MAKANDA — When John Merikoski realized that the Wander Down Music Festival was scheduled for the same weekend as Makanda’s famous Vulture Fest, he was worried about stepping on peoples’ toes.
“That was something we weren’t aware of until we booked,” he said. “We’ll try to avoid that in the future.”
But local music fans aren’t complaining. Both festivals showcase the music for which Southern Illinois is best known—folk, bluegrass and Americana—and fans and performers moved between the two events Saturday, enjoying local music, art and food.
This year is the third installment of the Wander Down Festival, organized and hosted by Merikoski’s Peoria-based band, The Way Down Wanderers, in concert with festival organizer Bill Poss, of Poss Music Works.
The festival is at Southern Illinois University’s Touch of Nature this year, after two years at Camp Manitowa’s Benton and Makanda locations.
“This feels like a homecoming for us,” Merikoski said, after a busy festival season and a run of shows across the east coast. “Not only is the music scene really good down here, but everyone is just so nice.”
Merikoski, a percussionist, and bassist John Williams spent the morning hosting a jam session for kids, backing them up as they sang, teaching chords and tuning instruments.
“When he finished the workshop today, he said now he’s not afraid to sing in front of people anymore,” said David Williams of his 5-year-old son Ben, who played ukelele alongside Williams and Merikoski.
“I got so into the song I didn’t even realize!” Ben said.
The festival is designed to be family friendly, and to foster original local music.
“To me, playing on the stage at the festival is fun, but this is my favorite part of the fest, jamming with kids and making music around the campfire,” Merikoski said. “You’ll just be walking and you’ll see a little picking circle and just hop in.”
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With a pair of spoons in his pocket, he’s always ready.
Wander Down is a growing upstart, with this year’s attendance twice what it was last year, according to Poss. Vulture Fest, meanwhile, is an institution, celebrating its 22nd year.
Performances ran all afternoon, Saturday, on two stages—one in the pavilion at the small park by the creek, and the other in Rainmaker's Garden, above Rainmaker Art Studio.
After a reunion show Friday at Wander Down, members of the revered Carbondale band The Woodbox Gang spent Saturday on the Boardwalk catching up with old friends and seeing favorite bands.
"I'm especially excited to see Jenny's new band," said Woodbox veteran Alex Kirt, referring to Jenny Johnson, the leader of Miss Jenny and The Howdy Boys.
Johnson, for her part, declined an offer to perform at Wander Down to play Vulture Fest instead. Had it been another weekend, she would’ve happily accepted, she told the Southern.
Musician Tim Crosby hoped to catch a performance by bassist Wil Maring and guitarist Robert Bowlin at Wander Down before his own performance there, Friday night. Crosby also played Vulture Fest, on Saturday.
“I think it’s pretty special to have two really fantastic festivals going on at the same time, both close by, both centered in nature,” he said. “If you want to see what Southern Illinois is all about down here you’ve got to be at one or both.”
The music continued Saturday evening, with Picking in the Pass, an open-to-all jam session in Alto Pass. And both Vulture Fest and Wander Down promised full lineups of entertainment for Sunday, too.
“It’s a special time in Southern Illinois,” Crosby said.