Friends and family celebrate Nik Heidel’s ‘big, vibrant life’ with inaugural Kin Fest

The music fest, created in memory of Heidel, who died in 2018 at age 27, takes place at Land-Grant Brewing in Franklinton on Sunday

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Nik Heidel

Walt Keys first met Nik Heidel in 2016, when Heidel started tending bar at Land-Grant Brewing, where Keys currently works as creative director. At the time, Keys recalled being struck by the various scenes and people with whom Heidel appeared to have a deep bond, describing him as “connective tissue” linking these seemingly disparate groups.

It’s an impression shared by Max Slater and Vincent Valentino, longtime friends of Heidel, as well as Heidel's roommates at the time he died unexpectedly in 2018 at the age of 27. “He was the kind of dude where if you met him one time you sort of had a buddy for life,” said Slater, who joined Valentino for a recent phone interview. “So he had this expanding web of connections. … I feel like he was always a natural bartender, a natural bar guy. He just loved having people around, putting music on, cooking food, having drinks.”

These more communal, outgoing traits have helped shape the inaugural Kin Fest, which is set to take place at Land-Grant in Franklinton on Sunday, Aug. 15. The festival, which was initially planned for 2020 but was delayed for a year by COVID-19, will feature performances from musicians who were a part of Heidel’s expansive network (including Montezuma, Campbell, Mungbean and Fables), as well as the release of Kin, a tropical Kölsch Land-Grant has brewed in Heidel’s memory each year since his passing. (Keys said that the beer’s flavor notes are rooted in a pair of Heidel’s favorites —  Kölsch and tequila — while Heidel’s fondness for Hawaiian shirts inspired its tropical flair.) 

The expansion of the annual beer release to incorporate a day of music felt like a natural extension, Keys said, giving friends and family a chance to share Heidel’s passion for music with the larger public.

“When you first met Nik, he seemed like a quiet guy,” Keys said (Slater and Valentino described Heidel as having an almost bookish, Benjamin Gibbard-like presence at first blush). “And then we had our employee Christmas party, and he got up there to sing karaoke. It was a song by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. … And he started singing and it was like, ‘Oh, my God. This guy’s voice is insane.’ And he just put it out there in this way, like, ‘Wow, where did this come from?’ He could summon this growl of a voice that just knocked your socks off.”

“I pegged him as a bookworm, but he was more of a ‘turn the volume all the way up and pour a glass of whiskey’ type,” said Valentino, who will perform with Montezuma at Kin Fest. “He lived a very loud life, and I was just completely wrong in my first impression of him.”

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While Heidel performed with a couple of bands, most notably William Reach, Slater and Valentino said the Columbus native didn’t play out often, though he was always listening to music, playing guitar and writing songs in the hours he spent at home.

“I don’t think a day went by where he wouldn’t play, so we could come home at any time and there would be this big, folky, country voice just belting out songs,” Valentino said. “Music was just incredibly central to his life.”

The larger-than-life aspects of Heidel’s personality shined through even at his wake, which Valentino and Slater described as alternately devastating and uproarious as friends and family members shared tales of their encounters. “There was a lot of mourning, and lots of sadness — and there still is because he was so young and such a vibrant person — but what became clear to me was you couldn’t … talk about Nik too long without telling some gut-busting story,” Slater said. “Really, the memory of Nik is an intensely positive one. It doesn’t take a huge amount of effort to go from this is a grieving situation to this is a celebration of him.”

“I think one thing I realized, especially in the last couple of years of his life, was how good Nik was at living this big, vibrant life,” said Valentino, recalling the energy Heidel so often filled the house with as he played music, cooked food and engaged in animated conversation. “In a lot of ways, the thing you take away, you try to fill your own life with the kind of vibrancy you were lucky enough to have him bring into it. For me, personally, that’s a way to remember him: Live a big, loud life, and fill your home with music and food and good friends.”