May 18 2011 12:00 AM

Music coordinator marks her 25th festival


Roots music nourishes tall trees. This year, longtime
Lansing-area folk musician and educator Wanda Degen notches her 25th
year as music coordinator at the East Lansing Art Festival.

Small wonder she’s in a reflective mood. Not long ago, she thumbed through all 25 programs.

“A lot of magic has happened on the stage,” Degen said.

The festival’s music, like its art, keeps edging outward,
with New York indie folk-rockers Spring Standard topping a varied roster
of national, regional and local acts this year.

For Degen’s first few years, she drew from the “Prairie Home Companion” bag of performers.

The festival’s first national performer, jazz piano man
Butch Thompson, was booked in 1990, followed by Peter Ostroushko and
Dean Magraw in 1993, and Robin and Linda Williams in 1995.

“We’ve had people from Canada, California, Texas, Scotland and Ireland,” she said. “I’m really proud of the roster.” 

The festival has a national reach, but it’s also a prime
venue for local talent. Some of Degen’s most memorable moments were
performances by local favorites like the Chenille Sisters, Three Men and
a Tenor, and (bop) Harvey.

“The whole festival could be local bands, because we have such good ones,” Degen said.

This year, Degen booked nine bands for the festival’s main
stage, keeping her usual formula in mind. About one-third of the
musicians are favorites from the previous year, one-third are from past
years, and one-third are new to the festival.

One of the new acts is The Spring Standards, a group of
energetic young folk-rockers from New York that will close the Main
Stage on Saturday night.Their songs have wicked hooks, they’re known for
playing more than one instrument at a time and they move all over the
stage — just the qualities Degen looks for.

“Just watching them is entertaining,” Degen said. “People
may not know them around here, but once they hear the music, they’ll be
drawn to the stage.”

Two other new acts are a Klezmer-gypsy-jazz-Celtic mashup
from Kalamazoo called the Red Sea Pedestrians and Grand Rapids
singer/songwriter Drew Nelson & Highway 2.

The chamber folk duo of Vienna Teng and Alex Wong will
follow up a memorable 2009 performance at the East Lansing Art Festival
to close the Main Stage Sunday.

Detroit-based jazz artist Sheila Landis, specializing in
bossa nova and samba, and bluesman Freddie Cunningham and Root Doctor
sweeten the deck.

The East Lansing High School Jazz Band is among the art
fair’s most venerable traditions. Depending who you ask, the band has
been playing the festival 30 or 31 years — longer than Degen has been
with the festival.

“People who played the festival years ago are watching
their kids and grandkids on the same stage,” East Lansing Art Festival
coordinator Corinn Van Wyck said.

Another festival favorite, singer/songwriter duo Seth
Bernard & Daisy May Erlewine, from Lake City, Michigan, will fall
right in with the folksy, socially conscious tone Degen set back in the

After 25 years, Degen still enjoys watching new blooms on the festival tree.

“There are still a lot of things I’d like to do with the
festival,” she said. “I’m grateful that the community has been so