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/

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Nobody Sounds Like the Steeldrivers (Live at the Ark)

The Steeldrivers!
Perhaps no band more quintessentially defines the sound, charisma and attitude of "SemiBluegrass" more than The Steeldrivers.  I've written about them numerous times (here, here, and here) over the past decade and gotten to know a few of them through various adventures.  Though the band has evolved through a few lineup changes, they continue to produce some of the most original, most engaging and most instantly recognizable bluegrass music today.   People will argue that their sound is more blues, folk, Americana, outlaw or rock-n-roll (take your pick), but their sound is definitely grounded in the bluegrass tradition.  Starting with the traditional mix of instrumentation, and building songs around rock-solid three-part harmonies, The Steeldrivers draw deeply on standard themes of bluegrass music--heartache, cheatin', drinkin', guns and unhappy endings--to craft songs that get in your head and refuse to leave.

Kelvin Damrell Jr. - Heart and Soul
This past week, The Steeldrivers returned to The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan to debut their new album, Bad for You, and introduce the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass audience to new frontman Kelvin Damrell Jr.Only in his mid-twenties, Damrell has the seemingly Herculean task of filling the shoes left vacant by the previous three lead singers: Chris Stapleton (five Grammy awards), Gary Nichols (won Grammy with The Steeldrivers) and Adam Wakefield (runner-up on The Voice).  Not only does Kelvin live up to these expectation, he finds his own unique way to contribute to the evolution of  The Steeldrivers.  While he can perfectly mimic Stapleton's gritty vocals, and the soul of Nichol's Muscle Shoals sound, The Steeldrivers' sound climbs to new heights fueled by the raw emotion and high-octane fury of Kelvin's voice.  This was readily apparent as the band opened with the title cut from the new album.  Bluegrass based, country themed and rock-tinged vocals drive home the power of this song (and the rest of the album).  Add to that the Mr. Damrell is an incredibly talented flatpicker who can shift effortlessly from playing rhythm (and sometimes percussion) licks behind the band to vaulting out front to add bluesy, complex solos with seemingly effortless abandon.

Richard Bailey - Always Smiling

Certainly an integral, and often overlooked component of The Steeldrivers' unique sound is the bluesy, twangy and instantly recognizable banjo stylings of Richard Bailey, an original Steeldriver who always looks like he's having the time of his life on stage--even when pulling off some of the most incredibly complex and innovative banjo licks in bluegrass today.   Richard smiles, laughs and cracks jokes throughout the entire show--obviously enjoying every second of what he does on stage.  Sitting up front, I also noticed he listens keenly to everything his bandmates do on stage, occasionally acknowledging a crazy lick or killer break with a raised eyebrow and tooth-baring grin.  Like all banjo players, he is often the butt of on-stage tuning jokes, but gives as good as he gets with some good-natured ribbing of the rest of the band.  His banjo playing is so instantly recognizable, a couple year ago I was walking into the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville where--unbeknownst to me--The Steeldrivers had picked up a last second gig, my friends heard a twangy banjo and said "Hey!  There's bluegrass here John!"...and I replied "Yes!  And not just bluegrass--THAT'S THE STEELDRIVERS!".  True...it only took me about five notes of Richard's banjo playing to instantly identify the band.

Brent Truitt - Gold Top Attitude
Another quintessentially unique component of The Steeldrivers is the mandolin contributions of Brent Truitt.  His lanky physique accentuates the low-slung handling of his custom, Gold-Topped Gibson mandolin lending his playing all the Friday-night, honky-tonkin', rock-star attitude you could possibly imagine.  His rock-solid back-beat chop keep the band on time and the energy high, while he accentuates songs with tasty fills and licks.  When he steps to the mic for a break, his string-bending, bluesy lead playing can instantly transport you to a smoky Nashville or Memphis barroom at last call watching the best telecaster player you've never heard of blow your mind and stop you in your tracks on your way out the door for a date with some greasy hash-browns at Waffle House.  His playing is so bluesy, when the band covered Ghosts of Mississipi at the Ark, I almost forgot that the song originally features slide guitar licks from Mike Henderson!  His back-and-forth antics with Bailey on stage are fun to watch and he is obviously equally thrilled to get on stage with his band-mates each night.  Brent reached out to me after I reviewed his first performance at the Ark and always makes it a point to say "Hi" to me when I at a show.  A class act in all ways, he truly appreciates his fans and remains one of the most humble and warm human beings I have met.  Ironically, while at a jam session at ROMP last year I was telling the story of how I met Brent and how impressed I was with him when the woman I was talking to started laughing and couldn't agree with me more.  Imagine my surprise when she turned out to be Brent's sister-in-law (or cousin?  It's a little foggy now...)!

Rogers and Flemming - Heart and Soul
The heart and soul of The Steeldrivers have got to be founding co-members Tammy Rodgers (Fiddle) and Mike Flemming (Bass).  Rodgers cut her teeth playing fiddle and singing background for Reba McEntire and her professional take on vocal harmonies really defines the bands' sound.  Relying heavy on blue notes, and with a unique ability to punctuate and accentuate lyrics and phrases her tenor (and Flemming's baritone) can one minute blend seamlessly with Damrell's lead vocals and then transform into a choir of voices the next.  Roger's fiddle playing is equally complex and immediately identifiable.   While Flemming serves as emcee for most of the show, it is also obvious that Rogers is the stage manager keeping things running smoothly and the energy high. Both handle these duties with grace and class.  Mike Flemming often refers to Tammy as "The Rose Amongst the Thorns" and this showed at The Ark where--in a band of blue jean and plaid shirt clad boys--she chose to dress down in a simple pair of jeans and denim shirt elevated to "high style" with some firth-avenue runway "bell bottom" shirt cuffs and an absolutely KILLER pair of snakeskin cowboy boots.  Beautiful, classy and totally "Steeldrivers".

Gettin' Down with The Steeldrivers
In the end, the show at the Ark was among the best I have heard.  The songs from their past album--like fine wine or moonshine--continue to age well and the new songs both fit seamlessly with the canon and continue the evolution of The Steeldrivers.  I was only momentarily bummed that they didn't play my favorite two songs from the new album:  Glad I'm Gone is a cajun-fiddle driven, late-night drinkin' song co-written by Chris Stapleton and Lonely and Being Alone a waltz-time classic song reminiscent of a bygone era of country music.  However, I love the fact that the band played songs from all their albums--hits and deeper cuts--and plenty of crowd favorites to sing along with.  New song The Bartender tickled the "guns, whiskey and bad decisions" theme the band is so well known for--a sound they often refer to as "uneasy listening".  The night ending Rainbows Never Die  brought a tear to many an eye and capped an absolutely tremendous night of entirely original music. The Steeldrivers remain my favorite band (when I discovered bluegrass in my mid-forties,  their first album was the very first bluegrass album I purchased).  Check them out.  Get your friends to go see them.  Purchase some merch.  Support this kind of music!  Nothing else sounds like The Steeldrivers!

A few more pics from the evening below.  Follow us here, or like SeMiBluegrass on Facebook for more. 

Thursday, July 4, 2019

The Power To Bring People Together - ROMP Fest 2019 (The People)

Positive Press  Pit Vibes with SeMiBluegrass
I'm not going to lie, it's been a rough year: too much work; too little live, local music; and and the incessant name-calling and decisiveness that defines our modern, on-demand pop culture, political and media cycle.  So it was with great trepidation that--at the last minute--I decided to ask for and received a media pass to attend the Bluegrass  Music Hall of Fame and Museum's ROMP (River of Music Party) Fest in Owensboro, Kentucky.  I wasn't sure I was up to one more deadline; one more thing on my plate; one more responsibility.  However, reflecting back on LAST YEAR, I remembered not only a great festival with top-notch acts, but meeting an extraordinary number of really cool and friendly people, and decided that this was just the tonic I needed to banish the last of my long-winter, rainy-spring blues.  In fact, I thought that this year, rather than focusing on the stage show, I would go back to my roots (The People, The Places and the Music--Always in That Order) and try and capture a little bit of the magic that pulls people from all backgrounds and all walks of life together as "ROMP Family" each year.

Clayton Knight - Superstar
Like all festivals, it takes a literal army of volunteers to organize, promote and put on a festival.  This monumental task starts with a dedicated team of leaders at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum; each tasked with making sure things run smoothly in their area of expertise.  I'm sure there must be dozens of these selfless workaholics, but three of them stood out to me.  As we showed up Wednesday evenings, a week-long series of rain showers, followed by an incredible lightening-punctuated gully-washing downpour left the grounds a soggy mess and seriously in danger of not being ready for the first act at 4:00 the next afternoon.  My partner on this adventure was Jerry Eicher, who had volunteered to do a live broadcast of the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show on WorldWideBluegrass  that afternoon from the--at that point--nonexistent media tent behind the stage. We set out to find someone who could tell us what we needed to do, where we needed to go, and how things needed to happen.  We quickly ran into Site Supervisor Clayton (Clay) Knight with a radio.  In the midst of a million crises, he took the time to get on the radio, quickly get us the information we needed and get us on our way.  Over the long weekend, he was EVERYWHERE, usually the first person I saw in the morning, and the last I saw in the wee hours of the night; always busy juggling a million responsibilities; always with a smile on his face an a "can do" attitude.  He was definitely my vote for "MVP" behind the scenes, as much for his winning attitude as for his work ethic.  Instrumental in our success putting on the radio show were also Marketing Director Carly Smith, in charge of all of us media-types and generally running around making sure things happened on time.  Through the weekend, the smiling face and quick wit of Operations Director Roxanne Trombly was ever-present in the backstage area keeping staff, stage crew, artists, VIPs and media people where they needed to be an on schedule.  Her tireless energy and enthusiasm was certainly contagious and kept everyone's spirits high in the face of soggy ground, steamy mid-day heat and the countless last-second "issues" that inevitably arise during a festival of this magnitude.  I'm sure there are dozens more people who dedicate just as much time and effort and they should be applauded for the "illusion of effortlessness" they create by doing their jobs so well.

Jerry and Phil on the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show
As a second year media person, I am astounded at the tight-knit, caring, sharing and giving community of print, broadcast, digital media and photography folks who hang around the media tent backstage at ROMP.  Really just a few table and chairs in the shade, with a power strip and WiFi hotspot, this modest tent somehow feels more like a home. As I mentioned, Jerry Eicher set up his Ol' Hippie Bluegrass show broadcast from the tent.  Since his show is broadcast on the local affiliate, as well as online at WorldWideBluegrass, there was a non-stop stream of people stopping by to say "hi" and tell him how much they enjoyed the show.  This year we met Phil Dawson and his MoJo61 Media Stream, all the way from Western Australia by way of Cincinnati.  Phil is an amazing photographer and huge fan/supporter of the live music scene, though this was his virgin voyage into the realm of Americana/Bluegrass and I think it's safe to say that he's hooked!  Check out his Facebook, YouTube and Instagram for some incredible imagery. 

Joe Mullins Live with Mixx Magazine
The informal community of "pit photographers" continues to restore my faith in humanity.  Led by "official" photographer Alex Morgan, these professionals and amateurs alike spend the weekend sharing ideas, helping each other out, and generally having a good time.  I have learned more about photography from them in two weekends than all the years of self-taught shooting I've done!  The informal nature of the media tent lends itself to this community building.  Throughout the weekend, various print, digital and broadcast media folks wandered back, often with a confused look and asked "is this the media tent"?  They were always greeted with an enthusiastic "Yes it is!", offered a chair and a cold water and welcomed in to the circle.  Probably the most fun we had this year was with the online ezine Mixx Magazine.  Used to covering fashion shows, celebrities, NBA stars and other major pop-culture icons, these two field reporters found themselves WAY outside of their comfort zone!  However, encouraged by the rest of us media types, they dove right in and got to work.  I have to say that watching these two do an thoroughly modern/millennial-centric interview with Joe Mullins (arguably the most traditionally bluegrass act at ROMP) was a surprisingly surreal, eminently entertaining and thoroughly satisfying experience.  Both the interviewer and interviewee were total professionals; asking and answering some great questions and probably exposing each other's audiences to some things they had never considered liking.  Great job on all sides!

Just Chillin' in the Parking Areas
There were so many other great folks we met at ROMP.  A huge shout out to the Moonlite BBQ crew who took time in the sweltering heat kept us well hydrated with cold waters and even a few tasty treats over the weekend.  The security and law enforcement crew managed the near-impossible feat of being omnipresent and visible and fading into the background--all while sweating out the mid-90s heat and humidity in full, long-sleeved uniforms and bullet-proof vests.  I attend many festivals, and it was great to feel that safe and secure, and also witness zero incidents.  Great job and professionalism by all the law enforcement personnel!  Like all great bluegrass festivals, there is an informal community that springs up each year, where "neighbors" catch up and share stories, though they only see each other once a year at ROMP.  This was even true of Jerry and myself: our neighbor from last year made a point to find our RV and stop by and tell us where he was camping (and invite us to try his latest batch of craft-brewed beer).  Never did make it by...so I will have to stop by NEXT year).

Pickin' With Some New Old Friends
This is not, per se, a "picking festival"...but there is definitely picking to be found.  Jerry and I did some picking outside the camper every morning (and were even interviewed by the local TV affiliate!).  Had an enjoyable jam with a couple old-timers on banjo and dobro outside the bathroom...picking some killer old bluegrass instrumentals.  The camper directly across from us had some on-and-off again jams (they kept leaving to see the stage show--go figure!).  I finally made it across the street to pick a few.  We got to talking and they asked about my media pass and how I got into the blogging business.  When I told them about one of the first articles I did (on the Steeldrivers - HERE) and how that article led to a spontaneous road trip to the Station Inn in Nashville to see the Steeldrivers the next day, where I was treated to front-row seats with the band's families.  "That's where we know you from!" exclaimed our new neighbors.  Turned out they were Brent Truitt's relatives, and had sat with us at that very show.  Once again, the Magic of ROMP pulled together old friends.

Young Fans:  Hope for the Future!
On the last evening, after the last late-night show in the Pioneer Village, I was walking back to my camper and came across a bass, mandolin and dobro player doing some picking on the bridge.  I stopped to snap a picture and they asked me if I played.  I told them I did, but my guitar was "clear on the other side of the campground".  They immediately told me "that's OK, we'll be here for a long time", so I made the trip and was glad I did.  They knew a lot of cool songs, and we soon drew a surprisingly large, and surprisingly young crowd of mellow, yet enthusiastic listeners.  We played songs until nearly 5:00 in the morning when the air cooled enough to turn the clinging humidity into a soft, eerie fog that lay lightly over the campground and muted even the soft thrum of generators. As I walked back to the RV for a too-early departure I reflected on my experience over the week.  I arrived stressed out, up tight and defeated.  Through the people I met, and with a long festival season ahead of me, I left invigorated, re-energized and hopeful that the power of live music can continue to fight the waves of divisiveness in our country and bring us together in peace, harmony and love (a guy can wish...).

I've included some photos of The People below.  For more, follow SeMiBluegrass on Facebook.

Meeting of the Minds

Hard Working Stage Hands

Technical Crew on the Screen Stage

Taking it All In

Back Stage Perfection

Sweating It Out With The Ground Crew

Getting the Lay of the Land

Taking a Quick Break

Keeping Cool in VIP

Checking the Shot


Checking thing Out Before the First Show

Hats Off to the Sound Crew - PERFECTION

High Alert - Low Key

Enjoying a Moment in the Shade

Way Cooler Gear than Me

Alex Morgan - Photographer Extraordinaire

Our New Moonlite BBQ Friends

Jerry and Kendra On Air with the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show

Photographer Adam Williams

Thowin' Down on the Dobro

A Beautiful Banjo

More Video Crew

Best Smiles at ROMP - IBEW Volunteers

Had a Great Smile all Weekend


The Tough Life of a Print Journalist

"Who" is that?

Rocking That Look

Couple Characters

Keeping the Late Night Crowd Fed
Good Buy ROMP  -   See You Next Year!