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Ditch Lily blooms between spring and summer at Idlewild Farm show

Ditch Lily celebrated Beltane and the transition between spring and summer at Idlewild Farm with music, face painting and baby goat cuddles.

/Rosie Accola

In Michigan, we know all too well the joy of welcoming new seasons while bidding farewell to the last. Local indie folk band Ditch Lily takes this a step further, inviting us to celebrate the seasons within the seasons through their music and a Beltane-inspired music festival at a dream-like farm in West Michigan. 

Beltane, an ancient Celtic festival, celebrates the midpoint between the spring equinox and summer solstice, welcoming the beginning of the pastoral summer season and honoring the fertility and vitality of the earth – a time that Ditch Lily’s James Champion finds exciting.

Idlewild Farm hosted local indie folk band Ditch Lily alongside Alex Perez for a family-friendly mini-festival May 16 featuring face painting, live music and baby goat cuddles to celebrate the season between the seasons.

“My intentions for this event was to sort of bring these dreams together and add in my own spring tradition (that is, baby goats) to create a convivial experience for our different but resonant communities to converge,” said Leah Sienkowski, Ditch Lily violinist and the Dream Goats’ head herdswoman at Idlewild Farm, in an email interview. “Because my goats live at Idlewild, and I also play in Ditch Lily, it's been a very natural collaboration.”

Idlewild Farm, located in Belding, about a half-hour drive from Grand Rapids, proved to be a gorgeous venue. As bands set up on the “dirt stage,” concertgoers were invited to weave flower crowns and wander the trails. In lieu of seating, people spread out picnic blankets or sat on hay bales. Some lined up for baby goat cuddles. Small zines featuring trail maps and May Blessings were interspersed throughout the property.

As opener Alex Perez finalized his sound check, wild pigs snuffled along the property line, rotund and taupe as a teddy bear, with their velveteen ears pointing toward the forest floor. It was a welcome change from a stuffy venue with a beer-soaked floor. Any concerns about heat were mitigated by the canopy of trees, decorating the bands and audience with tiny leaves.

“I really am enjoying Idlewild Farm’s atmosphere. Being in nature with animals and friends is a lot more fun, honestly. Venues like the Pyramid Scheme are still just as fun, but it’s a different tone,” said concertgoer Kailey Cleveland.

As a band, Ditch Lily tends to prefer more natural venues. 

We’ve sort of agreed to not play bars unless the bar is very special. We prefer barns, cider mills, pastures, gardens—places where things grow. Places where creation and creativity mingle joyfully, where mutual listening can happen. These spaces bring, as Leah noted, different but complementary communities together. Playing in these spaces also tends to eliminate the band-on-the-stage, audience-on-the-floor dynamic that, in my opinion, creates a too-distinct difference between the performer and observer,” said Champion in an email interview.

Perez played a surf-rock set for the landlocked venue, shaking the forest floor with fuzz-heavy guitar tones. Backed by Vanessa DeCouto on drums and Elaine DeYoung on bass, Perez’s music is perfect for summer — atmospheric in a Pet Sounds way. 

Perez closed his set with a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” It would be easy to classify the cover as part of the burgeoning “y’allternative” subgenre, but I’d rather give the nod to the genre-defying nature of Perez’s sound, surreal and strange as surf rock in a forest.

With Champion’s lyrics often invoking nature-themed imagery, it feels right to experience Ditch Lily’s music outside.

Nature knows romance better than we can. It’s my teacher,” Champion said, noting the band’s name originated from an orange lily growing out of the steaming muck of a summer ditch. “Lake Michigan, forests, rural farmland and skiing around all these have carved the landscape of my life and my lyrics.”

Ditch Lily has undergone several line-up changes throughout their time as a band, but the one constant is Champion’s revelatory songwriting, combining the quiet awe of Mary Oliver with the indie rock instrumentation of Waxahatchee. 

During the opening song Champion sang, “Do I really need to be/ in love to be me?” 

The push and pull between looking inward versus outward is a defining mechanism of Champion’s songwriting.  One of the things I love most about Champion’s lyricism is every observation is given equal weight. There’s no hierarchy between the mundane and the sacred. Falling in love is as important as the tiny green leaves that drifted onto us throughout the set.

Ditch Lily has gone through several iterations to get to its current lineup: Champion (guitar, lead vocals), Zac Abid (drums), Sienowski (violin, vocals), Johnson Corcohran (guitar), Willem Mudde (cello) and Mackenzie Carlson (bass).

Idlewild marked their first set as a six-piece. They inhabited the full band sound effortlessly, adding new dimension to old favorites with the richness of cello and playful violin riffs.

The dynamic between Sienkowski and Champion grew emblematic of the intersection of rock and folk sounds that define Ditch Lily. On “Chopped Wood,” Sienkowski and Champion’s vocals seem to chase each other.

“For me, music is purely enjoyment and play. The violin doesn't have to hold down a beat or underpin the melody; I can just run and jump and frolic all over the place, and I love the freedom and space to do this in Ditch Lily,” said Sienkowski. “Running my own farm is complicated and logistical. Taking a supporting role in the band is a place where I don't have to be in charge and I can make mistakes and be silly.”

For the final song, Champion invited concertgoers to slow dance with their exes. Eventually, concertgoers linked hands, forming a dancing circle, running and laughing, celebrating endings and well wishes, all at once.

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