Detroit is about to find itself with a cool new musical jewel.
After two years in Sterling Heights, the Mo Pop Festival is headed to West Riverfront Park, the scenic new space nestled between downtown Detroit and Corktown. The two-stage Mo Pop — billed by organizers as a free-spirited boutique fest with a DIY vibe — will rev up at noon Saturday and Sunday.
On tap are 24 indie music performers, including headliners Modest Mouse, Passion Pit and Chromeo, along with an array of local food trucks, crafts makers, breweries and artists creating works in real time.
“It’s a celebration of artistic ingenuity,” says coproducer Dan McGowan. “Whether musical or fine art, whether food or technology, that ingenuity belongs in the city of Detroit. That’s what Detroit and metro Detroit are about: human ingenuity.”
The whimsically themed Mo Pop is structured for an upbeat but laid-back atmosphere on the riverside site, producers say, with everything from free bike parking to a layout that will let fans settle into their spots and catch music from both stages without moving.
Vehicle parking will be available on a field next to the park.
Mo Pop made its name at Freedom Hill Amphitheatre in Sterling Heights, where it was a single-day event launched in 2013 by the local arm of AEG Live. With an eye on expansion and a move to Detroit, the team linked up this year with McGowan’s Crofoot Presents, a frequent partner on shows at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, Masonic Temple and the Crofoot complex in Pontiac.
“It was a good fit,” says Jason Rogalewski of the Los Angeles-based AEG. “I wanted some more boots on the ground here, and it felt right to have a local promoter involved in an event that’s in downtown Detroit.”
As plans came together late last year, the festival team began enlisting curators with deep connections in the Detroit creative scene: Jeremy Hansen of River’s Edge Gallery to book visual artists, Bethany Nixon of Reware Vintage to line up crafts makers and artisans, Terry Perrone of Slows Bar BQ to arrange the 15 specialty food trucks.
“Most everybody was eager right from the onset. We just explained in a few sentences what we’re doing, and they were on board,” says McGowan. “I think everybody was ready for a festival like this — indie rock and art, right on the riverfront. It was an easy sell.”
With inspiration from the city’s assorted hackerspaces — the community labs where creators collaborate on projects and ideas — the event will feature a Mo Tech village showcasing work from local start-ups and inventors.
Mo Pop will also bring a unique twist to festival art, with professional artists conceptualizing and creating on the spot. Arriving attendees, for instance, will be greeted by an array of pianos being hand-painted as the weekend goes on, while other installations will include interactive possibilities for fest-goers.
“There have always been links between art and festivals, with tents and vendors setting up shop to sell their wares,” says art director Jeremy Hansen. “This is a new approach. Mo Pop actually has an art budget, bringing in artists to create work as an integral part of the event.”
Nixon says the craft bazaar will feature 13 Detroit-area makers “selling everything from soaps that smell like cocktails to reconstructed vintage dresses, handmade beard combs to 1970s-inspired jewelry.”
And there is, of course, the music. Two dozen performers are scheduled in alternating time slots on the two stages, designed to avoid that age-old festival-goer dilemma: hard choices during simultaneous sets.
Organizers know that the big main-stage bands are the top draws for ticket buyers — well-established, critically endorsed acts such as Modest Mouse, Passion Pit, Brandon Flowers, Chromeo and Iron & Wine (to be joined Saturday night by Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell). But they also hope to foster a long-term sense of trust and discovery with the Mo Pop audience, booking lesser-known artists and newcomers who may then become staples at the promoters’ other area venues, from Pontiac’s Pike Room up to Compuware Arena.
“We like to develop these acts from their very first plays in the market here, all the way up to playing the big stages,” says Nicholas Trentacost. “(Mo Pop) acts like King Tuff, Ryley Walker and Natalie Prass are ones we’ve had our eyes on for a while now. We’re excited to bring them to Detroit, and you can only expect them on bigger stages here as they continue to rise.”
The fest’s second-stage schedule will be bookended by a pair of Detroit acts: fest opener George Morris (1 p.m. Saturday) and Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas (8 p.m. Sunday).
Mo Pop will be the third big music event at West Riverfront this summer, as the new park establishes its profile under the stewardship of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy. The Mo Pop team was on the park grounds for the recent Downtown Hoedown and Jimmy Buffett events, taking notes and getting a feel for the show layouts.
Being downtown is essential to the fest’s emerging identity, McGowan and his partners say, including the blossoming vitality of nearby neighborhoods, increasingly home to twentysomething residents and new small businesses.
“Downtown is the new hotspot in southeast Michigan,” says McGowan. “There’s an energy there that’s incredible now, and that includes the stuff happening in Corktown.”
The festival is aiming for steady, organic growth as it moves forward, producers say, and maintaining Mo Pop’s distinct character is key.
“We’re not looking to grow this into the next Lollapalooza or anything,” says AEG’s Rogalewski. “We want to keep it a boutique event that’s regionally focused, Detroit focused, from the beverages to the food to the crafts.”
Despite two years in Sterling Heights, Mo Pop’s team views next weekend as an opening chapter of sorts, part of a 10-year vision to build a legacy at West Riverfront Park.
“This is resetting the clock,” says McGowan. “This is year one in my eyes. We’re going to turn this thing into a substantial, meaningful event in the community.”