For some Midwestern music fans, an outdoor festival in February may have sounded outlandish, but to us, it was a challenge. Last week, Cleveland’s Ohio City Market District hosted Brite Winter, a free art and music festival created to celebrate the Midwest winter rather than to hide from it.

I knew that Brite Winter had an impressive line-up and a few stages, but I underestimated the scale completely. The festival was huge and held 70+ bands on 10 stages, both indoor and outdoor. It spanned more than a few blocks, occupied a restaurant or two, and blocked off streets with food trucks, games, and art installations. Performances began in the early hours of the day, around 4PM, and lasted throughout the night.

The first band we caught, a West Virginia outfit by the name of Bombardier, played inside of a bike-shop-turned-venue also known as the Joy Machines Stage. The audience listened under dim lights as their instrumental emo rock filled the space.

She Bears took to the Town Hall Stage down the block. Clad in scarves and warm hats, the Columbus outfit put on one hell of a set. Their enthusiastic crowd even broke out into dance for the final song “Good Light/Late Night”. As lead singer, Stephen Pence, belted out lyrics, his breath condensed against the microphone, proving once again how chilly it was. Despite the temperature, She Bears’ performance was tight and energetic – just as good as their recorded material, which is available to stream below:

After some time wandering through the streets of Cleveland, we stumbled upon the back alley that was home to the Chipotle Stage outside Campbell’s Sweet Shop. We got there just in time to catch Pleasure Leftists, a local Cleveland band that embodied the energy of Patti Smith mixed with the danceable dreariness of Joy Division. Playing on a stage that was literally just blue tarps thrown on a pile of snow, they still managed to put on an amazingly powerful set.

Later in the evening, Herzog gave a strong performance at the Ohio City Stage. Even though it was merely 14°, they had no problem tearing up the stage.

At the Brite Winter Stage, people gathered shoulder-to-shoulder to catch The Lighthouse & The Whaler. As expected, the group put on a wonderful show. Their melodic folk pop warmed up even the chilliest audience member.

Brite Winter was a gracious host, despite the falling temperatures. Scattered around the festival grounds were huge fire pits, providing spaces to warm-up and socialize. These were helpful most of the time, and only once did I see a man running frantically with a fire extinguisher. When they were surrounded by strong-willed concert-goers, there was a fine selection of Market District businesses to patronize, my favorite being Koffie Café.

Eventually (and unfortunately), the cold got to me, and I had to sit a set or two out in the interest of getting feeling back in my feet. But as I sat inside watching the event unfold, something occurred to me – Brite Winter absolutely proved that we are dedicated to our creative scenes, and I’m happy we live in a place where people are willing to take risks and plan festivals in the heart of winter. It’s easy to be supportive and dedicated when the events are so original and music is so good! With crowds of obviously cold fans sticking it out to watch their favorite bands perform, it’s impossible to argue otherwise.

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PHOTOS BY DAN JARVIS