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, February 19, 2024

The Joy of Live Music: The Steeldrivers in Pontiac, Michigan 2/16/2024

The Steeldrivers and their "Tougher Than Nails Tour"

Brent Truitt and Tammy Rogers
You all know I love nothing better than a live performance of original acoustic music.  If that music is available locally, and from one of my favorite bands, and in a venue set up to maximize the listening experience, all the better.   The Steeldrivers were the first band I started listening to when I discovered bluegrass well into my 40s and have remained one of my favorite bands ever since.   In fact, they are the band I have written about most in these pages over the years.   One of the reasons is definitely because they "color outside the lines" when it comes to bluegrass music.  Another because they always put their heart and soul into every performance.  But mostly, it's because it is so patently obvious that not only are all five members of this band extremely talented, but the genuine love they have for playing music together shines on stage--witnessed by the smiles on all of their faces throughout the show   The performance is often studded with spontaneous "Yeahs" in appreciation of a lick or vocal or phrase from another band member.   I often catch banjo wildman Richard Bailey staring intently at his mandolin-slinging stage partner Brent Truitt before ripping off a crazy, bluesy lick to punctuate one of the band's signature "uneasy listening" tunes--which is usually followed by an equally outrageous sting-bending, telecaster-esque response from Truitt.  Then they both laugh quietly at each other and get back to business. 

Tammy Rogers doing a solo Gospel Number
These types of observations are easy to make in the small, intimate listening rooms I write about, but something you don't usually see in an almost 1000 seat theater.   Fortunately for me, the Flagstar Strand Theater in Pontiac, Michigan is no ordinary music venue.  Built a century ago, this theater brings you back to a time when a night out was a special event--celebrated not only in the performance, but in the architecture and ambiance of the setting.  This double balcony theater has much to offer  fans coming to see a show.  Parking is easy near the theater.   It's easy to access the front doors and ticket office while the staff and security efficiently and effectively move everyone in.  The wide, well-lit aisles and gentle slopes make walking to your seat easy--even for my gnarly knees.  Surprisingly the well-padded seats are adequately wide and spaced far enough apart for comfortable seating throughout the performance.   

The Unmistakable Richard Bailey
The space is built for a high quality listening experience.   You can hear every note and whisper from the stage anywhere in the audience.  And...since I was sitting quite near the stage...the band can also hear the audience singing their heart out to many of the band's classic hits.  In fact, during "If It Hadn't Been For Love" (a song that became a classic when Adelle covered it), the audience was singing along so loudly that it inspired vocalist Matt Dame to invite the crowd to a call-and-response  session where he'd sing the first half of the line, and the crowd would boisterously sing back the end.  Throughout the night, the band was visibly appreciative of the fact that nearly a thousand die-hard bluegrass and Steeldrivers fans (Steelheads) came out to Pontiac Michigan for a mid-February show.   That appreciation was returned in spades by the band who let loose with and inspired, tight, well-rehearsed and thoroughly enjoyable performance.  The band is a master at stage presence with vocalist and fiddle player Tammy Roger taking the physical and spiritual center of the band and handling the emcee duties (with occasional help from bassist Mike Flemming, who's humble and dry delivery is the perfect compliment to Rogers amiable and vibrant personality).   The show this night was one of the best Steeldrivers shows--and one of the very best of ANY show--that I have seen! 

The Ben Daniels Band
The night was a great success on many levels.  Not only was the show sold out, but when I talked to the merchandising guy at the end of the night, he was a bit shell-shocked at crowds generosity--selling out all of the vinyl LPs the band had brought as well as a good chunk of the tee shirts, hats and other Steeldrivers branded items.  The night began with the Ben Daniels Band entertaining the crowd with a mostly original 45-minute set of mostly original music.   For those familiar with the drum-driven, mostly electric performance the band usually puts on, this "acoustic" version of the band (featuring drummer Wesley Fritzemeier on mandolin) was a nice way to warm up for the main event.  They weren't exactly "bluegrass"...but then again...neither are the Steeldrivers.  A highlight of the night was definitely the band's four-part harmony arrangement of the John Prine classic "Paradise" with guitarist George Merkel on lead vocals and the whole crowd singing along.   

I leave you with a challenge.  There is an entire world of original, live, local music out there.   Go get you some!  Feel free to follow SeMiBluegrass on Facebook and Instagram (and whatever social media comes next I guess...)

Mike Flemming

Mike Flemming and Matt Dame thoroughly enjoying the momement!

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Faith & Fumes: New Album from Adam Carpenter and the Upper Hand

Adam Carpenter (L) and Members of the Upper Hand
Fans of this blog will recognize Adam Carpenter's name as the lead singer and songwriter from storied Upper Peninsula bluegrass band, Chasin' Steel.  While the band continues to perform from time to time in their 21st season, Adam has spent his post-COVID recovery years writing, performing and recording new songs with his bluesy electric, outlaw country, rock-and-roll band, Adam Carpenter & The Upper Hand.   He has already released several of the tracks as singles that are currently streaming on all digital platforms or fans can purchase direct from his website https://acuh906.com/music.  The rest of the tracks will be released together on a new, full-length album Faith & Fumes which drops Friday, May 19th on all digital platforms.   Adam was kind enough to share an early release copy with me to review. 

Dropping May 19th!
The album title is drawn a song on the album (Copper Queen)  describing the long, lonely and dark drive back to Marquette from  Houghton that Adam and his band would endure every Holiday season when gigs, and fans and beverages were in abundance, but overnight accommodations were impossible to find.  For anyone who has made these kinds of drives, you can appreciated "...running on faith and fumes..." down a dark, lonely highway, all your friends softly snoring in their seats, while you are trying desperately to get back home to your loved ones.   These types of deep insights into the band's psyche run throughout the album, outlining Carpenter's quasi-biographical journey through recovering from a global pandemic, surviving heartbreak, the excitement of new relationships and the eventual redemption and serenity of personal growth.  Adam's lyrics alternate between poetic genius and keen observation of the human condition and blend seamlessly to the rhythms and songlines that traverse the album.  The songs were put in order purposefully, and the listener really should listened to in order and in their entirety, as the lyrical and musical  journeys are just as impactful as the final destination.

Recorded at Dead River Sound (Marquette), with contributions from By The Lake Sound (Brighton - with musical guru David Mosher adding various instrumental parts on tracks throughout) and The Tempermill Studios (Ferndale), the album represents a truly "Michigan Made" effort with Adam (lead vocals, guitar, mandolin), Jake Kuhlman (banjo, guitar, mandolin), Alex Polkinghorne (bass, harmony vocals) and Trevor Rosten (percussion) all hailing from the Marquette area.  Honorary "fifth man" and Adam's co-writer on some songs, Bill Arnold (dobro, lap steel, baritone guitar) also appears prominently on the album. Guest Musicians also included: Tom Tarkleson (Keys),  Blaine McQuinn (Fiddle), Kyle Bledsoe (Electric Guitar) and both Gerald Kipola and Larry Labeck on pedal steel guitar.   With the tapes rolling, musicians comfortably in the "zone" and guests holding their breath, these songs sparked to life and blazed into lyrical and harmonic gems; working cohesively together to take the listener on a musical journey.   Having listened through the album in it's entirety more than a dozen times, let me share my thoughts with you:

Track 1: About To Shine

No better way to kick off the album than with the upbeat burner featuring Adam's powerful voice and a driving banjo lick.  After a long, dark winter, this is the kind of song you want to blast on the car radio as you roll down some back road with the sun  in your face and warm April breeze blowing through your hair.   Metaphorically, Adam uses the song as a call-to-action to those of us bogged down in the dark and gray and looking forward to better days ahead.   "Go ahead, you've got this" Carpenter seems to say, "it's YOUR time to shine". 

Track 2: Moving Waters

Adam has been playing this song on acoustic guitar for several years now, and I never could quite connect with it.   But in the studio, something magical happened.  It could be the dark, smoky and funky bass line; or maybe the soaring late-night blues guitar from Kyle Bledsoe; or even the Hammond B3 organ (Tom Tarkelson) on this track.  The song has now evolved into  now a groovy, energetic and danceable number evoking the labor and hard work it takes to move on...and why you should do exactly that.

Track 3: Trailers & Tornadoes

Adam co-wrote this song with songwriting partner Bill Arnold, who lives eight hours away in SouthEast Michigan using an old-school technology (there is some debate if this was cell phone, flip phone or old school landline telephone...hell, it might have been by old fashioned US Postal service mail!).    Both Bill and Adam have released versions of this song (Bill with his band One Ton Trolley and Adam with the Upper Hand).  While the song is the same, the versions have come out totally different feel as they dance around the type of energetic and sometimes toxic relationships between people powerfully and inevitably drawn together and the chaos that ensues around them. 

Track 4: Copper Queen

As mentioned above, this is the track that yielded the album title. Written around summer campfire with members of One Ton Trolley and even Adam's fiance (now wife) contributing to the lyrics, this song not only tells the story of those January midnight runs, but about the strength and trust one puts in oneself to boldly forge ahead--sometimes with nothing but faith to have your back.   Killer arrangement on this cut including some amazing fiddle work by Blaine McQuinn. 

Track 5: Gonna Be Alright

Adam wrote this sweet love song as an ode to his wife, and how their relationship allows them let go of the challenges of their life when together, and how they bring out the best in each other.  A beautiful, light and airy guitar part is paired with a mix of  dobro (Bill Arnold) and pedal steel guitar (Gerald Kipola) to give this song a ton of soul and character.   The best line on the album "you're my hardest goodbye and my favoritest hello, and I know, it's gonna be alright" has extra special meaning to me.  In a dark time in my life, Adam sent an acoustic cut of that line to me and got me through a difficult time.     The power of music sometimes transcends the human condition and makes us all better that we are alone.   This song does that for sure. 

Track 6: Waiting for the Thaw

A remastered version of an earlier released song, this ballad of long winters and bad breakups really manages to evoke the loneliness and desperation of  of Michigan's long gloomy springs when summer is just a memory and hope becomes harder and harder to find.  The killer Baritone guitar part on this song really raises the tension and kicks the song into high gear before resolving into just the barest hint of sunlight and warmth around the corner. 

Track 7: Walkin with Bigfoot

This song started out as a novelty throwaway song  for Adam's mother-in-law who had an "experience" or "encounter" in the woods one night.    Adam was noodling around on it in the studio when bassist Alex Polkinghorne added a crazy, funky, over-driven bass line and Jake Kuhlman contributed a bluesy/loping banjo roll and a instant classic was born!  This song is destined to be a staple on Northern Michigan college campuses and around summer campfires for years to come!

Track 8: Answers

This was the only song on the album that I had never heard Adam play before--and it's a great counterpoint to Waiting for the Thaw.  Upbeat with just a touch of summer party-pop, the song just oozes an early Jimmy Buffet/Jerry Jeff Walker vibe.  It's a country rocker for sure, but close your eyes and you can hear the steel drums and taste the tropical drinks of summer on some nowhere tropical island.  This is definitely another top down, sunny day, road trip jam. 

Track 9: Own Two Feet 

A daddy/daughter wedding dance in 3/4 time, this song is destined to be a wedding DJ classic.  The simple, clean lyrics and classic country arrangements (with pedal steel from the legendary Larry Labeck) make this song instantly lovable.  It's also important that  this song recognizes that our daughters grow up into amazing, strong, brave and talented women.

Track 10:  Burn

The album ends with this absolute burner.  It starts with a baritone guitar-driven spaghetti-western themed rhythm line and slowly builds (burns?) to an all out countrified rock anthem.   Lyrically, this song circles back to the beginning of the album and documents one man's efforts and decisions to take the next step, no matter the consequences.

Bonus Tracks:

Adam has included a previously released track UP Life to round out the album.  Close your eyes and let him take you down some "backwoods B.F.E." in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  You might even find some surprises and Answers along the way.


Adam Carpenter (Center) and the Upper Hand

Adam  Carpenter & The Upper Hand are currently booking shows for the 2023 season  and beyondFaith & Fumes will be available on all digital platforms on May 19th, 2023 and can be downloaded from the band website on that date: https://acuh906.com/music.  Better yet, go see that band play live and purchase a physical copy of the CD!   Also, check out their high quality merchandise.  Or just give the band a little "tip" to tell them you like what you here.  Every little bit helps.   

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Sunday Morning Cigarettes: New Album from One Ton Trolley

One Ton Trolley:  Click Link To Listen Now!

 Detroit area roots rock band One Ton Trolley released their highly anticipated, full length LP Sunday Morning Cigarettes on all online, digital and streaming platforms on Friday, February 17th, 2023--two years to the day since they first entered the studio.    And Oh!  The songs on this project are definitely worth the wait!

Bill Arnold Hard At Work

The band defines their sound as "Roots Rock from the Rustbelt" and features hard-driving electric rock-and-roll songs that manage to capture the blue-collar grit and grind of the industrial Midwest, while still staying true to the  to the bluegrass and acoustic music roots of the songs'  origins.  According to songwriter and band leader Bill Arnold (ASCAP), "For me, songs always come from one guitar, one voice and time enough to allow them to meld into something interesting.  They have to resonate with me when I'm alone in my little studio, or at my cabin in front of the fire on a winter day. When they elicit emotion from the people I play them for, I bring them to my partners in the  Trolley and  we  mold them into our unique sound, each of us adding our signature styles to the final product." 

The songs on Sunday Morning Cigarettes give us a little peek at how Arnold sees the world around him--tales usually not based on a single person or observation, but rather a conglomerate of persons and events amalgamated into an intriguing story based on a lifetime of songwriting voyeurism and iterative re-imagination of how these characters arrived at a specific moment in time, or in a specific situation.   These rich character studies and enticing story lines allow the listener to instantly connect, and bring these stories to life.  When coupled with Bill's unique mastery of  both the lyrical and rhythmic guitar hook, these stories become the types of songs you sing in your head for days after you hear them performed.  

Shives and OTT in the Studio
Recorded at the fabled Tempermill Studios in Ferndale Michigan, Sunday Morning Cigarettes was co-produced  by Bill Arnold and legendary producer Jake Shives, who did the album mixing.   The final recording was mastered at Third Man Mastering in Detroit.  When coupled with the fact that all the performers on the album are based in the Detroit area, you begin to realize that a powerful, dynamic and enthusiastic music scene is alive and well in Southeast Michigan!  The attention to detail and effort put into this recording is evident in the rich, clean and vibrant sounds of this record, where every nuance of every line and note can be heard clearly and fully.  Do yourself a favor and buy a physical CD from the band at their next show, as the quality of the uncompressed .cda recordings are noticeably more dynamic than the compressed digital audio versions available online and through streaming services.  

With the band ramping up bookings in advance of the record release, fans have the opportunity to catch the band in a variety of local venues that showcase the flexibility and versatility of the band's sound.   A sold out special event at Wiltsies in Clarkston featured Bill playing his songs on acoustic guitar in an intimate, living room concert setting with his longtime friend and co-writer Adam Carpenter (a monster songwriter of his own who fronts not only a legendary Michigan bluegrass band, Chasin' Steel, but his own electrified, original music band, Adam Carpenter and the Upper Hand).   Bill and Guitarist Anthony Zack have been doing acoustic shows at Robinhills Farm (Chelsea) as the "1/2 Ton Trolley", often accompanied by Chris Brown on Acoustic Bass--a not-to-miss show in a cool venue.  A full electric-performance at a pre-release, sold out show at 20 Front Street wowed the fans and allowed them to purchase the first copies of the new album.   Look for shows near you in the coming weeks (and reach out the to the band if you know of cool venues they should be playing!)

Johnson, Zack, Brown and Arnold

Though the songs are born of acoustic roots,  Arnold has chosen a veteran core of electric musicians to help bring the songs to fruition.  Based around the dynamic rhythm section of noted blues drummer Jon Johnson and well-traveled bassist Chris Brown, every track on Sunday Morning Cigarettes features deep pockets and complex, driving rhythms that carry the songs forward.   Bill's rich baritone lead vocals and intricate electric rhythm guitar parts are excellently complemented by "trusty right hand man", lead guitarist and harmony vocalist Anthony Zack.  A student of rock music, Zack manages to give each song a unique, and perfectly matched guitar sound ranging from classic rock tones of the 70s, through punk and hard rock sounds of the 80s, and progressive rock/alternative licks from the 90s.  Likewise, his harmony parts are as unique as they are well through out and matched to the lyrical content of each song.  Less perfect two- and three-part harmony and more "brother harmony", Zack's vocal contribution often edges more towards "co lead vocalist" rather than "backup singer" and really serves to elevate the songs.

Ashley Pyle
Arnold chose to draw from the best in Detroit area talent to round out the record with several guest appearances.  Producer/Engineer Shives contributed some organ and melotron parts.  For Trailers and Tornadoes and several other songs, organist Pete Zajicek of Slowfoot contributed some killer Hammond B3/Leslie licks (IYKYK!).  Larry Labeck has contributed pedal steel guitar to countless projects and added just the perfect touch to Ghost Garden from the very first note!  Also on that track, listen for the female harmony vocals from local songstress Ashley Pyle--who was so inspired by this song, she has actually written a response song (from the woman's point of view).  I think it's called In the Garden.   Listen for her and that song around you--you won't be sorry.  But enough about the recording and on to my review of each song.  The opinions and interpretations of these songs are, of course, entirely mine and don't revflect the thoughts and opinions of the band.  Here's the link to listen along to these tracks while you read: Sunday Morning Cigarettes Streams     

Track 1: Sunday Morning Cigarettes

 Right out of the gate, the Trolley punches you right in the brain with this driving, hard rock anthem about the realities of mature love once the glamour of new romance has worn off.  Highlights include Zacks harmony vocals on the chorus and Arnold's unexpected rhymes in the choruses.  The guitar solo evokes those late 80s MTV videos while Bill's punchy, throaty rhythm guitar drives the song forward. 

Track 2: Words

Another high energy song, Words manages to combine crunchy, distorted rhythm lines, with clean, poppy melodies (think The GoGos fronting a Metalica show?).  The song speaks to the power of our words, the choices we make in using them,  and the consequences of what we say.  The slightly bluesy choruses lead to upbeat, mostly positive and plaintive choruses.  Again, Zack's choice of guitar solo, tasteful guietar fills, and complementary harmony vocals elevate this song to stratospheric heights. 

Track 3:  My Town

Written about his home town of Milford, Michigan, but equally applicable to any of our home towns, Bill has captured the magic of home towns and the nostalgia that brings us back and restores us.   The song begins with an A Capella vocal and solo finger-style guitar part that betrays the acoustic roots of the song.  As the song progresses to lyrics about attending weekend high school football games, drummer Johnson adds a clever snare drum part evocative of those chilly night games.   In front of the electric bass and guitar, Bill guests on his own recording and shows off his bluegrass roots with a killer dobro solo that adds an entirely new dimension to the song.   My favorite lyric?  "We can drown all our failures in bourbon and bitters, in our home town..."

Track 4:  Trailers & Tornadoes

Batting cleanup is this powerful song about passionate new relationships that Bill co-wrote over the telephone with his long-time friend and co-writer Adam Carpenter.  Coincidentally, both Bill and Adam released versions of the song this month!  Both are totally different, but somehow manage to both capture the power and chaos both tornadoes and new love.  Close your eyes and listen to Zack's electric guitar and Zajicek's Hammond part and you can see a dirty, dented Maytag washer swirling thought the dirt and debris of a rising cyclone of air and hear the anger and passion of weeknight arguments in young lovers' first rentals, trailers and apartments.  I can definitely hear this song being played on the radio and gaining a following.

Track 5: Living the Lonely

My favorite One Ton Trolley track, this straight forward rocker once again talks about the end of a bad relationship: "I know just what I'll do, sit here living the lonely without you".   Turn this up loud and listen to Brown's transitions on Bass that drive the song forward.  Arnold and Anthony's guitar parts, mean and dirty, are so well matched it's sometimes hard to tell who's playing.   Interesting enough, this song even features a baritone electric guitar part from Zack, who's first time ever holding one was during this recording!

Track 6: Once Upon November

A deeper, more melodic track, again featuring Zajicek on Hammond B3, One Upon November reflects on seasons passed and missed opportunities while celebrating the here and now and planning a better future.  It's a "sit on the front porch and have a beer with your buddies" kind of vibe perfectly carried through the song with the seamless mixing of instruments and vocals to create a powerful, earworm of a song that builds to an unexpected and powerful ending. 

Track 7: If I Could Only Fly

Probably the best example of what I mean by a rhythmic and melodic hood, this song begins with Bill on electric guitar with a simple little piece of a melody   that builds and repeats to the song as it builds.  The rhythm section of Brown and Johnson truly outdo themselves with the miles deep pocket and groove on this song--it will have you tapping your feet and swaying along through the entire song.  Zack's soaring guitar work helps to take you thoughts higher as you float along with the band and explore the freedom and joy that music brings us. 

Track 8: Ghost Gardens

One of the band's most requested songs, and a truly great origin story.  Ghost Gardens was a term used by Detroit Investigative Legend Charlie LeDuff describing to Anthony Bourdain the yearly emergence of perennial flower among the weeds on the abandoned lots in Detroit.   "I tried to write a song about his for years",  says Arnold, "until one day I realized it wasn't a love song, it was a loss song."  There is some much to enjoy about this song: Bill's acoustic guitar line is stellar, Larry Labeck's pedal steel brings so much emotion to this simple song, and Ashley Pyle's ethereal female harmonies add that perfect little counterpoint at the end of the song.    It is a beautiful song.

 Track 9: Goodbye to Summertime

This song is about the changing of seasons.  Or maybe about getting older.   Or maybe about sitting around a fireplace in a northern Michigan cabin playing music late into the night with your friends.  OK, that last one is the memory if evokes in ME.  This song begins again with Bill on acoustic guitar and dobro...and somehow when the band comes in, it is able to maintain that simple story and clean melody as the energy builds and flows.    This song is eminently memorable and will stick with you for days.    I can definitely hear this being played around late summer camp fires at music festivals.  

Track 10: Roots

Probably the most complex arrangement on the entire record, I was pleasantly surprised by this song.    I first heard this song performed as a solo acoustic number by Bill at a 20 Front Street songwriter circle, where he floored the crowd with not only his powerful lyrics and voice, but a complex, flatpicked rhythm line on guitar.  Somehow, Bill was able to pick apart that line and distribute it to all his band member.  Brown's funky, groovy bass line gives the song just the right amount of "upbeat" to counterbalance the dark, bluesy theme of the song.   Johnson's light touch on drums keeps the song from getting too heavy.  Zack's guitar solos carry that acoustic guitar part to strange new places, but manage to keep the feel and energy alive.   And Bill's rock solid rhythm fills out the sound--a pure wall of musical bliss. 

Track 11: Out in the Cold

Another song that on the surface seems to be about bad relationships and breakups, but upon deeper reflection is about the struggles we all face as we mature and our relationships evolve and change--and how much work it is to make those changes positive. The more I listen to this song, the more the melody haunts me.  And those harmonies in the chorus....

Track 12: Happy Ever Afters

A fitting send off to the album, this high energy, high-speed rocker will have you out of your seat and dancing like a teenager at your first rock show!  The lyrics focus on the positives we all have inside and how most of life's problems can be solved by just talking thing out.  "Strip away all your camouflage and just talk to me"--sage advice indeed.  Probably the best example of the tight groove this band falls into so easily, every band member, every instrument, every note on this song is pure perfection.   This is probably the first One Ton Trolley song you will fall in love with.  It won't be the last!

Like what you read?  There are a lot of ways you can connect with SeMiBluegrass and One Ton Trolley.  First and foremost, get out there and SEE SOME LIVE, LOCAL MUSIC!!    Buy tickets to upcoming shows!  Buy extra tickets and give them to your friends!  Buy the CD and some Merch at a show.  Follow the Band  on social media and join their exclusive fan group The Trolley Riders.  Most importantly, help spread the word by liking and sharing posts from One Ton Trolley and all of your other local, independent musicians.  Encourage your friends to follow, like and share too.   It truly is about "The People, The Places and The Music" and the more people engage, the more the music will grown.  See you out there!

Friday, January 27, 2023

Live Review! Adam Carpenter and Bill Arnold at Wiltsie's

Something new for our SeMiBluegrass readers!   I'm going to attempt to Live Review the show above as it happens.  Cross your fingers and here we go!


Readers of this blog may be well familiar with my friend, fishing buddy and Detroit singer/songwriter extraordinaire Bill Arnold and his band One Ton Trolley.  Bill was actually the first person who convinced me to take up the guitar and that I could sing passable bluegrass harmony.  As we set off on that musical journey together, we soon crossed path with Adam Carpenter and his bluegrass band Chasin' Steel (and new folk/blues rock/country project Adam Carpenter & The Upper Hand).   As these two have set off on their individual journeys and me and my editorial adventures, they have kept close and even written several songs together.   To support the release of their upcoming albums, Adam has made the journey to Southeast Michigan to play an acoustic duo show with Bill at Wiltsie's in Clarkston and share some of those songs.   The audience reaction was so good, the show sold out almost immediately, and Brandon Sill of Wiltsie's graciously added a second Friday night show, that as of show time, was within two or three tickets of a second sell out!

7:30 PM - Doors Open

Doors open and the fans start pouring in.  Band wives, fans of the band and assorted fishbums  start piling in.  Jeff "Pieboy" McGowan makes and appearance.   You'd think with a nickname like that there'd be a ribald and inappropriate story, especially when it starts "you see...I was a boy scout"...but, alas, it's more confectionary than controversial...and he makes a MEAN blueberry pie (I think it's the cardamom)!  Ron Karvonen (RON'S PARTY!!) showed up to support both the Detroit and UP contingent.   If it's not sold out yet, it's damn close!  Hang on...gonna be one hell of ride. 

8:00 PM  

Bob Andres kicks of the show announcing the show.  He lead's with Adam's Carpenter's release of "Trailers and Tornados" yesterday, a song co-written by Bill and Adam and ALSO recorded on Bill's Upcoming full-length album, "Sunday Morning Cigarettes".  In his first visit to Detroit since 2019, Adam graciously allowed Bill to share a "hometown song in his new hometown".  Actually written about Milford, where Bill grew up and learned to play music, "My Home Town" tells the story about how things change, but still stay the same.  Adam's accompaniment on mandolin was a subtle, beautiful addition to this song.   "We can drown all our failures in bourbon and bitters, in our home town"...

8:10 PM

The show continues with a One Ton Trolley song "Don't Tell Me" from the band's 2021 EP "No Simple Highways".  This song, about the words we use and the consequences of using them always speaks to me.  Bill and I have been friends a long time and have almost daily discussions about life, music and the way things should be.  We sometimes (often?) come down on opposite sides of issues, but always find a way to accept the other's point of view and find at least something we can agree on".  Adam unleashes some killer mandolin fills on this song.  They really add something to the song, especially with the stripped down arrangement and lack of three part harmony from the recorded version. 

Adam Carpenter and Bill Arnold

8:15 PM

A quick instrument switch while Bill shares the story of how he and Adam met at his trout camp on the Manistee river, and Adam launches into another song he and Bill co-wrote, "About to shine".  With a funky rhythm part on Adam's guitar and some wicked dobro licks from Bill the song builds energy and had the whole crowd bobbing along and tapping their feet.   "I'm standing tall, above it all, and I'm about to shine".

8:20 PM

Due to the nature of the room, the boys could play this unplugged, but I must mention that sound guy /Andres Bowmaster from Passion Missions LLC had things dialed in and you could hear every nuance of eery note, no matter where you were in the room.  Adam continues with an ode to the copper country and the Keweenaw peninsula, "Copper Queen". Adam is finally getting really warmed up and his powerful, rich voice fills every nook and cranny at Wiltsie's punctuated by Bill's cutting dobro fills   GREAT PERFORMANCE and everything acoustic songs are supposed to be.  Not gonna lie, had my arm hairs standing on end. 

8:30 PM

 Bill switches to guitar and announces the February l7th album release of "Sunday Morning Cigarettes" and the song he co-wrote with Adam,  "Roots".  A dark, swampy song; Bill's cutting guitar hook pairs perfectly with the bluesy mandolin vamp and fill from Adam.   Something special about Wiltsie's is the ability of musicians to control their dynamics, from bare whispers to room filling crescendo's without loosing the clarity and power of the melody.  This song REALLY benefited from the stripped down, dynamic treatment.  One of the best times I've heard it performed. 

8:35 PM

Bill follows Adam's UP song with the only one he's written.  An ode to the sailors on the Great Lakes Freighters "Ghost's of the Deep".  I wasn't sure Adam could compete with One Ton Trolley's lead guitar player Anthony Zack's eerie, moody guitar part, but he came through in spades with a a subtle mandolin part the alternated between clean, major key counter melodies, and jarring discordant punctuations.   A really cool treatment for this song.   Totally changes it's character, but keeps the poignancy. 

8:40 PM

"Trailers and Tornados" is a fan favorite song famously co-written by Adam and Bill over the telephone. Adam released the song yesterday as a single (and it will appear on his late-spring 2023 album) and Bill recorded his OWN version on "Sunday Morning Cigarettes".  Adam chose to go with a multi-instrumental, wall of sound, chaotic, stormy, blues/rock/country version with the Upper Hand.  Bill wend to a stripped down, gritty Detroit rock version.  I can't wait for both to be available live so you can listen to both and pick your favorite (or love them both for their differences).  I love Adam's voice on this acoustic version, which pairs perfectly with Bill's gravely, rough harmony--it really adds to the story of a stormy love affair.    

8:50 PM

Short set break.  Both bands have some pretty impressive merchandise:  UI already own one of Adam's super-soft ACUH tee shirts, but noticed he had some REALLY nice Hoodies.   Bill has some great tees of his own, as well as a ton of cool jewelry made from used band guitar strings and One Ton Trolley guitar pics.   Scored an INCREDIBLE cup of coffee from Brandon right before the band came back on. 

PC: Jeff "Pieboy" McGowan

9:20 PM

The Bearded Boys are Back and opening with a couple of Adam's songs, "Waiting for the Thaw" is a killer song about hard breakups and even harder U.P. winters.   Adam's growly drop-D guitar part pair so good with Bills' dobro licks to set the perfect feel of long, dark times with only the hope for a glimpse of brightness in the future, Singing "running low on Beam, and beer, and Road Dog's food", Adam's plaintive verses build up to powerful, lonesome chorus "She left me in late April, and here I am, still waiting for the thaw".   Really a killer song. 

Bill talked about how his and Adam's real talent as vocalists is that they are smart enough to have great harmony vocalists in their bands.   They also shared some unrequested beard grooming tips.  But I do love their voices together.   

Big shout out to Detroit area pedal steel legend Larry Labek, who plays on both of their albums. 

9:30 PM

Adam's next song, "Everything Will Be Alright" holds a dear place in my heart.  On it's surface, it's a song about how coming home to someone who loves you makes all the trials of a tough life worth while.  But almost four years ago, I was in a really dark place, in the U of M Hospital emergency room with my teenage daughter who had just been diagnosed with type one diabetes.   Adam sent me an early, acoustic, iphone recording of this song..."You're my hardest goodbye, and my farvoritest hello, and everything's gonna be alright".  I listened to it over and over in the hospital bathroom balling my eyes out until a nurse came in to see if I was alright...and somehow...I was.   I still cry uncontrollably every time I hear it.  Love you Adam, and thank you for this song. 

9:35 PM

Bill is back on guitar.  Adam teases this song as one of Bill's "Top five Songs I didn't write with you".  "Words" features a complex melody line on the guitar that Adam somehow embellished and smoothed out with a smooth solo mandolin part.   It's this talent for simple melodies, with complex rhythmic lines that really set Bill's songs apart in an acoustic setting.   Add in the simplicity and poetic impact of his lyrics and the result is always beautiful, well-crafted and memorable songs.   Can't wait for "Sunday Morning Cigarettes" to be released into the wild and more people experience what this is all about.  Speaking of SMC, Bill has worked with me to craft a cool idea.  On Thursday, February 23, at HomeGrown Brewery in Oxford, I will will be Emceeing a special "storytellers" version of the album, where the band plays acoustic version of the album, interspersed with band interviews, the stories behind the recording, the inspiration and meaning of the songs. Should be a great way for fans new and old to connect with the band and their songs. 

Speaking of those stories, Bill shared the story of Anthony Bourdain's visit to Detroit, where he drove through the ruins of the Brush Park neighborhoods with TV News Anchor Charlie LaDuff and pointed out the perennial flowers poking up the the ruins of neighborhood houses.    "I call those Ghost Gardens" said LaDuff...and Bill had an "Ah Ha" moment and his most requested song, "Ghost Garden" was born.  "I thought it was a Love song, until I realized it was a Loss song" said Bill.    Local musician Ashley Pyle (who sang harmony vocals on the album) told me she was so inspired by this song, that she has written a response to this song, this time from the dead wife's point of view.   I can't wait to hear it.   Adam was singing along quietly.  He might not have thought anyone could hear him...but I could, and that ethereal, haunting harmony fit the song perfectly. 

9:50 PM

Adam continues the show with a Chasin' Steel Classic "Troutbum".  A great choice.  In true bluegrass fashion, Adam only forgot a couple lyrics, which just leant to the entertainment factor...like watching Bill try not to laugh like a SNL actor trying to to laugh at their cast mates ridiculous jokes.   Fun fact, if you listen to the original recording, captured live on our friend Phil Cook's back deck on the bank of the Au Sable river in Grayling, Michigan you can definitely hear the wind in the pines, the birds chirping and the gurgling of the flowing stream.   Give this song a listen and maybe, just maybe, you an understand the draw and alure of Michigan trout streams where lifelong friendships are born and nurtured. 

9:55 PM

Another Adam Carpenter original as he takes us "down some back road B.F.E." with his ode to his adopted home "U.P. Life".   The PERFECT campfire song, this is sure to be a summertime festival classic.    "Damn I love this U.P. life!".   Somehow, Adam was able to avoid the Pasty shops, jet boat tours, smoked fish and and fudge counters at the gas station and hunting camps most often associated with the U.P. and pointed out that it is the simple things, the beautiful thing, and the everyday things that truly make the U.P. a magical place.  Those of us that have spent significant time there already know this. "U.P. Life" is available on all streaming platforms.  Give it a listen. 

10:00 PM

Bill chooses to close the show strong with the title track from his upcoming project.  "Sunday Morning Cigarettes".  It's important to mention that Bill insists this song is NOT about his wife Beth (she doesn't even smoke".  Rather, it's the product of his keen observation of people and relationships and his voyeuristic ability to then project forward and backwards to imaging how these people got here in the first place.    A real rocker, even in acoustic format, the "semi-explicit" cat verse might be the second best line in the song.   Also impressive that Bill was able to rhyme the five-syllable word "sanctimonious". Give this song a listen.  It's GREAT!

Thursday, June 23, 2022

What a Party! ROMP 2022

 Going to try something a little different this year and post DAILY blog updates from ROMP 2022.

SeMiBluegrass Camp at ROMP 2022  Stop by and say hi!

Day Four (Saturday)


Saturday ROMP Bluegrass Jam

And yet another fantastic day of live music in the books!   After a LATE night at the Jagoe Homes After Party Stage the night begore with Wolfpen Branch and Birds of Prey (I finally wandered back to the SeMiBluegrass Camper at 4:00am!) I was able to grab a couple hours sleep, get up early and post the day THREE updates, and still make it to the Pioneer Village Pavilion for the second day of the ROMP Open Bluegrass Jam with Ronnie and Mary Beth.  The jam was full of pickers of all ages, abilities, size, shapes and colors…a true example of how easy it is for music to bring us together!


Liam Purcell and Cane Mill Road

After a fantastic lunch from Moolite Bar-B-Que, the day kicked off with a great set of original and cover songs from young Mandolin Phenom Liam Purcell and his excellent band Cane Mill Road.  With their focus on traditional bluegrass and the obvious attention the band pays to the details of their performance, it is easy to see why the band has won accolades and audience’s appreciation over the past several years.   

Lindsay Lou

 Lindsay Lou has certainly come a long way from her time with the Flatbellys.  With a voice dripping with mature soul and aged with experience, she is able to elevate her new songs to incredible heights with soulful vocals; impeccable timing and phrasing; and killer harmonies.   Her songwriting readily puts you at ease and makes you comfortable, while also challenging your look and how things are and how they could be.  Her contagious enthusiasm leaves you feeling on top of the world, but pondering deeper truths.    Truly a poignant and touching performance.

The Po' Ramblin' Boys
 Right smack dab in the hottest part of the day, the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys brought some heat of their own.  A traditionally structured bluegrass band they pay more than a passing nod to the tradition with their impeccable stage wear (elaborate shits and ties for the men, and coordinating outfit for fiddler Laura Orshaw.   The band takes turns singing lead and adding blistering blues breaks as their turn comes around.   They keep things alive with stage banter and connections to the audience.  It was a toe tapping, sweaty dancing, sing-along kind of afternoon!


The Steeldrivers!

What can I say about the Steeldrivers?  My favorite band.  Soldiering on and even better with the addition of their FOURTH lead singer Matt Dame (somehow he manages to sound like all three of his predecessors, but uniquely himself at the same time).  They are all some of the nicest people I’ve met.  Their  music that defies categorization—maybe bluegrass-influenced, bluesy folk-soul with a rock-and-roll attitude and a healthy pour of murder ballad?  Nobody writes like the Steeldrivers.  Nobody plays like the Steeldrivers.  No one sounds like the Steeldrivers.    But it works.  The band jokingly calls it “uneasy listening”, but I love it so.   I was blessed to see banjoist Richard Bailey back stage take time to sit down with a young fan and show her a few licks and tricks on the banjo. Perhaps this is why they are my favorite band—over and above their ridiculous musical talent, they are all damn fine human beings and I’m proud to know them. 

One Heck of a Good Dude

 I’ve often spoken of the rare combination of musical ability and stage presence.   Some bands have one, some have the other, few are masters of both.   There may be no single person better than this than Australian guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel.  Absolutely blistering the stage and the crowd with his complex “one man, one guitar” band arrangements and warp-speed songs, he kept the crowd riveted on the stage for his entire performance of classic guitar songs and some unique covers.   His show stopping version of Guitar Boogie brought he house down!


Tommy Emmanuel

Bluegrass Picker turned Country Superstar Marty Stuart was up next.  He got the crowd ramped up, dancing and singing along with many of his greatest hits, featuring him trading killer telecaster licks with his guitarist “Cousin Kenny”.   His band, the Fabulous Superlatives, decked out in their baby blue cowboy Nudie Suits perfectly complemented Marty’s all-black ensemble.   Showing their range, the band sprinkled some “surf rock” arrangements into  the set along with a couple of unique covers with every member of the bane taking a turn singing/leading a song.  A highlight for me was a 3-song set featuring Marty on his Mandolin.  While not a huge fan of his catalog, I will go see this band every time they play near me, the quality of the performance and the energy of the band and crowd are just not deniable!

Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives

 Closing out the main stage were the Steep Canyon rangers.   They were one of the very first bluegrass bands I fell in love with: “Loving Pretty Women” and “One Dime at a Time” were foundational albums when I discovered bluegrass.  And I love their work with Steve Martin, Martin Short and Eddie Brickel.   This was “not your mother’s bluegrass band”.  To close out the stage, the band took the stage with a drummer and new bassist throwing down funky rhythms and danceable bass lines allowing the rest of the band—especially fiddler extraordinaire Nicky Sanders—to throw down some tasty jam-band influenced instrumental arrangements over songs from their latest two or three albums.   With a light show, rock star poses, the band gathering around and on the drum riser, and their signature vocal harmonies, this was a perfect example of the “roots and branches of bluegrass” and a perfect ending to the show.   There was a (reportedly) unbelievable late night set from Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley but—alas—the long days, oppressive heat, lack of sleep and rain in the forecast made me call it a night.   What a great cap to four incredible days of music.  I’ll likely post one more update of “final thoughts” and some more photos later this week after I’ve had time to come down off my musical high and process some of what ROMP is and means to me.  


The Steep Canyon Rangers

Day Three (Friday)

Picking and Singing at the Jam Pavilion 

What an incredible day of music!  Friday started with the ROMP Bluegrass jam under the Pavilion in the Pioneer Village.  Hosted by my "Festival Neighbors" (kinda more like family), Mary Beth and Ronnie.  This free wheeling "fun jam" ended up with over 20 musicians and a whole slew of listeners.  What a great time!

Birds of Prey on the Main Stage
The first band of the day was the winner of the Jagoe Homes band contest, Birds of Prey out of Michigan.   Their mainstage set was an eclectic mix of original tunes done in their own unique style with a mix of clever covers to keep the crowd interested.  More on them later as they had the unenviable task of not only opening the day at 2:15pm, but also coming back to close the afterparty at 1:15am!

East Nash Grass

Taking the stage next were the incredibly talented East Nash Grass.   While three members had played the day before with the Dan Tyminski band, this young, energetic band with an old, yet humorous soul put on one of the highest energy sets I've ever seen.  Picture yourself at an East Nashville keg party in someone's backyard.  A few people grab instruments and start playing...and cracking jokes...and generally having a good time.   Now make those people some of the very best at their instrument, and add in a raucous crowd willing to go along for the ride and you can START to see what their set was all about.  

The Incomparable Del McCoury Band

What do you say about the Del McCoury band?   The most traditional of bluegrass bands, yet willing to take a risk on more modern takes?  A family band oozing in personality?  Brave enough to play the mainstage without a set list and just rely on song suggestions from the crowd?  And a "G Run" that can freeze you in your tracks?  Yes.  All that.  And so much more....

Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi

Rhiannon Giddens and her musical partner Francesco Turrisi took the crowd on journey into "emotional rock-and-roll" with a "Bluegrass Adjacent" set of music drawn from traditions and countries around the globe.  Rhiannon wears here soul on her face and truly connects with the crowd and the power of her words while she sings.  Turrisi is instantly likeable, and contributes so much to the songs with his deadly percussion skills and even the bluegrass accordion. 

We Banjo 3 Doing What They Do

Closing the night were We Banjo 3 from Galway Ireland. An Irish band that plays bluegrass or a bluegrass band that plays Irish Instruments, you choose.   They hit the stage with the intention of getting the crowd up on their feet, singing, clapping and dancing along...and did just that.  One of the 

Wolfpen Branch

The Jagoe Homes After Party Stage kicked off with local favorites Wolfpen Branch.  A KILLER bluegrass band with a funky, driving electric bass and numerous "celebrity" guest musicians this band had the crowd singing and dancing along to every number.  An impossible act to follow.  But Birds of Prey (remember them from earlier today) had to do just that.   Rather than trying to out wolfpen the wolfpen boys, this band took a different tack.   Drawing on their deep spiritual and natural roots, the band started with a traditional First Nation flute and drum solo followed by one of their high speed, high energy dance numbers.   In a masterful demonstration of "reading the crowd", they then put on a blistering 90-minute set of original tunes mixed with sing-along songs (classics, modern, pop and even kids songs) everyone knew.  They even threw in some bass solo's for a slightly overserved front row fan!  What a way to end an incredible day of music.  So...it's 4:00am and I need to get up at sunrise and do it all over again.  Wish me luck...here we go again!

Birds of Prey

Day Two (Thursday)

 After a great night’s sleep in the camper, and a quick run to Walmart for those “Things I Forgot Because It’s the First Trip in The Camper This Summer” necessities, my day got off to a great start with a free-wheeling open jam with my neighbors Mary Beth and Ronnie.  Like all great festival jams, people started coming out of the woodwork and joined in…many of whom I’d met at previous ROMPs and just sort of showed up again—like true “Festival Families”.


The Gibson Brothers

After a great lunch from Moonlite BBQ I settled into a LONG day of music.   First up were the undisputed kings of Bluegrass Brother Harmony, the Gibson Brothers.   With a great band backing them, they launched into a great set of their original hits and some timeless bluegrass classics.  At times, their intricate and lush harmony singings made the hair on my arms stand on end.   The fact that the opening band of the festival is usually found headlining and closing the night on the festival tour goes to show exactly how full of talent ROMP is from start to finish. 

The Quebe Sisters

Next up were the Quebe sisters from Texas.  These three sisters brought more “sibling harmony” and some well arranged “triple fiddle” to their original country and Western swing songs.   With a simple backing band of swing guitar and upright bass, the sisters managed to fill Yellow Creek Park with sound and kept the crowd cheering enthusiastically for the whole set.  When the bass player stepped up for a killer solo on one tune, the crowd erupted in appreciation.   Not a band I was familiar with before the festival, but one I will surely follow from now on. 

The Incomparable Dan Tyminski Band

What can you say about Dan Tyminski?  From the moment he walked onstage with his untucked shirt and disheveled carefree hairdo and launched into “Man of Constant Sorrow” this Wildman, and self-professed “number one fan of bluegrass” put on a clinic of traditionally based bluegrass and what it can be—thanks in no small part to the incredible band he has put together.    Dan told me he went out to find the four best pickers he could, regarless of age, and these four youngsters certainly demonstrated WHY he thinks so highly of them.   Jason Davis on the 5-string has a unique, percussive and driving style that gives over-the-top energy to every song.   Former Biology teacher (like me!) Maddie Denton is as equally at home throwing out hot fiddle breaks and licks as she is sharing a knowing wink and smile with her bandmates.   Newcomer Harry Clark (Clarke?) on mandolin (also the “mystery mandolin man” from the Wednesday night after party stage) has me at a loss for words.   Go see him.  His sense of style, playing style, and stage presence simply defy description.   And Gavin Largent—who borrowed a dobro for the weekend—showed the world why he is both one of the leading dobro pickers and lead/harmony singers in Bluegrass today.   Bassist ______Davis, diminutive even next to the ½ size bass she play puts out gigantic, booming and rich bass lines that give the band their soul.  I have truly never seen a better band, or one that visibly loves playing together every second on stage.  It will be hard to top this performance, but there are two more full days of band who are going to try!

The Punch Brothers

 The nights two headliner illustrated  what modern bluegrass can be.  Led by mandolin Phenom Chris Thile, and down a guitarist due to illness, the “newcomers” the Punch Brothers  still put on ridiculously complex and entertaining set.   Each member of the band is a true master of their instrument which allows them to create, explore and elaborate on musical themes creating complicated and amusing song lines.   Established “Jamgrass” veterans Leftover Salmon closed the main stage with a nearly two-hour set of jam-based songs drawn from every corner of bluegrass music (including many “bluegrass adjacent” genres).  Coupled with an incredible light show, and with the weather finally cooling down and cooperating, the set was infinitely enjoyable.

Late Night Stage

 Kicking off the Jagoe Homes After Party Stage were the Hackensaw Boys.  Kings of the stripped down sound (Guitar, Fiddle, Stand Up Bass and Percussion) the band played  great set of toe-tapping, feel-good tunes that were infectiously groovy and had the late night crowd focused on every note.   Alas, the LONG day in the sun caught up with me and I was not able to stay through the final band, Dark Moon Hollow, but by all accounts, they also put on one hell of a show.   What an amazing day of music! And it’s only just begun!

Day 1 (Wednesday)

Brennen Leigh on the After Party Stage

Since this is the furthest I plan to travel this year, I left early on Wednesday and took by time enjoying the sights on my journey to Yellow Creek Park in Owensboro Kentucky for the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum's excellent festival,  ROMP.   My plan is to spend the next four days exploring the "Roots and Branches of Bluegrass Music" that this festival does so well.  The lineup this year is nothing short of spectacular and I can't wait for the show's to begin!

One of my favorite parts of ROMP is the Jagoe Homes After Party Stage across a small bridge and through a fantasy fairy forest of lights and artwork in at the historic Pioneer village..  The festival kicked off on Wednesday night with two EXCELLENT bands playing to a jam-packed field of music fans.  First up was Songwriter/Singer Brennen Leigh and her band with a killer set of original music ranging from Bluegrass to Country to Western Swing.   Alive with vibrancy and bounce, all of the band's numbers had the crowd tapping their toes and singing along.   I was thoroghly impressed when Ms. Leigh took her turn on a guitar solo breaking off a rich, complex and technical flat picking bluegrass break good enough for any bluegrass festival main stage.   I highly recommend getting out to see her, you won't be disappointed.  

The Theo and Brenna Band

Next up was a Kentucky brother/sister songwiter pair the Theo and Brenna Band.  With a great mix of innovative covers (their barn-burner version of Simon & Garfunkles "Kodachrome" was a standout) and original composition, the band was tight, energetic and thoroughly entertaining.   Backing the singers was a killer band featuring Maddie Denton (who I suspect will be playing with the Dan Tyminski band and East Nash Grass over the weekend) and a super-familiar looking madonlin player with some SERIOUS chops and one of the best Mandolin tones I've heard.    With the late night show in the books, I headed off to a great night's sleep in the camper and many adventures to come!