Imagine a time when musical artists — not circus barkers or snake-handlers — held summertime sway over crowds under a big top.
You’ll find it here, June 16 to Sept. 16.
And if you can’t get a toward-the-front seat to hear the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton, Ricky Skaggs, Ziggy Marley or the Beach Boys, the sides of the 11,200-square-foot tent do roll up, and you can sit on the grassy hill with crickets chirping to your sides, the headliners just down in front, and a stunning evening view of Lake Superior beyond that.
Welcome to Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua (www.bigtop.org), on Wisconsin’s northern coast. It’s one of the few canvas-clad performing arts centers in the country, and you’ll find it in what is officially the smallest city in Wisconsin, with 487 year-round residents.
Tourism has long been Bayfield’s mainstay: The 2017 official visitor guide lists 59 lodgings options … but no supermarket. It’s the gateway to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. It’s where you catch the ferry to well-heeled Madeline Island. But the Thursday-to-Sunday Big Top shows are a major reason the population can balloon up to 8,000 in summer.
The allure of a tent show might have resonated with your recent ancestors. A century ago, educational tent shows were numerous; they were named “Chautauquas” after the first one took hold in the same-name lakeside town in New York. They brought higher-brow speakers and performers to rural America until the new media of radio, movies and TV wiped them out.
This born-again tradition on Lake Superior dates to 1986, when Minnesota-born folk musician Warren Nelson sold Bayfield on his idea of a dusted-off Chautauqua dream. Nelson and his Lost Nation String Band had attracted a following along the lake by penning and performing his musical histories of the area — original tunes accompanied by slide shows.
An effort was launched to pitch a large summer tent at the base of Mount Ashwabay, a small ski hill. Last year, five tents later — one was lost in a fire, others to wind, hail or wear — there were 62 shows staged over 55 days. Seating capacity at the blue-striped tent is 900; overflow seating is on the ski hill.
Parts of Nelson’s Chautauqua vision remain. There are daytime cultural workshops and camps for kids. Though no longer associated with the nonprofit Big Top, Nelson leads several historical musicals per season. The venue’s Blue Canvas Orchestra house band tours the region throughout the year, and “Tent Show Radio,” featuring recorded-live summer performances, is punched out on 50 nonprofit radio stations and websites from Alaska to Cape Cod, Mass., to New Mexico (www.tentshowradio.org).
The common thread for Big Top acts is Americana/roots/folk — blues, jazz, rock, bluegrass, country and reggae. Big Top headliners have included Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Peter Frampton, the Avett Brothers, B.B. King and Vince Gill. Among spoken-word artists: Garrison Keillor and Paula Poundstone.
All of this is handled by a well-oiled but tiny machine: There are five full-time, year-round staffers and a couple of part-timers. The work includes locking in sponsors and nailing down bands.
Erecting the enormous tent takes a week, coordinating the heavy lifting of 50 to 80 area volunteers. (The tent sections are unrolled, connected and raised in May.)
Bookings can be a hassle, according to executive director Terry Matier. Big names can be expensive, and Bayfield can be off the map: The nearest major airport, Duluth International, is 90 miles west. And some artists simply won’t perform in a tent.
Others, like Lyle Lovett, love it. He played Big Top four years in a row; Bonnie Raitt performed in 2014 and is returning Sept. 2.
And the actual canvas venue, according to one Big Top headliner, has a magic all its own.
Michael Perry could be described as a roughneck Garrison Keillor. Since “Population: 485 — Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time,” his breakthrough best-seller 15 years ago, Perry has notched a string of well-received nonfiction titles dealing with rural life in northwest Wisconsin. Like Keillor, he’s an essayist with a bent toward music (Perry tours with his Long Beds country band) and is a stage raconteur and radio host. Unlike Keillor, Perry has no intention of leaving his flannel shirt or pickup too close to civilization.
By his count, Perry has played Big Top once or twice a season for a decade, as a monologist and band leader. He will return Aug. 25 and Sept. 9.
“The main thing,” he says, “is that it’s a true canvas tent on a ski hill overlooking the Apostle Islands … and when you’re onstage, while the tent seats 900, it feels like a cozy living room.” The tent “creates a certain softness of sound bouncing off canvas. The sound and lighting are comforting and welcoming.”
His Big Top back story is covered in the 2006 book “Truck: A Love Story.” He wrote about an early date there with the woman he eventually married.
These days, Perry also hosts “Tent Show Radio,” doing intro bios of pre-recorded performances (“I keep ‘em short and let the artists speak”) and adding a monologue during the intermission. Some of his on-air essays were collected into a 2013 volume, “From the Top: Brief Transmissions From Tent Show Radio.”
In that book, Perry shares this tip with Big Top first-timers: “Don’t look back until you’re all the way up there where the skiers unload from the lift. Then turn, and you will see the picture I try to paint every single time I introduce ‘Tent Show Radio:' the tent, plopped high atop the land like an ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ pearl-gray-and-blue-striped mushroom, a benevolent psychedelic aberration amidst swaths of verdant green sloping to a backdrop of Great Lakes blue, the distant water dappled by a scatter of treasured islands.
“What a place to see a show.”
John Bordsen is a freelance writer.
If you go
Getting there: Bayfield, Wis., is a roughly 7 1/2-hour drive northwest from downtown Chicago.
Staying there: Reservations are strongly recommended, since summer weekends are busy. The Bayfield Inn (www.bayfieldinn.com) is on the lakefront and has a dining room and rooftop bar. For a quality B&B experience, try the Old Rittenhouse Inn (www.rittenhouseinn.com). Also recommended: Superior Rentals for cottages near the shore (www.superiorrentals.net). If all else fails, check for rooms in Washburn, 15 minutes south.
Dining: Start the morning with java and Wi-Fi at Big Water Coffee Roasters (www.bigwatercoffee.com). Get a great homemade pie or apple turnover from The Pie Lady at Judy’s Gourmet Garage, 85130 Wisconsin State Highway 13 (no website). Reserve a table at Wild Rice (www.wildricerestaurant.com) for delicious, upscale cuisine. Other best-bet options include Greunke’s Restaurant (famous for lake fish; www.greunkesinn.com) and Portside, at Port Superior Marina (www.portsuperior.com).
Shopping: Apostle Islands Booksellers (www.apostleislandsbooksellers.com) is a delightful place with titles of regional interest and much more. Owner Theron O’Connor relocated here from California wine country to escape crowds and traffic.
Activities: Stroll or bicycle the lakefront trails; take the ferry to spend a day on Madeline Island; or try your luck at Legendary Waters Resort & Casino (www.legendarywaters.com) just up Wisconsin State Highway 13.