When guests board the Jonathan Padelford Riverboat on Harriet Island for the “River City Revue” this Wednesday night, they’ll be greeted by the lively, New Orleans-style jazz of the Southside Aces brass band, who’ll continue playing throughout the evening from the boat’s top deck. The “Revue” is a joint project by many of the same folks behind 2011’s crowd-pleasing Mississippi Megalops, a “floating Chautauqua” that debuted in last year’s Northern Spark festival. It’s presented by Mississippi River Fund and the public art and design studio, Works Progress, in partnership with the National Park Service and Padelford Riverboats.
Shanai Matteson, of Works Progress, explains, “When we partnered with Mississippi River Fund on the Megalops, we had such a great experience working with them; when they approached us with the idea to work together again, this time to develop a similar program along the river for this summer, we didn’t hesitate.”
“River City Revue” brings together artists and park rangers, scientists, public works experts and historians to afford Twin Citians an entertaining opportunity to see the Mississippi and its place in our lives with new eyes. Through a mix of art-making, performance, historical anecdotes and personal stories, the series aims to spark conversation on “the inseparable relationship between people and the river: [in matters of] sustenance, inebriation, consumption, waste, cleansing.”
Matteson says it surprises her how little she hears about the Mississippi in conversations about Twin Cities history and culture: “With this project, we’re focused on engaging people with the river – really, just getting them to think about it at all.” She goes on, “How often do we even really think of ourselves as living in a river city? The fact is, it’s essential: We drink the river, we shit in the river; our industry, agriculture and recreation are and always have been linked to this river.” And given its flow through every aspect of life in these Twin Cities — past and present — she argues, couldn’t we all stand to know a bit more about the Mississippi and our relation to it?
In that spirit, the first of these two-hour storytelling cruises follows the theme: “Drinking the River.” Presenters include: Pig’s Eye wastewater treatment plant manager, Larry Rognacki, with a history of wastewater treatment in the Twin Cities; national park ranger Dan Dressler will talk about Saint Paul’s colorful bootlegging and brewing history along the river and in its cave system; and artist Aaron Dysart will share the story of his “Soap Boat” project, a 600-pound rowboat he crafted out of soap, then piloted down the Mississippi to “clean” the river (Dysart will also guide an art-making project where attendees can carve miniature “soap boats” of their own).
In addition to these short, more formal presentations, “River City Revue” guests will be regaled with river stories of exploration and adventure by “Voyageur Jacques” (a character familiar to those aboard last year’s Mississippi Megalops cruises, created and played with brio by historian John Driscoll). Another national park ranger, expert in the river’s flora, fauna and rich history, David Wiggins will also be on hand with his deck of story prompts. “You can pick a card from his deck – say, the cholera card,” Matteson explains, “and then he’ll go from memory, telling some interesting cholera story in the river’s history. He’s a great storyteller.” (It’s worth mentioning, while the online program notes still indicate that bon vivant, artist and writer Andy Sturdevant will serve as these events’ emcee, Matteson notes that he’s recently bowed out of the series.)
Deploying a cross-disciplinary sampling of art-making, river lore and fun science facts — set against a 360-degree view of the verdant Upper Mississippi in full summer glory — delivered in genteel style on a historic riverboat, “River City Revue” strikes me as a cleverly direct, not to mention charming, way to spur discussion about the manifold concerns, environmental and otherwise, affecting the health of the river and, by extension, those of us who live so interdependently with it.
Matteson says, “We’re hoping to get people out on the river who don’t normally spend a lot of time there, encouraging them to think about it as more than a landmark or scenery. We’re enlisting scientists and environmentalists, artists and historians who can offer these interesting, different perspectives on the Mississippi, in the hopes that we’ll all find ways to engage the river, and its related history and culture, in a more meaningful way.”
The first of three River City Revue events, “Drinking the River,” is Wednesday, July 18. The cruise will depart promptly at 7 p.m. from Padelford Packet Boat Co., Harriet Island, 205 Doctor Justus Ohage Blvd., Saint Paul. The riverboat will proceed along the river to the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, returning to the Harriet Island dock by 9 p.m. Food and drink will be available for sale on the boat. Tickets are $10, and may be purchased in advance online or at the dock, on the evening of the event. For ticket information and more details on this and the two other upcoming storytelling cruises (August 1 and August 15), visit www.missriverfund.org.