating for a few years and watching the crowds grow, I finally got the nerve to form my own team in eighth grade, and I played in the final tournament that was held in Lowell. Neighbors had started to complain and the tournament was no longer just a small local affair. National exposure in Sports Illustrated had led to huge numbers of entries and lots more spectators, and even more big name players began entering. Gus Macker was still great fun, but it wasn’t the same once it moved to another nearby town and dramatically expanded, including going on the road and traveling to other cities.
Nothing this good, this pure and perfect tends to last.
Original photo copyright 2012 Jeff Sabatini