What is SeMi Bluegrass? It's a meeting place where live music fans in Southeast Michigan gather to exchange information about the live music scene: show reviews, cool venues, band profiles, product reviews and more.
Articles, news, reviews and band profiles welcome.
Email to: SeMiBluegrass@gmail.com

If you're looking for the South East Michigan Bluegrass Music Association (A fine group of Bluegrass fans in South East Michigan) you can find them at http://smbluegrass.org/

Monday, September 12, 2016

Superior Blues: The Marquette Area Blues Fest and the Chris Canas Band

Where Magic Happens
The capstone event to my summer of music festivals was, as always, the Marquette Area Blues Fest.  Held every Labor Day weekend for the past thirteen years at the aptly named Ellwood Mattson Lower Harbor Park, this event brings together the very best  local, regional and national blues acts on a magnificent stage in one of the most beautiful and scenic settings imaginable.   It will be nearly impossible to top the talent on display this year.  The tone was set during the FREE Friday night show featuring the classic blues stylings of Tre & the Blue Knights (wsg Lady Kat), and culminating with the the guitar-gymnastics of JW Jones and "Laura On The Bass" Greenberg--on display for a raucous, yet well-behaved crowd of blues fans, locals and college students alike.  JW made the excellent point that free shows like this go a LONG way to helping promote blues and roots music to a younger crowd. It was certainly a success in Marquette.

Victor Wainwright--"The Piana From Savannah"
Saturday featured completely different, yet amazingly entertaining acts that played well off each other and kept the fun, and the energy building all night.   Reverend Robert brought Mississippi style blues and slide guitar to open the  day under bluebird skies and mild, 70 degree temperatures.  The largest band of the weekend, hailing from the smallest town in Michigan (Alpha), Sons of Legends gave the crowd a full set of hard-rocking, roots blues--and kept the party going all day long, hanging out with the crowd, passing out "Legendary" tee shirts (thanks guys!) and generally having a good time.  Next was South East Michigan's own Chris Canas Band, who surprised the crowd with one of the most intersting, high-energy and unexpected sets of the weekend.  More on them below. The night concluded with two Memphis bands who brought Beale Street to the shores of Lake Superior.  The Ghosttown Blues Band (due in no part to the frenetic encouragement of "hype man" Suavo) set the crown up with their Alman Brothers inspired jamming and some unbelievable cigar-box guitar word from lead man Matt Isbel.  Closing out the night was  the boogie-woogie piano of 2016 B.B. King Entertainer of the Year (and Band of the Year) Victor Wainwright & the Wild Roots  who picked up where Ghosttown left off and then nocked them down.  The evening culminated in a dual-band jam session that pushed the crowd to the very edge (and the festival to the edge of a noise ordinance violation--none was given, but it would have been totally worth it!).

Go Go Ray Closing Out the Festival in Style
Sunday featured more of the same, starting with solo acoustic blues artist Brian Keith Wallen and his "cupboard door/mixing bowl stompbox" (you have to hear it to believe it).  Long time Marquette favorites the Flat Broke Blues Band celebrated fifteen years of playing together with a driving set of new and old material.  West Michigan's Hank Mowery & the Hawktones brought not only his solid harmonica licks and smooth, soul singing to the stage, but surprised the crowd with the addition of Kate Moss on guitar.  As an unexpected bonus, south east Michigan's own expatriated Marquette native, George Friend (of Laura Rain & the Caesars) got up on stage and flat out KILLED a couple of tunes on a telecaster. Hank later hosted the after party jam and brought some ridiculously cool combinations of these acts to the stage (including a funky Motown-inspired number by Ms. Rain herself!).  The Kinsey Report kept the energy high with soulful blues, witty stage banter and even channeled the late Bob Marley for some reggae tunes (or "island blues" as I like to call it).  The Samantha Fish Band closed out the festival giving the crowd everything they asked for (including a "War Pigs" finale).

This Guy Can PLAY!
This was truly a weekend of exceptional acts.  However, since this is a "southeast Michigan" music blog, I'm going to pick the set from the Chris Canas Band as my "standout performance" of the weekend (OK...I'm definitely biased here).  From the moment the band rolled through the artist entrance backstage you could tell they were here to entertain.  Disregarding the festival's legendary (epic?) green room, the members of the band arrived early, took in the opening acts, talked to the other bands and started working the crowd.  Professional to a tee, they showed up in stage clothes, shook every hand and answered every question people asked them.  Any festival promoter thinking of booking this band should know that this might be the very best decision they make.   Besides their exceptional talent, the band has amazing stage presence, contagious likeabilty and complete professionalism.  A rare combination now days.

Angie Adding Some MoTown Soul to the Band
On stage the band worked though a polished set of both original and classic blues numbers.  The focus of the band is definitely Chris' stellar work on the Les Paul--equally versed in tone-dripping slow blues numbers and finger-flying, rocking blues solos.  His classic voice is powerful, rich and versatile (especially when singing harmony with the band).  Joining him on stage is his Mother Angie (or older sister, depending on who you ask).  Her classic Detroit R&B voice adds a touch of MoTown the the band's sound, hearkening to the energy and vibrancy of a young Aretha Franklin with a bit of Big Mama Thornton's grit and soul thrown in to keep it real.  A stellar rhythm section of Chris Nordman on Keys, Kevin Schoepke on Bass and new (to me) drummer smiling ear-to-ear throughout the set laid down a funky groove that kept the crowd on their feet.  A completely unexpected finale was Chris' cover of country legend George Jones' Tennessee Whiskey.  In a stroke of pure genius, Chris combined Chris Stapleton's vocal arrangement with his own sorrowful blues licks to build the tension; hushing the crowd with the quiet opening licks and then slowly, agonizingly building the suspense through the bridge and finally letting them have it with all the power and emotion his voice could supply.  When you added in Angie's completely amazing harmony parts on the chorus,  the band provided one of the most memorable, and crowd-pleasing moments of the entire festival.  I was completely blown away, and once again in awe of the incredible musical talent in southeast Michigan.  This was the perfect way to end my summer of fun and music.--until I start all over with live, local music in the fall.  ;-)

Lots and lots of pictures from the festival below.  Please feel free to use, share, tag with credit to SeMiBluegrass.com.  Like us on facebook or subscribe to the blog for more great music and events like this.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Roots Rust Revival--Giant (Playable) Stringed Instruments as Interactive Art

Genius at Work
And now for something completely different. Have you ever sat up late at night; perhaps after an cocktail or two, and had a  crazy idea?  Something like: "Hey!  We should build a ten foot tall giant steel banjo!", and instead of telling you that you're crazy your friend says "Yeah!  And it should be PLAYABLE!".  Welcome to the genius of the magnificently twisted and wildly creative minds behind Heavy Metal Stringworks. David Sakalauskas and Steven Cannaert have been friends for years and--along with a slightly warped sense of humor--share a passion for live music and tinkering with things.  For years they had been tossing around the idea of building a giant banjo sculpture to donate to the Wheatland Music Organization.  The passing of long-time organizer Mike Bunting (who--according to legend attended his first Wheatland to return a banjo he had borrowed) provided the motivation to bring their dream to life and the "Big Banjo" made it's debut at Wheatland last fall. 

Banjo, BasTrak and Dobro (look close)
From that humbly grandiose beginning came the idea for Roots Rusted Revival--an ambitious, interactive sculpture installation that simultaneously celebrates Michigan's rustbelt industrial heart and roots music soul. And what better way to show off a bunch of gigantic, rusty, playable, musical sculptures than to get Founder's to agree to host the installation as part of ArtPrize in September!  Dave and Steven's vision has grown to include a trio of oversized, yet playable instruments; built primarily from found and reclaimed materials; developed organically with changes and modifications suggested by people who interact with the sculptures at various musical festivals; all coming together to create something greater than the sum of the rusty bits and pieces that make up the sculptures.  All summer long these maestros of musical magnificence have been traipsing all over the state, working on their vision.  Their interactive sculptures have made appearances at the Charlotte Bluegrass Festival, the Ryan Bellows Bluegrass Bizaar, the Midwest Test, Feral Fest and several smaller events.  Look for them at the Hoxeyville Music Festival in August as well.

Fans Checking Out the Big Banjo
The Big Banjo was the first creation from Heavy Metal Stringworks.  Standing over 10 feet tall and weighing in at over 600 pounds, this mammoth banjo--by some measures--qualifies as the world's largest playable banjo.  They're waiting to hear back from the folks at Guinness to verify this.  Authentic in every aspect, the Big Banjo features a steel pot,  adjustable polyethylene head and a fully fretted custom steel neck made from a surplus highway guardrail.  Ratchet strap hardware allows for coarse tuning of the stainless steel strings, with an ingenious fine-tuner setup hidden behind the head to perfect the pitch of each string.  While difficult--but not impossible--for a single person to play (either Scruggs or Clawhammer styles work), the Big Banjo really sounds incredible when played by two (or more) people.  Some on the frets, some plucking strings, some beating on the head like a drum, even playing the short strings between the tailpiece and bridge for some harmonics--the possibilities are endless.  Recently, they guys have even added a piezo-electric pickup allowing the Big Banjo to be played through an amplifier with a variety of digital effects for some truly unique sounds!

Jamming with the BasTrak at Charlotte Bluegrass Festival
How to top the Big Banjo?  Introducing the BasTrak!  At it's core, this post-industrial nightmare of an instrument is essentially an enormous washtub bass lying on it's side.  With an eight foot diameter head resting on a frame of railroad ties, and a twelve foot neck made of a old train rail, this behemoth weighs in at over 3/4 of a ton!   Less instantly recognizable as a musical instrument, the BasTrak is normally played by striking the steel cable with a rubber mallet while sliding a heavy steel trolley along the rail to control pitch.  Like the Big Banjo, the BasTrak has undergone continuous, incremental improvement based on feedback from people who've played it.  A new floating head (courtesy of some discarded stock car valve springs) and an ingenious pickup system allow for a tremendous range of tones.  At one point this summer, over a dozen people were simultaneously playing the string, the head, the rail and even the frame to create a post-modern dance groove late into the evening.

Dobro Work In Progress
The most ambitious piece to date is the Steel Dobro.  Modeled loosely on a pre-war National Squareneck dobro, this self-standing, 6-sting masterpiece is remarkably light (well under 400 pounds) and easily playable by a single person.  With a steel body wearing a heavy coat of rust and patina, the stainless steel top really stands out and creates not only a striking visual contrast, but a sharp, clean tone to offset the deep bass of the hollow body.  The strings are held way above the fretboard for easy slide playing in the traditional style.  A hand crafted tailpiece (with integral fine tuners) is a masterpiece of design and on-the-fly engineering as are the spring-steel "fingers" that support the tuning "machines" at the headstock.  The strings run over a hand-hewn oak saddle and nut and transfer (for now) the sound to the sieve-plate resonator (salvaged from an old clothes dryer).  The piece simply has to be seen, touched and played to be appreciated.

Words (and pictures) simply can not describe the Roots Rusted Revival project.  However, let me present the following as my own--modest--contribution the this living, breathing work of rust belt art:

In the middle of a warm, Michigan summer, pick a calm, quiet evening and step outside.  There you will hear the faint musical echo of our state's past: the rhythmic striking of axes against tall Northern Michigan pine trees; the slow rumble of dynamite blasting an iron ore face in a U.P. mine; the sharp crash and clang of hydraulic presses in Detroit and Flint's great automotive plants.  If you listen closely, you will also hear the ghosts of our blue collar ancestors singing and making music with family and friends; with simple, traditional instruments--the guitar, and banjo and washtub bass--they brought with them as they moved from the poverty of the south to the opportunity of the Midwest.  Though the trees are gone, the mine's have shut down, and the great factories lie rusting and crumbling, the spirit of those songs still lives in each of us.  In a real sense, it lives in the popular music of our generation--in Barry Gordie's Motown, in Bob Seeger's Classic Rock, in Kid Rock's rap/rock fusion and in Jack White's modern pop.  In another sense, it lives in all of us--in our work ethic; and our spirit; and our passion; in or creativity and our ingenuity; and in the dirt, grit and blood we pore into our daily lives.

Roots Rust Revival is about more than creating sculpture; it is more ambitious than building the worlds largest playable instruments; and it's definitely about more than continuously and incrementally improving the work through the interactions in all of us.  These pieces are about embracing the music in each of us; about the beauty of seeing what is old reborn into what is fantastic; about seeing with the eyes, embracing with the hands and appreciating with the heart; about the transfer of experience--be it the small brown stain of rust on your hands the work gives to you, or that little piece of your soul that lingers on the steel where you touched it; about giving life to the inanimate through experiencing it with all of your senses; and about the very act of creation--just because you can.  Roots Rust Revival is important not because it is like nothing you've ever seen or heard, but because it IS everything you've ever seen and heard.

More pictures from Heavy Metal Stringworks below.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Milan Bluegrass Festival and "Jam in the RV" with The Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show.

The Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Review On Stage at Milan
In a summer full of over-the-top Michigan bluegrass festivals, the Milan Bluegrass Festival at KC Campground was one for the record books.  Despite mid-90s temperatures and humidity levels making it feel more like a mid-winter sauna than a mid-summer campground, attendance was definitely up and the crowd was treated to some incredibly innovative and spectacularly interesting events that teamed up to make this festival unique and the "must-see" event of the summer.  Not only do you get to see the "A-List" of Bluegrass at Milan (Rhonda Vincent, Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out, Dailey & Vincent, the Gibson Brothers and Blue Highway all played this year) but promoter Mark Gaynier continues to bring in new, fresh and exciting acts to expand the bluegrass audience.  The old-time sounds of The Wayfarers (more on them below) and a thunderstorm inspired entirely acoustic set under the pavillion by Mountain Faith stood out this year.  The youngsters in Breaking Grass even managed to mix in a medley of current-day pop hits without anyone noticing (well, not too much anyways).  Overall, this was definitely the best listening show of the summer.  However, like every bluegrass festival, it was what happens OFF stage that makes things special, and Milan was no exception.

Pickin' a Few with Friends Old and New
Bluegrass festivals has always been about community, and Milan is no exception.  Arriving early in the week, I set up the "SeMiBluegrass Jam Tent" in our usual spot--out in the grassy field north of the pond.  The crew from the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass show was setting up their TeePee next door.  Brian from the UP and Tammy from Monroe set up their tents nearby.  As the week went on, festival friends and neighbors continued to arrive, set up camp nearby and drop by to say "Hi!"  By Thursday, an ad-hoc neighborhood had sprouted amidst the grass in our little field.   Though I see most of them only once a year, we picked up where we left off, sharing gossip, cold beverages and old songs as we renewed the friendships we have forged around bluegrass for yet another year.  The BBQ dinners served each night as a fundraiser for T.H.A.N.K.S. (Tailgaters Helping Aid Need Kids' Spirits) help bind the community as they break bread together over some pretty amazing chicken and pork loin.  The festival serves as home-base for the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association, who--in addition to getting kids interested in bluegrass through their "Instrument Petting Zoo"--inducted a group of people into their "Hall of Honor" during the festival for their efforts to "Preserve and Promote Bluegrass Music in Southeastern Michigan".   As I always say, "It's about the People, the Places and the Music...Always in that Order!"

Jerry Interviewing SEMBMA President Bill Warren
Know for camping out of a Teepee at Milan, Jerry Eicher, the long-bearded, tie-dye wearing host of the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show (live Saturday at 10 pm & Wednesday at 8 pm on 95.3FM (WQTE) Adrian, MI and Saturday morning at 9 am on  90.3 WCWA (Owensborough, Ky) brought their new LIVE Internet show (courtesy of worldwidebluegrass.com) to the Milan Festival.  With an RV borrowed from his niece and nephew, some cool decorations and long Cat5 cable to the campground office, Jerry created the "Jam in the RV" for the show.  The concept was simple...broadcast live from 9pm to 11pm each night with interviews and live performances from  the bands and people associated with the festival.  With a little mountain-man/hippie magic and a twinkle in his eye, Jerry managed to create a work of ephemeral perfection.

The Wayfarers "Live from the RV"
Nearly every band managed to pop into the RV and record an interview a play a live piece.  On Thursday, The Wayfarers from Ohio set the RV on fire with their incredible high-energy take on old-time bluegrass instrumentals.  Gathered around Jerry's Ear Trumpet Labs Microphone, this group of young friends puts a distinctly modern spin on pre-bluegrass era mountain music with the driving clawhammer banjo of Jake Loew and classically trained fiddle chops of Kenzie Maynard perfectly complementing the complex three- and four- (and sometimes five-) part harmonies.  Josh Harman (guitar) and Brandon Bankes (mandolin) provide enough drive for two bands.  Like any good "Semibluegrass" band, they know the words to most of the fiddle tunes you hear at a jam--a rare skill set that makes those old standards new and fun again!  The homemade washtub bass of Nathan Zangmeister serves as a perfect metaphor for this band.  Unusual, home-made, unexpected and somehow perfect for the music.

The Infamous Pimento Cheese Incident
Jerry likes to have fun, and perhaps no one epitomized that ethos than when Becky Buller stopped by the RV with banjo-player and Bluegrass Junction (XM) Radio personality Ned Luberecki to play a couple of fiddle/banjo tunes and sample some of Jerry's home made pimento cheese (apparently a running gag on the Becky Buller World Tour). Becky has made a career of mixing great music and singing with an approachable and affable personality on stage.  Her shows are just good, wholesome fun!  In the RV, that personality exploded into a non-stop hour of good humor, good friends and good eating.  Luberecki's instantly likeable personality and "made for radio" voice seamlessly melded with Buller's innocent looks and quick wit to create comic gold.  Ned trying to do the play-by-play of the Pimento Cheese tasting while Becky--with mouth completely, yet daintly, full--mumbling "It' Good!  It's soooo good" was comic genius!  When I looked over at Jerry trying to keep it together and move forward with the interview, I couldn't help myself...I was on the floor laughing.  I'm sure Jerry recorded this and it's sure to be one of his most downloaded podcasts on his Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show website.

Red, White and Bluegrass Band
Jerry also interviewed many of the folks who make the festival special: young guitar-picker Jesse Manns threw down some hot guitar licks; I talked about the SEMBMA Hall of Honor; Bill Warren hyped the Instrument Petting Zoo; campground owner and festival promoter Mark Gaynier made it on the air to talk about next year's lineup.  However, the most special moment of the entire festival came when--needing some live music to fill up the show--Jerry reached out to some of the campground jams to come into the RV and do a live number or two.  First to answer the call was the quintessential Milan Bluegrass campsite group the informal Red, White and Bluegrass Band.  Long-time festival attendees will recognize brothers Sam Costelli (guitar) and Tam (mandolin) with their nephew Reno Costelli (bass) and Fossil Creek Bluegrass Band fiddler Darrell Wagner from their all-night, full-throttle and full volume, free-wheeling jam by the pond.  

Costelli Campsite Jams
Several things combined to make this truly a memorable performance.  Many years ago, I attended my first bluegrass festival at Milan.  Wandering around the campsite at night, a novice guitar player with my guitar hung around my neck, I stopped by several campsites and listened to campers jamming late into the night.  When I got to the pond, in the middle of whirling, 20-person jam, Sam Costelli noticed me hanging around just outside the campfire light and said "Hey!  Get that guitar in here!".  I mumbled something about being a beginner and not very good, but they were having none of it.  I have made it a point to stop by the Costelli Camp and pick a few tunes every time we are at the same festival.  It really is kind of a family and I wouldn't miss it for the world.  Even more special in the RV this night was Darrell's 13-year old daughter Lauren.  I've known Darrel for about eight years now, and--like me--his daughter loves to hang around the festivals with her dad.  I've literally watched Lauren grow up at festivals.  So, when Lauren joined the fellas on the radio and stepped up to sing the harmony parts with her Dad there was a passing of the bluegrass torch from one generation to another right there, for everyone to see--and it was spectacular!    Video says a lot more than a 1000 words, so I humbly present this:

I've included some photos from the Festival below.  Feel free to tag, share and use freely with credit to www.semibluegrass.com.  Want more great semibluegrass content?  Subscribe to the blog, or better yet, follow us on Facebook!

Friday, August 12, 2016

A Deep and Heartfelt "Thank You"

Over the past few years I have done my best to make people aware of the vibrant and blossoming acoustic music scene in Southeast Michigan.  I gone to hundreds of shows.  I've written dozens of online reviews.  I've attended most of the local music festivals, open mics and musical events.  I even volunteered to serve as the Vice President of the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association.  I've done all of this because of my passion for live, local, acoustic music in Southeast Michigan.  So it was with great shock  that I learned I was to be inducted into the 2016 class of the SEMBMA "Hall of Honor" at the Milan Bluegrass Festival last week for my "efforts to promote and support bluegrass and acoustic music in the region".  I am both incredibly honored and completely humbled that my modest contribution has been noticed, and has made a difference to people who share my interests and passions.  To the person who nominated me, and all of you who support what I do:  Thank you! This award is as much for you as it is for me.  Now go find some live, local music!

Monday, July 18, 2016

You Don't Know What You're Missing--Two Cool Grassroots Michigan Music Festivals

Music At Night Under The Trees--Because You Can
Michigan is home to countless hundreds of music festivals--from downtown concert series in nearly every small town imaginable, to full blown, nationally recognized productions like Electric Forest, Faster Horses and the Wheatland Music Festival.  However, if you keep you eyes and ears open, you may just stumble on something special: an informal and independent musical gathering, often run on a shoestring budget and for all the right reasons, that delivers all that is best about the festival experience, without all the drama and baggage inevitably associated with large-scale events.  I was fortunate to attend TWO such events over the past fortnight at Folk-In-The-Woods in the Port Huron area and Forestville in Marquette.  While completely different events, they were eerily similar in the quality experience they provided to everyone in attendance.

Magic Happens in These Woods!
Folk-In-The-Woods (see my review of last year's festival here) started as an informal gathering of folk musicians in a private woodlot outside of Port Huron.  As the years past and more musicians started showing up, a small stage and basic amenities sprang up in the woods.  Owner Connie and her husband Sean have managed to keep the local, musician-friendly vibe alive while simultaneously allowing the event to blossom into a full-blown celebration of the Port Huron music scene.  Built on the backs of a small army of enthusiastic volunteers and supported entirely by voluntary donations, "Folk", as it's lovingly referred to by those in attendance, is a weekend full of peace, love and music by, for and about the musicians who supply it.  For a modest (and I mean REALLY modest) donation, you get two full days of music, a no-frills space to pitch your tent or park a small camper, and even a communal dinner each night!  An eclectic and eccentric musical lineup keeps things interesting and entertaining:  Singer/Songwriters abound--from talented young newcomers to seasoned veterans of the folk scene; A real-deal big band shares the stage followed by a hard-rocking blues band--with a set thrown in by a classical guitarist; electric bands from a variety of genres get the crowd going and the jamming (both organized and informal) goes on day and night.  This is definitely one of the coolest things I've ever been involved in.

And These Woods Too!
Deep in the woods in Marquette a truly exceptional music festival is taking it's baby steps and growing into something truly spectacular.  Forestville is the brainchild of Andy Langlois of Blackrocks Brewery (and probably many others) and combines "beer, music and camping under the stars."  A ticketed event, proceeds from Forestville benefit the Noquemanon Trail Network (NTN) and take place at the trailhead.  Like Folk-In-The-Woods, you get a ridiculous amount of cool music for a minimal fee.  Limited, rustic camping is available...with all other attendees required to take a shuttle to the event.  Unique to Forestville is the combination of music festival and craft beer festival (a natural pairing I would think).  Much more electric jam-band centered, Forestville still delivered some great, and varied sets of music and closed with the impossible to describe onstage antics and danceable cover songs of local favorites Frank An Da Beanz.

A Sure Sign You're At A Great Festival
This year's lineup of craft beers included the "host" Blackrocks, local breweries Ore Dock and Cognition, and downstate superstars Founders, Brewery Vivant and the Mitten Brewing CoStarcut Cider was also there with some remarkably refreshing beverages perfect for the hot, sunny temperatures.  With all the sun, music and beer, the hot, fresh food provided by multiple food trucks was perfect.  It was almost impossible to decide what to eat: hot dogs, deli, Barbecue, tacos or wood fired pizza.  Personally, I enjoyed the heirloom tomato pizza from brand-new startup Copper Crust Pizza and--of course--the best darn tacos in the world from Dia De Los Tacos (I can't believe they got better since last year...but they did.  The "Coleen" and "Miss Piggy" were superb)!

Alex Shier--The Real Deal--Right Here--This Guy
Michigan is home to an incredible music scene, and nowhere was this more evident than in the stunning lineup of homegrown musicians at both festivals.  Every single band and performer who played was top notch and I would put them up against any performer, in any setting, anywhere.  However, there were a few memorable, stand-out moments and I thought I'd take the time to share them individually.  I saw Alex Shier play at Folk-In-The-Woods last year and thought he was excellent.  When he stepped onstage this year, for a solo set right between local favorites the Gasoline Gypsies and high-energy, ThrashGrass closers the Native Howl, I thought he was doomed--what an impossible set to play. Boy was I  ever wrong.  He brought the crowd to their feet with his tastefully stripped down use of loop pedal to accompany himself on a free-wheeling set of tasty original and creative covers.  They were singing along enthusiastically with his soulful rendition of Tennessee Whiskey and losing their minds during Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone.  It's obvious to me (and everyone else who was there) that Alex spent the last year in the woodshed and brought his singing and guitar playing chops to a nova bright polish.  Truly one of the great sets I've seen.

Kayla and Chris Day of the Tom Toms
As usual, Don Kanners at Music Movers LLC brought his "A Game" to the table with bands at Folk-In-The-Woods.   Hometown favorites the Gasoline Gypsies put on their usual high-energy show with a new rhythm guitarist (Neal) and a bunch of new songs.  Friday night closed with the Native Howl who are rapidly growing into THE high-energy band around.  They had the entire crowd on their feet dancing in front of--and by the end of the night, on--the stage.  But it was the Saturday night post-dinner set by the Tom Toms that really blew my mind.  Guitarist Chris Day was all over the stage like a puppy with a new toy throwing out one blazing lick after another (and even playing some bottleneck slide with a full bottle of Bell's Two Hearted).  He plays plugged straight into the amp, without a lot of effects pedals and assorted nonsense, and I kind of love that.   Uber-cool bassist Elaina Day threw in some super-clean, yet wildly funky bass lines and drummer Steve Bennett played the absolute crap out of the drum set.   You couldn't help but be caught up in the music!  However, when singer Kayla Day (it's a popular last name in the band...I assume they're all related one way or another?) opened her mouth to sing, the world kind of stopped for me.  She has a magical, powerful and tremendously soulful voice able to deliver the vocals clearly with an urgency and vulnerability that is nearly impossible to describe--and addictively pleasurable to listen to.  She delivers the band's remarkable originals with joy and enthusiasm and pulled off two tremendous covers (Led Zepplin's Whole Lotta Love and the Jackson Five's I Want You Back).  It is rare to equally versed in musicality and performance, but the Tom Toms do that--and they do it well!

Finnish Reggae Sensations Conga Se Menne
Forestville featured it's own stand-out performances.  I had not heard Country/Americana band Trailer Hitch play live and was not disappointed--tight rhythm section, well-rehearsed harmonies and original takes on country covers made them very interesting to listen to.  I would have loved to see them play a later time--slot with a larger crowd--they would have KILLED it.  Even a sudden, out-of-the-blue downpour couldn't kill the vibe when Finnish Reggae Band Conga Se Menne hit the stage.  One would be tempted to think the band was a novelty, with their songs about saunas, shotguns and fishing--and you would be terribly wrong. Behind the too-pale skin, white hair and "tropical sauna rhythms" lies a collection of serious musicians.  They may be 2000 miles from the nearest coral reef and white sand beach, but this band delivers the danceable, fun-soaked, rhythm-driven music of the islands...and they do it as well as any equatorial band alive.   I also really dug the all-brass improvisational band Who Dat Brass.  I didn't actually see Ruby the Tank or Rivulare in person (I was volunteering), but these groovy, woman-fronted, rock/American acts sounded amazing through the trees and delivered some very danceable, very listenable music to the crowd.  They're on my list to go see in person next time I'm in town.

Frank (Evan Simula) and Da Beanz
Following several sets of high-quality jam bands, Frank An Da Beanz took the stage to close out the festival.   It is impossible to classify this band.  The unofficial house band of Blackrocks Brewery is known for many things: their unpredictable and often ill-advised clothing choices on stage; the no-holds-barred stage antics of frontman and bassist Evan Simula; their outrageous mix of surfrock classics with funkadelic takes on rock, blues, soul and funk tunes; blending the ridiculous with the sublime; and the hardest rocking, funkiest and most danceable rhythm around.  You are not allowed to have a bad time while the Beanz play--they are infectiously happy, border on the ridiculous and--oh yeah--five of the most supremely gifted musicians you will ever see--and sometimes you just have to see it:

Frank An Da Beanz:

So, there are lots of great festivals, and some unbelievable music out there just waiting for you to find it.  Go get some!

Photo Galleries from both events are included below.  Please feel free to share/tag/distribute freely with credit given to Semibluegrass.com.  Consider liking SeMiBluegrass on Facebook for more photos, reviews and commentary on Live, Local Music and get out there and enjoy some yourself!

Folk-In-The-Woods 2016 Gallery

Forestville 2016 Gallery

Monday, June 27, 2016

Ridiculously Cool--The Native Howl and The Ragbirds at CAD Studios.

The People.  Music People.  The Best People.
As I have said repeatedly, when it comes to live, local music in South East Michigan it is all about the people, the places and the music (and always in that order).   So, while I have worked very hard in this blog to bring some incredible live music experiences to my readers, I am continually awed by the places I have been introduced to and humbled by the new friends I have made in my musical journeys.  No where was this more evident that last night, in a converted heating and cooling workshop where two of the very finest "Semibluegrass" bands around met for the first time in front of a tiny, select audience of family, fans and friends to create a uniquely meaningful and transcendent musical experience.

This Guy!
This "Intimate Evening of Music" was the brainchild of master-promoter and kindred spirit Don Kanners.  In semi-retirement from his past, less-fun-but-more-profitable career, Don has  totally immersed himself in the live, local, southeast Michigan music scene with his management, promotions and booking company, Music Movers LLC.  There is something special about each of the four up-and-coming bands Kanners has assembled.  The Native Howl, the Gasoline Gypsies, the Tom Toms and Off the Ledge are all likeable, listenable and eminently talented...and Don finds ways to put them in the public eye every day.  Don keeps the bands busy with the expected bar gigs, showcase shows and festival appearances, but he also works tirelessly to expand the bands' reach into other venues--appearances on TV news shows, radio appearances and special, one-of-a-kind events.  His boundless enthusiasm for live music is exceeded only by his professionalism, creativity and dedication to clients.  The world would be a whole lot better place if there were more of him around.

"Intimate" doesn't even start to describe it...
Five or six years ago, Don, a self-professed "classic rocker", was none-the-less gobsmacked by Ann Arbor's quintessentially hip and impossible to define global groove band The Ragbirds and came up with the hare-brained idea of booking them to play a "private" show for a small crowd.  Enter Native Howl frontman Alex Holycross'  Clean As Dirt (CAD) Studios (Click the link for a cool article from MuseTracks--something else terribly cool you should know about!)  This mystic musical retreat was created to honor Alex's father from the bones of his defunct heating and cooling business.  More than just a state-of-the art recording studio, CAD is a place where musician's gather to share ideas and try things out in a judgement free zone; where differences fade and friends become family through shared interests; where the pursuit of dreams means more than resumes or college degrees; and where--with just a little nudge--magic still lives in our world.   It was into this ephemeral setting that Don invited the Ragbirds who admitted "we had no idea what to expect"--and later thanked the Native Howl and Don for "inviting us into your family".

The Native Howl's "ThrashGrass Rhythm Section"
And what a family this was.  There were, I believe, only 32 tickets sold to this event on an invite-only basis.  Friends and fans alike, this was truly a musical family--relaxing and socializing over beer, wine and fantastic appetizers (courtesy, I think, of Alex's mother) before the show, and then settling in for an intense listening experience (oddly reminiscent of Johnny's Speakeasy in that regard).  The night opened with the Native Howl in a stripped down, "Thrash Grass" configuration-- with Drummer Joshua LeMieux unexpectedly picking up the guitar instead of his usual drum kit--a huge gamble that obviously took a LOT of hard work on this young man's part--and he pulled it off flawlessly!  They've still got a way to go to be "bluegrass", but it was pure "Semibluegrass" for sure!

Family Means a Lot to the Ragbirds As Well.
Through the genius of Don Kanners, neither band had ever heard the other play and had no idea what to expect.  As a testament to the talent in both bands, I watched them grooving on each others'  music throughout both sets.  The Native Howl played some of their signature "ThrashGrass", but also dug deep for some older, melodic tunes and less familiar material.  On their part, the Ragbirds also stripped their stage show down to present some spectacular new material from their new album "The Threshold and the Hearth" and some classic rhythm-addicted Ragbirds jams.  What can I say about the Ragbirds that I haven't said here or here before.  The band just embodies so much of what attracts me to local, roots music and the people who play it.    Fronting the band is Erin Zindle, a powerful songwriter, fearless and unabashedly willing to bare her soul, and put her feelings--both light and dark--on display to connect the crowd to a deeper truth.  Family plays an important role in the band as well...not only in the stories of love, loss and relationships their songs tell, but right out in front, with Erin fronting a band that contains her brother TJ on guitar and husband Randall Moore on percussion.  You get the sense that John Brown on drums and Dan Jones on bass are no strangers to the dinner table at the Zindle/Moore house either.   A true stand-out of the night was  Brown's work on the Cajon.  With lightning fast hands and a subtle touch, he was able to bring that box alive--booming, sizzling and snapping like the full-blown drum kit he normally plays.  It was an absolute clinic in how drums should be played in an acoustic setting--perfection.

In a moment of pure spontaneous genius, Erin sat in with the Howl for a tune, and they returned the favor having Alex sit in on the Stealers Wheel classic "Stuck in the Middle with You".  It was inspiring to watch them figure each other out and then throw themselves completely into something unfamiliar, yet somehow as comfortable as a favorite tee shirt (probably a tie-dyed tee shirt with this group).   All in all, an amazing night of music and fellowship--both on stage and in the audience..  I was so enthralled and enraptured by what was going down that  I completely forgot to take notes.  Luckily, Gasoline Gypsy and Native Howl Super Fan Jack Hunger posted a great description of the show on his Facebook page.  With his permission, I've copied some of it below; as he managed to capture  the spirit of the evening better than I ever could have.

"The Howl set began, by taking percussionist Joshua LeMieux out of his normal double drumming role and had him tickling six strings. Accentuating more Grass than Thrash for this intimate set, the move was private and personal, and a romantic testimony to LeMieux's passion and dedication to his art. Not his instrument of choice, Josh worked to make tonight work, and that work, certainly paid off in spades.

The highlight of the Native Howl set was a rarely played in public duet of Holycross and Jake Sawicki, called The Vast Divide, a soul searching look at struggling with loss. The entire audience was moved to tears. It was raw, emotional and real. It only could have happened on this night, in this room. An 'oh wow," hush followed that song, as we all gathered our hearts. Jake broke the silence with, "we're gonna do something a little happier now," and an audience giggle, and a Mark Chandler bass solo later, heads were bobbing, and hands were clapping again. It was like the grandest of roller coaster rides.

Erin Zindle, the 5 foot nothing (but with a gigantic presence) bundle of fiddling energy that fronts the Ragbirds said it best, "We booked this house party-studio thing, not knowing what to expect. Sometimes special happens. Alex talked earlier about family. Thank you for inviting us into your family."

And The Ragbirds delivered.  Like The Howl, the original music of The Ragbirds defies traditional definitions. Obvious bluegrass roots, are fed with clever and folksy lyrics, that tell tales of overcoming challenges, and negotiating life and love. Theirs is music of hope. Ms. Zindle's voice is angelic, her violin can be both a fiddle and a classical orchestra instrument. She moved about the small stage like a sprite, sprinkling happiness around the room. Intricate rhythms from a team of percussionists and rock solid guitar work from Erin's brother, TJ invoked wisps of a subtle Grateful Dead influence

The brilliant meeting of The Native Howl, and The Ragbirds, two bands who had yet to be together before this night, was arranged by Don Kanners of Music Movers, LLC, who promotes The Howl, and had become a fan of The Ragbirds, after hearing the Ann Arbor family five-some a few years back. "It was a match that just made sense to me," Kanners noted. "their styles are definitely different, but I knew they'd mesh."

Perhaps, the only thing that could have eclipsed that magic that was the music on this night, would be the size of the biggest smile ever seen on a human face as Alex sat in on an encore song with the Ragbirds. They covered "Stuck in the Middle with You."

Alex, all of us certainly are proud of you. And what was the magic that you made in that room, proves somebody else was looking down, and beaming about his boy, as well.

So, if it ever comes up, and someone asks this guy, where were you when you had your greatest live music experience? I'd say, Leonard, Michigan. With The Native Howl, and The Ragbirds. You just can't top that!"                

                         ~Jack Hunger

 Random Photos from the evening below.   Feel free to tag, post and share, with credit to SemiBluegrass.com.  Subscribe to this blog for more exciting show reviews, or follow us on facebook.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

An Evening Among Friends--The Judy Banker CD Release at Johnny's Speakeasy

Judy Doing What She Does Best!
I've written numerous times about the worst-kept secrets in South East Michigan: Johnny's Speakeasy and Singer/Songwriter Judy Banker.    Last weekend, I was honored to be invited to the Speakeasy for the official release of Judy's superb new album, Devil's Never Cry.  After a long day of bluegrass jamming and manning the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association's "Instrument Petting Zoo" at the Ryan Bellows Bluegrass Bazaar in Flint, I showed up sunburned, road weary and dead tired.  I needed not  worry...from the very first note in that magical space Iw as instantly awake, alert and aware of everything going on around me.  As usual, the crowd at Johnny's was full of friendly folks with a shared interest in the best acoustic music in the world.  Though there was definitely a high-end BYOB vibe that night, no one was there to get plastered (though Judy did bring a LOT of champagne, and graciously shared it with anyone who asked).  We were there (and yes...in Johnny's basement, you are ALWAYS part of a "we")  to listen, and to celebrate the music that flowed from all the performers.  This alone is worth the ridiculously modest ticket price to enter this magical musicland.

The One and Only Johnny Williams
The night started with a great surprise, as Johnny Williams himself took the stage to share some of his own original music.  His humorous Alcohol of Fame could be my new favorite song.  I totally need to learn the lyrics/chords to that one and break it out around the campfire at EVERY festival I attend this summer!  However, it was on a touching song for/about his mother, Anna Marie, where the band really had a chance to shine and transformed Johnny's words into something really quite spectacular.  John Sperendi broke out the bow on his upright bass and laid down an ethereal and flowing musical skeleton on which to to hang the story.  Dave Keeney put some melodic meat on the bones with his supple, surf-rock vibrato enhanced electric guitar riffs.  Tony Pace demonstrated why he has become the master of accompanying vocalists on his dobro...hanging back and providing rhythm and nuance to the melody, until it came time to add in a slide, or fill, or quick piece of melody. By choosing his notes carefully, like musical punctuation marks, he provided the nuance and texture that held the song together.  I know this was an informal band, but they were as tight and polished as any during this set; the perfect accompaniment to Johnny's singing and storytelling.  And when they joined together in harmony--simply perfection.   Far from just a simple venue owner and gracious host, Johnny proved to be a talented songwriter and performer by any measure.

Judy and the Band
Not to be outdone, Judy took the stage next with her own killer band  for two short sets of original material off both her new album, Devils Never Cry, and her previous album, Without You. There were some old, familiar faces in the band.  Judy writes and sings songs perfect for accompaniment on the dobro, and Tony Pace returned to fill that role as well as giving a couple songs a rougher, bluesier edge with superb work on the lab steel and electric guitar.  He even played an old, toy guitar converted into a makeshift dobro and tuned way down to open D for a bluesy feel on the Gillian Welch classic Tear My Stillhouse Down.  David Roof, who produced both of Judy's CDs, joined in on bass and provided some incredible harmony vocals.  I have mentioned before that Judy's voice, great on it's own, is transformed by singing harmony.  No where was this more evident than when she sang two-part harmonies with Dave--together their voices were somehow greater than the sum of the parts.
Under Johnny's Watchful Eye--Magic Happens.
A couple of new faces (at least to me) filled out the band on this evening.  Well traveled drummer Stuart Tucker sat in on his classic, small-format drum kit.  A tiny kick drum, snare, single tom...wood framed and rimmed had an amazing tone, perfect for an acoustic performance in an intimate setting.  Coupled with small ride and crash cymbal, this was the perfect less-is-more approach to these songs.  Fiddle player Emily Slomovits was totally unknown to me.  She had a quirky, jerky approach to fiddle that somehow translated to beautiful, dynamic and nuanced melody lines and one a crisp, woody rhythmic chop.  I made the mistake or interpreting this control as timidity for about five minutes into the set, where she entered into a spontaneous, improvised "call and response" dual with Tony Pace with the smile on her face and twinkle in her eye telegraphing who was the winner in this battle of musical masters. 

Singing Along With Jay Stielstra--Perfect Ending
With the kind of band she deserves behind her, Judy's performance this night was touching, poignant and emotional; perfect for the songs from her new album.  She wore her emotions all over her face for all to see and it was difficult to determine which she enjoyed more--singing her own songs, or the overwhelmingly positive response from the audience.  I loved all the songs this night, but a few stuck out.  Coming Around, with it's catchy melodic and vocal hook and killer dobro line was an instant  SeMiBluegrass classic.  Feet of Clay (Slippin' Away) with it's bittersweet theme and rollicking melody line was just different enough to be special.  The Thing About Us somehow managed to capture all the strength and vulnerability in Judy's voice that makes is special, and eminently listenable.  During the cover of Stillhouse, the band let it all hang out and wrung every last speck of attention and admiration from the crowd.  Judy ended the night by coaxing Jay Stielstra on stage to lead a song.  Jay said her felt "like an intruder" for taking the spotlight from Judy.  However, through her songs, and threw her actions, I know that nothing means more in world to her than sharing music with the people in her life--friends, family and fans.  This was borne out as Jay launched into his classic sing-along I'm Singing! and the entire crowd joined in, drowning out Judy, Jay and the band.  It if for these quintessentially ephemeral moments of musical bliss that I continue to chase down live, local music in Michigan.  There is simply nothing better.

I've included some additional photo's from the event below.  Please feel free to share and use freely with credit to SemiBluegrass.com.  Better yet, subscribe to the blog and get more great reviews and commentary like this!  Or follow us on facebook (www.facebook.com/SeMiBluegrass).

Johnny and the Band

Singing His Heart Out

Yep.  That Place.

The Best

Judy Getting Her Groove On

Tony Pace

Emily Slomovits

Stuart Tucker In the Groove

What a "String Section"

"Rhythm and Groove"

If walls could talk....

More cool stuff....

And the music flows through us all...


Where Magic Happens

Set List

Tools of the Master

The People You Meet...

...And Enjoy PBR with!

...And a Toy Guitar to Boot!

Multi-Talented, Multi-Instrumentalist

One "Artsy" Shot