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 12, 2022

Hot New Music from One Ton Trolley

Available from the Band or Online 3/11/22

If you've attended  Southeast Michigan Acoustic Open Mics, Songwriter Rounds or "Listening Room" concerts, you have no doubt run across the prodigious Singer/Songwriter talents of Bill Arnold.   With the heart of a poet, a keen keen eye for the human condition and an uncanny knack for rhythmic, musical, and vocal hooks, his songs are impossible to ignore.  In these acoustic settings, his booming voice and passionate delivery fill the room and the ears of listeners with the very best of what live, local music is supposed to be.  See THIS LINK for a sample of what I'm talking about.

But when Bill partners with his fellow musical "conductors" in his band One Ton Trolley, these songs are magically transformed from their folk/Americana origins to roots-tinged, rock-and-roll masterpieces like this performance from earlier this year.  Featuring the rhythm section perfection of Jon Johnson (Drums) and Chis Brown (Bass), and the  soaring lead guitar and vocal harmonies of  Anthony Zack, these songs are effortlessly metamorphosed into impossible to forget ballads, danceable grooves and hard driving rock anthems--while keeping true to their Americana roots.  

In a run-up to a full schedule of shows this year, and a full-length album currently in final production at the Tempermill Studios in Detroit, the band just released a five-song EP...a succulent sonic amuse-bouche for the musical feast about to come.   Available now in CD format from the band, and widely distributed through all online and streaming services on March 11th, No Simple Highways features three previously recorded songs (Don't Tell Me, Dreaming, and Ghosts of the Deep) and two new, original,  fan-favorites: Blind, and the title track No Simple Highways.  No middle aged band dream-camp, basement recording, this professionally recorded and mixed project features all that is best about One Ton Trolley:  killer songwriting, tight harmonies, driving rhythms and well executed arrangements.  It serves as a perfect appetizer for the new album and introduction to what fans can expect when they see the Trolley play live.   

As I sit here on a gray Michigan winter day pondering the future of live, local music over rye whiskey and bitters, my day is both brighten and warmed with thoughts of summer adventures and new local music in the coming year.   Live shows by One Ton Trolley will no doubt move to the "not to be missed" portion of my calendar.  So will there upcoming full-length album .   You should join me--really--you should. Trust me on this one.

One Ton Trolley.  Roots Rock from the Rustbelt.  Coming soon to a venue near you. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Best Bang For Your Summer Buck - SummerBash Indiana 2021

Brandon and Raneigh Perkins

As we began to emerge from out self-imposed musical exile and enter back into a world where live music and larger social gatherings are approaching "normal" levels, I'm struck with the notion that these events will never be the quite the same.  Without engaging in pointless political or philosophical debate (which--in my opinion--have absolutely no place in discussing live music) the reality is that the COVID 19 Pandemic has fundamentally altered  the fan-musician-promoter dynamic and the ways in which the three interact to present live, local music events.  The pent up demand for live music coupled with the realities of providing a safe, entertaining and engaging event will--I pray--lead to innovation and evolution in exactly what constitutes "normal" in the coming years.   Perhaps the leaders in this new musical revolution are the crew behind Bud Light Presents Summer Bash Indiana 2021 at the Water Bowl.  This private-party-turned-mini-festival really breaks the mold of what these types of events could--and probably should--be going forward. 

The Native Howl Doing Their Thing
According to  co-founders Raneigh and Brandon Perkins, Summer Bash began eight years ago outside of Indianapolis as a back-yard party, a keg of beer and some burgers on the grill that just happened to feature a friend performing live music on a trailer.  As the party grew bigger each year, a chance online encounter led him to inviting a regionally touring band, The Native Howl, to perform at the party.  When you meet Brandon, you should have him relate this story to you, complete with sledgehammers, near electrocutions and waking up face down in the dew-damp grass the next morning.   Realizing that they were on to something, the party eventually moved to Walnut Grove Campground and featured an honest-to-goodness stage and professional sound system.  More bands performed and the Summer Bash "Family" continued to grow.  By 2019 Brandon, Raneigh and a close friend Sam Jackson got together and made if official...Summer Bash was now a public event and had grown from private party to "Central Indiana's Premier All Inclusive Music Festival".  

The Glory That Is The Water Bowl!

This year marked the inaugural use of  Summer Bash Indiana's  new home, The Water Bowl in Muncie, Indiana.  This vintage family recreation center offered not only a swimming beach and locker rooms, but abundant primitive camping sites, covered areas for stages and food and the most helpful (and hard working) staff you can imagine.   The potential for this site to host more, and larger events is unlimited.  And speaking of "unlimited", the folks at Summer Bash have taken the idea of "value added" to a whole new level with their concept of an "all-inclusive" music festival.   For the low (VERY low)  introductory price of only $80 this year,  their festival ticket covered everything!  And I do mean EVERYTHING!  Admission to the Water Bowl, parking, and primitive camping?  Yep!  Included in the price.  Two days of music on two stages with over 20 bands?  They covered that too (less than $4.00 per band...you just can't beat that price, even without all the extras)!  And on Saturday, they raise the bar again with free all-you can eat/drink (responsibly and within reason) burgers/dogs, soft-drinks, wine and beer.  They even pick up the ticket fees.  So what you see is what you pay with no hidden charges.   I know that just the food and beer is worth more than the ticket price!  

Hollow Intent (North Carolina)

The musical offerings vary from year to year, and continue to evolve, but I can guarantee that the bands are always top-notch--a mix of local professional bands and regional/national touring acts with a heavy emphasis on independent musicians.  While always an electric-rock oriented festival, this year's lineup tended to be a little more on the heavier southern rock/outlaw/metal side of my musical preference.  However, due to the quality of the bands, and the hard work the organizers put into vetting them, I was able to find something I liked about EVERY band on the roster this year:  a singer with a powerful voice, a lead guitar player strutting their stuff, a drummer with a killer sense of timing, top notch songwriting with something to say, a high energy stage show and (my favorite) a bass player/rhythm guitar player with enough drive, funk and groove to get the crowd up dancing.  The level of professionalism, musicianship and stage presence on exhibit at Summer Bash is as good (or better) than anything you will see this summer!

The Unexpected Sounds of Desevren

Even though ALL the bands at Summer Bash were excellent, there were a few performances that really stood out to me; either by virtue of their performance, or just because they were a wee-bit different than the other bands (and thereby caught my attention).  The first of these was the opening band, The Missing Letters out of the Ti-Cities area of Minnesota.   An endlessly entertaining and infectiously enthusiastic band, they stole the show on the second stage Saturday.  Read more HERE .   Smack dab in the middle of the Saturday Main stage was the band Desevren from Indianapolis.  I was familiar with their Metallica-inspired sound from a previous Bash but was totally unprepared for the storm of crazy cover tunes the band unleashed.  Dripping with energy, the band came out with guns blazing and never took their foot off the pedal for a nearly 60 minute deep-dive into everything a summer festival band should be: Interesting, Entertaining and Enjoyable. 

Glamerica In The House!
And speaking of cover bands (a genre I generally avoid), there is simply none better than Bash Favorites and Friday night headliner Glamerica (also out of the Indianapolis area) who recall those fabulous days when MTV actually played music and hair-metal bands captured all of our imagination.  And this band does it with STYLE!  Over a 3+ hour set (with NO break) the band delivered perfection.  Not only in their covers of the classic Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Van Halen, Whitesnake and Joan Jett classics we all know and love, but in their tireless commitment to capturing the look, the attitude and the SWAGGER of those bands.  Part theater, part modern-day burlesque (tease, don't show) and one hundred percent entertaining, this is one band where the audience can feed off the energy on stage just as much as the band can feed off the audience's enthusiasm.   One HELL of an entertaining show.   By the end of the show, I was physically and emotionally drained; held up by nothing more than sheer will, the friends around me and possibly a considerable amount of gelatin from the plentiful jello-shots circulating in the crowd.

Erin and Jake from The Native Howl

I have known the member of the Native Howl for a long time now.  Their blend of bluegrass musicality and instrumentation with the passion and frenetic energy of thrash metal music simply has to be witnessed to be truly appreciated.  Coming off a poorly timed COVID hiatus on the the heels of a couple viral videos, Summer Bash marked to return to live performances for the new, improved lineup and the stepping off on their inevitable rise to regional and national acclaim.   Original drummer Josh Lemieux has taken a semi-permanent break from the band to concentrate on raising his kids so "new" drummer Zach Bolling (who's been with the band for almost 2 years, but is still the "new guy") stepped in and filled those shoes admirably.   And speaking of fatherhood, new daddy and banjo player Jake Sawicki made his triumphant return to the band at Summer Bash and proved he hasn't missed a beat with his considerable banjo chops and vocal harmony skills.    Fans were also introduced to unofficial "fifth" member of the band, and front man Alex Holycross' songwriting partner Erin Zindle on the fiddle.   Her contribution certainly adds a new layer and depth to the band's songs.  As usual, their performance was over-the-top and accentuated by an incredible light show.  Their nearly two-hour set passed by in what seemed like mere minutes.  When they make there way close to you, go see the Native Howl.  You'll be glad you did. 

I could sit here and write for weeks, and not cover everything there is to love about Summer Bash Indiana.  The music is great.   The Water Bowl is a quirky, funky, cool place to hang out.  Those burgers hit the spot.  Who doesn't love free beer?  But who am I kidding?  It's the People, the Places and the Music (in that order)...and the People at the Bash are the best.  It was probably one of the Perkins' who said it first, but I heard it OVER and OVER all weekend long..."if you're not family when you come to the Bash, you will be when you leave!"  So...with Summer Bash 2022 just announced, keep in touch with them at www.summerbashindiana.com and/or follow them on Facebook.  See you there!

 Thank You Brandon, Sam and Raneigh - Team Summer Bash



Monday, July 19, 2021

An Unexpected Treasure - The Missing Letters (MN)

The Missing Letters Throwing Down!

My musical ramblings over the past decade have taken me on quite a journey in pursuit of the very best in live, local music.   In my never-ending quest for "The People, The Places and The Music (In That Order)" I have met a blistering array of fantastic musicians, explored the very best in music venues and expanded my musical horizons beyond belief.  It was with much surprise and pleasure that--while attending a decidedly NOT "SemiBluegrass" (but none-the-less incredible) music festival last weekend (more about SummerBash Indiana HERE)--that I ran across The Missing Letters band from Minnesota. 

A last-minute addition given an opening slot on the first day and a short second-stage appearance the next, this group of young men were my pick for "breakout artists" of the whole festival.  Sure, they are musically talented...but all the bands there were.  What set them apart were those subtle intangibles that  that take most bands years to learn (and many never do).   First, the band had incredible stage presence: interacting with the audience effortlessly, feeding off the crowd's response and making that visceral connection to the music that all good bands do.  Furthermore, the band exhibited a level of professionalism on stage the stood in stark contrast to their age.   They apologized for a technical glitch, thanked the promoters frequently, gave a shout out to the other bands appearing after them and spoke positively about the whole event.  After their set, they could be seen manning their own merch tent, circulating among the crowd with some swag for their new fans, and even joining the crowd for a couple of the headliner acts right in front of the stage.  Their enthusiasm was infectious.  Personally, I found them well-spoken, enthusiastic and instantly relatable.

The Missing Letters' Most Recent EP
All of this is well and good, but what about their music?  Normally NOT my thing, but their mix of youth-oriented,  classic punk-based rock songs with heavy grunge undertones (and a little bit of a metal, power-chord edge) definitely grabbed my attention....so much so that I purchased their EP "Lucille" right after the show (and honestly, got home and downloaded their whole digital catalog as well).  The EP  has found a home in my car's CD player and boasts all the things that drew me to live music in the first place:  A TIGHT rhythm section, KILLER songwriting with something to say, GREAT Harmonies and DRIVING guitar riffs.   The title track "Lucille" is an infectious earworm of the very best sort that will have you humming along and tapping your foot for days!  For pure, raw energy, it's hard to beat the first track "Inmaniac".   Fans of their harder, darker sound will love "Conscience of a Badman" which contrasts nicely with the vocal-driven, almost pop-influenced "Anything But This".  The EP concludes with the decidedly grungy "Tonight".   All in all, this is an exceptionally well produced collection of music and impressively listenable...even to the casual fan.  Looking for something new and a little bit different?  Give The Missing Letters a listen--you won't regret it!

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Dipping My Toes Back In - SummerBash Indiana 2021 and the Near Future of Live Music Events

 Editors Note:  It is with some hesitancy that I post this blog due to the ongoing, divisive national conversation over the pandemic and shutdown/reopening of large gatherings.  My intent is to share my thoughts and opinions, NOT START A DEBATE.  So please; read and reflect on what I'm sharing, but don't feel the need to comment--positively or negatively.  If you agree or like what you read, consider sharing these ideas and "pay it forward".  If not, just move along--it's all good, I respect your right to disagree and acknowledge that  you're just as entitled to your opinion as I am to mine.  Thank you for understanding.  ~John

Semibluegrass Camper Setup at a Festival
Missing My Summer "Home"

Admit it.  You miss it.  The guy at the gate who puts the paper wristband on way too tight so your fingers start to swell as the day goes on (and traps your arm hair in the sticky part).  Setting up your Wall-Mart lawn chair only to discover that the cheap plastic has broken (again).  Grabbing a quick bite from a food vendor--something you'd never buy (or pay that much for) anywhere else--yet which satisfies your hunger like no gourmet meal ever could hope to.  Staying up all night jamming with your friends in oppressive summer humidity and then crawling into a tent sodden with condensation just before the sun comes up for a few desperate winks before you wake up and do it all over again.  And real live music...sweet, sweet live music; performed on an outdoor stage; by bands with far more talent and less recognition than anything you hear on commercial radio; with fans gathered together to sing, and dance, and revel in shared experiences.  Music festivals are a quintessential part of many of our lives, and we miss them--dearly.  

COVID Warning Sign at SummerBash Indiana 2021
COVID-19 has taken a toll on us all, but perhaps no industry has suffered more than the independent music festival.  They are, by definition, "social" gatherings, which makes requirements like "social distancing" and "routine disinfection" herculean tasks.  And the larger the event, the more issues arise: liability insurance is difficult (if not impossible) to procure; venue, stage and performance contracts have to be finalize months in advance (and ongoing uncertainty putting most of the risk on the organizer); marketing and promotion for an event that may--or may not--happen is made far more difficult by the fine line we must all walk between "responsibly moving forward" and "irresponsibly putting people at risk".  For these reasons, and many more undoubtedly yet to come, it is likely that--for large festivals--normal remains several months, if not another year away.  Even accepting the uncertainty that the summer of 2021 brings in the "moving towards a post-pandemic future", the pent-up demand for live, local music will certainly exert immense pressure on organizers, bands and fans alike to create these experiences in new, innovative and entrepreneurial ways.  Yes...festivals, music performances and large gatherings will come back.  This is a certainty.  As is the fact that they may never look the same again.  These "unprecedented" times will assuredly force these events to evolve--and this could be a very good thing for all of us.  It should provide fans with new, "value added" opportunities to connect with their favorite musicians.  Bands and performers can explore new avenues for performance, merchandising and connecting with their fan bases.  And organizers will certainly benefit from offering "quality over quantity" experiences for fans and performers alike starved for the experiences they offer.

Musicians performing under the lights on an outdoor stage in the summer

 As I sit here in the gloomy reality of another South-East Michigan February, I am starting to put together my summer calendar.  In addition to feeling a deep longing for the sunshine and warmth of summer months and more than a little melancholy for the friendships and missed personal connections from this past summer, I am struck by the stark emptiness of my calendar.  By this time of the year, I am usually looking at a mostly full calendar and picking and choosing which events to attend and which to put off for another time.  Not this summer though.  Admittedly, there are lots of penciled in "save the dates" and "fingers crossed", and more than a few "see you in 2022 cancellations" already.   But for sure, "I'm definitely attending" events?  I have only one: Summer Bash Indiana 2021.  I have committed to attending this NOT because it is one of the only "confirmed" events on my radar.  In fact, since the music learns to towards a heavier, more electric rock-and-roll vibe, it's not the usual type of festival I attend.  But, I know the event organizers and am 100% convinced they are working hard to safely, responsibly, and ethically meet these challenges head on. They are working tirelessly to create exactly the type of innovative event I am talking about.  So I have decided to put my money where my mouth is and step up as an event sponsor for this year.  And here's why. 

Brandon Perkins on Stage at Summer Bash 2020
Great Promoter.  Musician?

According to promoter Brandon Perkins, Summer Bash Indiana got it's start in 2013 as a front-yard party and barbecue that just kept growing.   Through multiple iterations and several venue changes their event has steadily evolved into "Indiana's First and Best All Inclusive Music Festival".  Perkins and his partners Raneigh Perkins and Sam Jackson intuitively understand the fundamental truth that these challenging times require a "value added" approach as their little party has become a small festival in it's own right.  This year, their weekend shindig (Friday through Sunday, July 9-11, 2021) will feature twenty bands from the four corners of the country,  performing on two professional stages with high quality lights and sound.  And did I mention that they throw in unlimited  free burgers, hot dogs, beer, water and pop all day Saturday (included in the ticket price).  Also this year, they have added to the camping experience as well by partnering with the Water Bowl in Muncie Indiana--a former quarry site turned swimming hole offering a beach, fishing and water sports in addition to the music.  And of course camping (primitive, no hookups, but indoor bathrooms and a shower available) is included in the event.  How much you ask?  This year the entire, all-inclusive weekend can be yours for the low, low price of only $80.00 (including taxes and fees).  This is certainly the best bang-for-your-buck event you are going to find. 

Bartenders watching the music at Summer Bash 2020
Free Beer and Sponsors - A Great Team

And exactly how does Summer Bash Indiana provide all this value?  First and foremost, the Summer Bash crew works tirelessly and offers a wide range of sponsorship opportunities.  In addition to the free tickets, sponsors receive varying degrees of marketing and promotion.  The promoters are well versed in electronic and social media marketing and never miss an opportunity to get their name (and all of their sponsor's as well) out to their large network of followers.   They have mastered the art of frequent and shameless self-promotion without tipping into cheesy, feed-clogging plugs for their event.   They host live stream announcements frequently (with shout outs to sponsors worked seamlessly into the conversation).  They also post a variety of media (videos, links, posters, pictures) designed to keep things new, engaging and interesting--and always tagged with their sponsor's logos.  They also promote their bands HARD and share their event (and the sponsors) with those band's fan bases...and so the network grows.  

Hand Washing Station at Summer Bash 2020
And most important, they sweat the details--all the details.  First and foremost, they provide a great variety of superbly talented and unique bands.  I guarantee, there is something for everyone to love in this lineup.  I have often heard Brandon and Sam acknowledge they are not only "COVID-aware" but "COVID-responsible".  They do everything in their power to provide a safe and welcoming environment.  While no group setting outside of your own home can ever be 100% safe, the have worked tirelessly to provide the safest event possible.  I attended several of their other events and have witnessed this first hand.   Starting with consulting with local health departments on "best practices", multiple precautions are put in place, monitored and strongly enforced.  When planning this Summer Bash, the event organizers insisted on on using a venue far larger than needed; outside; with plenty of room for social distancing and excellent ventilation.  They clearly designate "off limits", "respect the social distance" areas and "common areas".   They keep a large open area between the crowd and the bands.    They use wristbands to indicate people who are comfortable with you approaching them or who want you to keep 6 feet of  distance--and people respect them.   Masks are given to everyone entering and their use strongly encouraged.  In addition to the handwashing stations provided by the sanitation crew, the Summer Bash promoters purchased multiple handwashing stations of their own, distributed throughout the venue so there is no excuse NOT to frequently wash hands.  Like so many places, hand sanitizer is available EVERYWHERE.  Individual portion Food and Beverage service is provided only by masked and gloved service personnel (no "common" sources).   But what really sealed the deal for me was an event I attended with the crew last year.   At the end of the first night, their was a minor issue with fans of one of the bands and social distancing.  These things happen.  The important fact was that the issue was identified and dealt with immediately.  Furthermore, the promoters reviewed how it happened, made some changes (more barriers and signage).  And just to make sure, as people we stirring in the morning, and settling into their morning coffee, I saw Brandon PERSONALLY walk up to each and every campsite, review the rules and expectations and tell people in no uncertain terms that violations of these protocols was not allowed.   Simply put, he will not tolerate anyone violating his number one rule (don't be a D _ _ _!!).  Simply put, I am confident that Summer Bash Indiana will not only be an awesome event, but a SAFE event for all involved. 

Alex Holycross of the Native Howl
And how did a SeMiBluegrass post get this far without mention of awesome music?    As I mentioned, this lineup skews a lot harder towards heavy, electric rock-and-roll compared to my usual musical fare--but it does share a LOT in common with what I love so much about the Live, Local Music Scene in SouthEast Michigan--hard working local bands, writing and performing their own songs, playing their own instruments, and putting on one HELL of a show.  The Friday night "warm up" includes the grungy, alternative sounds of Burdens Within (Indiana) followed by the Southern Rock Stylings of Rachels Bully (Chicago).  Closing out Friday is Indianapolis-based 80s Hair-Metal cover band extraordinaire GlamëricA (who not only put on a killer show, but make a mean jello shot, which may--or may not--have contributed to Brandon Perkins' thinking he could play guitar on stage during a Quiet Riot song last year).  Saturday features a back-and-forth mix of main stage acts with "second stage" acts sponsored by RockRageRadio (Cleveland) and featuring eight touring bands from a variety of genres.  Saturday's main stage will feature heavy metal band Blue Luster (Indianapolis), rock/metal band Hollow Intent (North Carolina), hard rock band Shades of Raven (Kentucky), Texas-based original rock band Anything But Human, Metalica tinged rock band Desevren (Indianapolis), "Bad Ass" rock band American Bombshell, blues-rock band Voodoo Moonshine (Tennessee), co-headlining southern rock band Framing the Red closes out the evening with thrashgrass band The Native Howl (who somehow manage to be the closest and furthest to a traditional bluegrass band at the same time--they simply must be seen live to fully appreciate).
So.  You miss it.  Right?   Need to start putting something on your summer calendar?  Dying to see some live, local music in a great outdoor setting?  Sun, Swimming and Songs sound like your idea of a great weekend?  Want to help the live entertainment get back on it's feet and support some innovators trying to bring you an all-inclusive package for a ridiculously small price?  Mark off July 9-11, 2021 at the Water Bowl in Muncie Indiana for Summer Bash Indiana 2021.  Visit the website and sign up for their mailing list to get updates on ticket sales (form is on the bottom of each page).  Follow them on Facebook for lots of cool content.   Then just put on your comfy "quarantine pants", keep washing your hands and following all your personal safety protocols and anxiously await the best all-inclusive music festival you've seen.  There are better days ahead and Summer Bash Indiana 2021 is just the beginning.   Get you tickets, March your calendars and start preparing.  Remember the two golden rules:  1) Don't be a D _ _ _! and 2) NO GLASS ALLOWED AT THE WATER BOWL (ABSOLUTELY NONE!) Remember, it's a swimming hole and hosts barefoot kids the rest of the year.  So leave the glass bottles at home.  Pros use red solo cups (blue ones are for amateurs).   Bring your beer in cans (you won't need much...FREE beer all Saturday).  Put your olives for your dirty martini in a zip-lock baggie.  Wine in a box ain't so bad either (and Black Box makes a pretty fair bag-in-box tequila...it's true).  Hope to--FINALLY--see you there for LIVE, LOCAL MUSIC!


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!