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/

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Bluegrass Past, Present and Future? Mark Lavengood Album Release WSG The Native Howl @ the Ark

Mark "Huggy Bear" Lavengood
It is often joked that the average bluegrass fan is in their "mid- to late-hundreds" and a common concern for us fans is whether or not the loosing of our baby-boomer faithful will leave a large enough fan base to continue supporting bluegrass bands, shows, festivals and events. In my travels covering live, local music events for SeMiBluegrass, I have had the opportunity to witness huge numbers of twenty-, thirty- and forty-something fans absolutely loose their minds seeing bluegrass music presented in a live setting.  And, better yet, it doesn't matter whether the music is dyed-in-the-wool-traditional or pushing-the-limits-progressive.  It appears that fans are hungering to ditch the over-produced, electronically enhanced, culturally meaningless drivel that passes for commercial  /popular music today and seek out authentic, relevant and exciting music performed for an enthusiastic, live audience.  Perhaps nowhere was this more apparent than last week's album release show for Mark Lavengood's Bluegrass Bonanza's new disc We've Come Along with special guests, Thrashgrass pioneers, The Native Howl at The Ark.

Like many young, modern bands, Mark is intently focused on social media and it's role in the local music scene, so it is not surprise that when the Native Howl's viral video Thunderhead (above) took facebook by storm (13+ Million views at last check and peaking at #4 on the bluegrass charts!), Mark took notice and invited them to open for him at his Ann Arbor Album Release.  It should be readily apparent that The Native Howl's internet success in not due to some cheesy, "look-at-me" online stunt, but rather, the result of their charismatic enthusiasm and zeal, coupled with hard-earned musical chops and a touch of professional production and PR.  All of these were on display at The Ark where the band debuted a few songs off their upcoming CD.  The "thrashy-but-grassy" title track Into the Darkness is a killer tune, as was their encore number which featured Mark Lavengood doing his own thrash-metal interpretation on his dobro!  However, it was a couple of  pure-bluegrass instrumental interludes the band played between songs that reminded me of what I love best about The Native Howl--their ability to relentlessly push the envelope of bluegrass music while still remaining respectful to the tradition they came from.  Fans across the country will get a chance to see what I mean this summer as the band departs on their first  multi-state, national tour.

"Huggy Bear" Hard At Work
Fans of Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys will undoubtedly recognize talented multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Mark Lavengood.  If you've ever talked to him before or after a show, you will also know why they call him "Huggy Bear".  A supremely talented dobro player (with some guitar and mandolin thrown in from time to time), Lavengood is finally emerging as a powerful and dynamic songwriter in his own right.  The punfully perfect We've Come Along somehow manages to capture the depth and breadth of his talent.  His ridiculously fun YouTube video  take on the bluegrass standard Ole Slew Foot features not only some killer instrumental riffs, but Mark running around his native Grand Rapids, fittingly enough in--and out of--a full-body bear suit.  And, not since the Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd collaboration on the Boss' I'm On Fire  has their been a Springsteen cover as much fun as Hungry HeartHowever, it is the original material on the album (and performed at The Ark) that really stand out.  The title track We've Come Along is a classic bluegrassy ballad with personal and heartfelt lyrics.  My person fave was Three Day Blow--another lopey and soulful ballad.  Vulpes Vulpes is a flamenco-tinged cover of minor-keyed lament from a previous band--and a keeper!  The deeply personal and politically oriented America is a perfect closing number to the album. 

Dennie, Rhodes, Lavengood, Cain and Billick
  Part of the allure of the album is the young, but intensely talented bluegrass pickers with whom Mark chooses to collaborate.   The Bluegrass Bonanza features the indomitable Jason Dennie on mandolin who has the musical chops to be a standout on any stage, but plays the perfect sideman behind Huggy Bear with rock solid rhythm and tasteful fills interspersed with mind-melting mandolin solos.   I remember banjo-phenom Keith Billik from his early work with The Flatbellys, but his standout take on melodic-style banjo picking simply blew my mind this night.  I swear, I think he has seven fingers on both hands!  No band is complete without a dynamic rhythm section.  Mark has assembled one of the best with groovy bass standout Spencer Cain and the unique rhythm / lead guitar style, and phenomenal harmony singing of Kyle Rhodes.  When these five get together, hold-on, as they take you on a journey through bluegrass' past, present and future.  Oh!  What a Ride!

More pics below.  Please feel free to share and tag freely with Credit to SemiBluegrass.com.  Follow SeMiBluegrass on Facebook for more great live, local and acoustic music in Southeast Michigan.

Lots of Pics HERE

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Lawnmower Playlist (Part Deux): New Music for a New Summer

New Tunes and New Grass
As the school year winds down and preparations begin for my action filled summer of "People, Places and Music (with some fishing tossed in)", I find myself adrift in that dreaded morass of maintenance, cleanup and lawn care that consumes far too many beautiful, sunny days.  The last of these--the lawn--is most heinous this year; with abundant, soaking rains and warm, sunny days partnering  to keep my lawn "April Fresh" all the way into June!  As you may recall from last year, the month of May seems to also bring a flood of new, interesting music to help while away the tedious hours of suburban toil and help maintain a modicum of sanity in an otherwise bustling and too-busy world.  This year is no exception, and I thought I would  share a few with the SeMiBluegrass audience to help them over the final hump and into summer.  I tried to put links to where you can purchase their music as well (and support live, local music--the best way to beat the pre-summer blahs!).

Kinda Says It All Right There
While not a local musician, I became aware of the "Rock and Roll King" Robert R. McFarland when he ordered a custom 5-string banjo from Companion Custom Banjos.  No "weekend folkie" Open Back banjo  or "Bro Country Wannabee" six-string Banjotar for this picker, but a 100% bluegrass-style 5-sting resonator.  When Robert saw the mention of his "sun and moon banjo" in that review, he graciously sent me a copy of his superb double-CD Rock and Roll.  Much like his chosen electric genre, the album is anything but subtle, presenting roughly two dozen hard-driving, in-your-face, original rock songs on the two discs named (again, no subtlety) "Rock" and "Roll".  I've actually put quite a few mile on this CD--literally and figuratively--as a coping mechanism for my other Michigan spring pet peeve--construction delays.   This immaculately arranged and recorded collection is perfect when you just want to hit play, tune out  and let the music carry you to your destination.  While every song features McFarland on vocals and lead guitar, there is an incredible diversity of sounds here that make each song unique.  His powerful and soulful voice ranges from a gravelly baritone to a bell-clear tenor and hints at a barely contained explosion of emotion waiting to be released upon the listener.  Instrumentally, he pushes his Gibson SG to the very limit of versatility; dripping with tone and equally complex whether playing clean or  impossibly compressed.  Like many great guitarists, he blends lavish rhythm licks with complex leads to build a wall of sound you'd expect from two (or more) well-rehearsed guitarists.  McFarland does spread his bluegrass wings a couple of time.  My Dog''s Name is Rusty is a straight-forward, cowboy chord bluegrass standard featuring Robert's take on bluegrass flatpicking and some killer Lester Flatt G-runs.  On another song, he blends some killer mandolin rhythm licks in the introduction to a smoking hot blues-rock number--completely unexpected and completely awesome (like this whole album).  Your can find Robert R. McFarland's music HERE and HERE, but order the CD from CD Baby (because of the shipping notification--duh).

Mandatory SemiBluegrass Listening!
Two years ago, at a Jameson-fueled 2AM jam at the Wheatland Music Festival, I met a talented singer/multi-instrumentalist, Nate Roberts, from the west side of the state.  Nate reached out to me to let me know of a stripped-down, heavily bluegrass influenced project he's been working on--The Field Hymnal.  This "indie-grass" band has a unique sound built around Robert's songwriting and virtuoso mandolin picking behind Angelee Berrian's plaintive and sorrowful vocals.  The band fills out the sound with Luke Panning's swirling fiddle melodies and rock solid rhythm of Jared DeMeester on Bass.  Their sound is contemporary and traditional at the same time, and features some incredible harmony singing.  The band is currently running a small Kickstarter campaign to finance printing of their new CD, The Meaning of a Tree.  I highly recommend you give them a listen, both bluegrass aficionados and devotees of modern, local music will find something you love here.

The One and Only "Huggy Bear" and his Dobro
True story: after I'd been playing bluegrass for like six weeks, I had the opportunity to travel to Marquette and play on stage with some friends as the opening act for a small indoor bluegrass festival. It was a completly forgettable performance.  That is not true for the  band that followed--The Flatbellys (of Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys).  It was here I first meet the one-of-a-kind bluegrass/Americana talent that is Mark Lavengood.  In addition to his work with The Flatbellys, Mark has been slowly making his mark on the Michigan (and National!) bluegrass scene with his Mark Lavengood Bluegrass Bonanza project--an oft-evolving collection of pickers and singers dedicated to bringing high-octane bluegrass music to a live venue near you!  While it may be akin to catching a lightning bolt in a bottle (or maybe a mason jar), Mark has captured the soul and essence of this bluegrass adventure in his new CD, We've Come Along.   Featuring the incomparable Jason Dennie on mandolin and a cast of first-rate pickers, the album ranges from fairly traditional bluegrass fare--check out Ole Slew Foot--to unmistakably contemporary idie-folk ballads like Three Day Blow and even a tongue-in cheek cover of a mid-80s classic, Hungry Heart.  First rate entertainment for one and all.  Check our Mark's Kickstarter HERE, or--better yet--come see him play the songs live at his CD Release concert at the Ark in Ann Arbor on June 1st (with special guests, The Native Howl)

Into the Darkness with The Native Howl
Speaking of the The Native Howl, you may remember I've written about them and their take on acoustic/metal/folk music Thrashgrass in the past.   Ten million FaceBook video views later the band is kicking off nationwide summer tour that schizophrenically pairs headlining gigs at The Wisconsin Blueberry Festival with The Stoned Meadow of Doom FestTo prime the summer pump, the band is preparing to release their project Into the Darkness the day before their show at the Ark.  The album promises to be an exploration of the darker, more thrashy side of thrashgrass fueled by lead-man Alex Holycross' near-demonic "metal voice" and doomsday inspired, go-for-broke drumming of Joshua Lemieux.  Paired with Mark Chandler's lightning fast work on the base and guitar/vocal/banjo/harp from Jake Sawicki, this will be an album that is hard to ignore.  The band--masters of social media--have managed to remain fairly tight-lipped about the project, other than an occasional snippet of a lyric, photo shoot or video released to build the suspense.  You should definitely check them out, and buy the album when it comes out.

The Gasoline Gypsies
I actually met The Native Howl as part of the North Winds Tour they did with their friends The Gasoline Gypsies who, coincidentally, also have a new album coming out this July 1.  Driven by the intensly talent songwriting and lead guitar of frontman Caleb Malooley, the Gypsies deliver pure, Detroit-style (they would argue Port Huron Style) modern rock-and-roll with a folk music sensibility.  Bassist Steve Briere and drummer Joe Makowski are arguably the best rhythm section partners in the state right now, and their music has incredible drive and energy in large part from this pair's contribution.   With new rhythm/lead guitarist Neal Love, the new songs that have leaked out have all the energy of their past album, with a new level of intricacy and musicianship.   I was pleased to learn the band has booked a gig at the Forestville Music/Beer Festival in Marquette--a venue tailor made for them.  Music fans in Marquette, watch out, you're in for a treat under the trees.

So, with summer around the corner, get out there, tune in, and turn on some new music.  It's out there.  And it's really, really good! 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Extraordinary and Undescribable: The Haberdasher and the Tom Toms Live at Churchills

Introducing: The Haberdasher!
After a long, grueling workweek, sometimes you just have to get out of the house and blow out the cobwebs with something completely different.  I ran into the Tom Toms atThe New Way Bar last week after a killer show by Samantha Fish at Callahans, and they clued me into their next show at Churchill's in Flint.  Better yet, they let me know that The Haberdasher--the new, hard-to-define side project of a couple of killer Port Huron musician's I've gotten to know--would be opening for them.  Since I love the atmosphere at Churchill's (killer grub, great beer selection at reasonable prices, no cover and professional, friendly staff and impressive service--check them out) I decided there was no better way to close out a crazy week than catching the show, and Boy Howdy! am I glad I did.

Robing "The Amanuensis" Schweihofer
The Haberdasher is hard to explain; the brainchild of several well-traveled Port Huron area musicians, the band is built around a story-line involving an immortal being traveling through history making music and only known as "the Haberdasher".  The band totally immerses themselves in the story, from their eclectic and eccentric costuming (which combines a steampunk ethos with rock star attitude and some inspired choices in hat wear) to their well-structured and cohesive set of totally original music.  Reflecting the mythical Haberdasher's journey, their songs span an infinite variety of rock/punk genres from 80s era MTV pop, to classic 90s punk, JPop and even some heavier metal influences.  Adding to the complexity and nuance of the songs, the band rotates lead and harmony parts to fit the mood of the song, and is not afraid to dabble in foreign languages--on this night, the presented songs in French, Spanish and Japanese in addition to spoken, sung, growled and shouted verses in every imaginable English accent.  Each song features a spoken introduction (often accompanied by a somewhat cacophonous, melodyless musical line plucked, tapped and/or beaten out of guitar and bass, and often routed through a variety of delay, distortion and phasing pedals to create a flowing background. 


As you can see in the brief video clip above (sorry about the background noise and people walking in front of the camera--bar crowd), the Haberdasher is mindbogglingly entertaining due in large part to the professionalism of the band members and their assumed identities.  Front and center is bassist Ryan "The Orator" McInnis.  With a voice that ranges from a deep, gravelly growl to a smooth baritone, and even an classic Irish brogue he lay the vocal foundation to most of the songs, and then builds on it with some killer bass chops that couple perfectly with his rhythm section partners/
"The Orator", "The Horologist" and "The Oculist"
 I also know guitarist Robin "The Amanuensis" Schweihofer from his stint with the Gasoline Gypsies (and more recently, from he and McInnis' sometimes lewd and ribald take on Irish drinking songs done under the pseudonym The Robin and the Rhino--another band totally worth checking out).  He is among the best rhythm guitar players I know, launching himself physically, musically and emotionally 100% into every note he plays.  Unable to contain his enthusiasm, he dances, prances and swaggers around on stage as he play and provides nearly unlimited drive and energy to the performance.  He's also an accomplished lead player, trading riffs back and forth with lead guitarist Daniel "The Oculist" Peake--who's tone-dripping work on a well-loved Les Paul serves as perfect counterpoint to Schwei's Stratocaster licks.  Holding everything together with an all-consuming pocket groove is drummer Steven "The Horologist" Krautz, who's lightning-quick hands, and incredibly light touch give every note a sharp attack, as clean as the CRACK of breaking glass and always right on the front edge of the beat.  As a fairly new band, I was blown away that they were prepared to present not only a 45-minute set of purely original music; but that they were obviously well-rehearsed, cared enough to develop their characters and even brought a 9-song live EP for sale (Professionally produced and recorded live at Schwonk Soundstead in Port Huron--and already on it's 10th trip through my CD player as it really captures the spirit of the band!)  Go see The Haberdasher, you will not be disappointed.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Tom Toms
You would think that--after having my mind absolutely blown by the Haberdasher--that I'd be ready to call it a week and head home for some must deserved sleep--and you couldn't be be more wrong.  The headliner for the night was local Flint band The Tom Toms.  Mind blowing in their own way, I have been a fan of the band since they absolutely stole the show at Folk In The Woods last summer.  The band delivers some pure Southeastern Michigan rock led by the killer talent of guitarist Chris Day, his wife Kayla (lead vocals), sister Elaina Day (bass) and new addition Micha Mac on drums.  I am always blown away by Chris' work on his Les Paul--plugged directly into the amp (as it should be).  He is able to coax incredibly nuanced sounds and tone from his instrument with seemingly effortless ease.  Early in the evening, Chris kicked off an inspired cover of the Jackson Five's monster hit I Want You Back, perfectly capturing the Motown Funk and Soul of the song while somehow making it his own.  If Chris provides the band's soul, Kayla is it's heart; putting everything she has into every word, every move and every facial expression on stage.  She has mastered the art of balancing unbridled enthusiasm with an honest vulnerability on stage that gives incredibly authentic power to her words.  She is a pleasure to watch sing. A highlight of the evening was her playing a couple slide riff's on Chris' guitar using a half-full pint glass of beer--and she didn't spill a drop!

The Girls in this band can BRING IT!
Every time I see Elaina Day play the bass, I think that Robert Palmer blew it when he shot the famous video for Addicted to Love which featured some barbie-doll model types dancing and prancing on stage while simulating playing along with the band.  The truth is none of these women could hold a candle to the natural beauty, killer musical talent and pure, authentic joy Elaina brings to to every performance.  Micha May--a recent, and perfect, addition to the band's sound--sits behind the kit like a classic jazz drummer; confident and talented as she effortlessly provides clean, clear and complex beats to compliment the band's sound.  Want a taste of the Tom Tom's sound?  Check out the video from there latest album, Runaway, HERE.  Or better yet, go HERE and listen to some samples and/or  buy yourself a copy.  This is a killer album of orignial rock music highlighting the depth and breadth of what Detroit and Flint rock could--and should--sound like.  Lots to like here.  I'm currently losing the battle to get the quirky Trust Octopus out of my head from the live performance last night--it's a real earwig.  The Tom Toms, The Haberdasher and Churchill's...three great reasons to get out of the house!  Go check them all out.

Various assorted pics from the night LINKED HERE.  Like what you see?  Follow SeMiBluegrass on facebook for more band, album, show, venue and product reviews about the live, local music scene in Southeast Mighigan.  Pictures are publicly avaialable.  Please tag, share and distribute freely with credit and linkback to SeMiBluegrass

Thursday, April 6, 2017

New Music and New Venue! Mipso wsg Tyler Childers @ Otus Supply

Owls.  Reclaimed Materials.  Art.  Otus Supply.
As I have often lamented on these pages, venues that support live, local, acoustic music are few and far between.  Otus Supply, open since the dawn of the new year in the heart of Fashionable Ferndale, has been bucking the trend, offering not only first class "farm to table" fare and made from scratch cocktails, but an incredibly diverse and thoughtful array of musical acts.  It is rare for venues now days to have a dedicated music space, yet Otus Supply is no traditional restaurant, and the venue's Parliment Room (the name is both a tie-in to the restaurant's owl theme and a not-so-subtle nod to George Clinton's funky contribution to the Detroit music scene) has recently hosted a non-stop parade of both nationally touring bands and the best in local acts. Armed with a free ticket courtesy of the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Association and an invitation from Otus' Manager/Promoter Joe Choma, I finally managed to slip away to enjoy a night of hardcore Americana from North Carolina band Mipso and their special guest, Kentucky's own Tyler Childers.

Storyteller and Guitar Picker Tyler childers
While the Parliment Room is a "standing room only" venue, there were a dozen or so low-backed bar stools and a handful of high-top table sprinkled through the space.  I was fortunate to arrive early and snag a stool a the bar where I could both see and hear the music, and had easy access to the services of the hardworking, professional and very attentive bar staff.  Childers kicked off the night with a solo-acoustic set of  dirty blue collar original songs and some tasteful covers draw from outlaw and alt-country sources.  His cover of Roy Acuff's Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain  had the bearded hipster-heavy crowd and twenty-something bar staff singing along and hanging on every word (I wonder how many of them have even heard the original?) .  His guitar playing blends finger blurring Carter-style rhythm riffs with soulful, bluesy fill licks thrown in when you least expect them.  His voice is on the raggedy edge of control lending it an instant credibility an vulnerability that blends perfectly with  the lyrics of his songs.  His original material is well written, interesting and perfectly conveys the dirt-poor Appalachia of his childhood.  Childers had an easy-going and relaxed banter on stage and instantly made a connection with his audience, sharing the stories behind his original songs which were often just as emotional and impactful as the songs themselves.  When he finished a song and shared with the crowd: "No girl deserves plastic roses on Valentine's Day", there wasn't a person in the crowd who didn't agree--or know why.  It is not hard to hear the influence of Woody Guthrie and other great American storyteller/songwriters in Tyler Childer' songs.  You owe it to yourself to go hear what he has to offer.

Mipso Getting It Done!
Headlining the evening was Chapel Hill's indie-Americana group, Mipso.  While this was definitely a modern folk rock/Americana band, you could definitely hear the bluegrass and Old-Tyme Appalachian roots to their music.  The band is built around a traditional, acoustic instrument mix familiar to most SeMiBluegrass fans--fiddle, mandolin, guitar, upright bass--with the occasional electric guitar/bass part thrown in.  A lot of the lead work was shouldered by fiddler Libby Rodenbough who has a distinctive, haunting and richly syncopated approach to melody.  It really fit the plaintive and melancholy feel of many of their songs.  That is not to say that guitarist Joseph Terrell and mandolinist Jacob Sharp were slouches on their instruments, both pitching in complex and engaging solo work as the night progressed.  New to the band was a drummer (I missed his name), who managed to encompass the "drive" of a banjo player without muddying up the sound of the band--a rare skill these days.  Bassist Wood Robinson contributed a rock-solid rhythm throughout the night, as well as some killer harmony vocals--as well of the "Tee Shirt of the Night" from the Bluegrass Situation.  

Harmony Vocals the Way They SHOULD Be.
It was definitely those vocal harmonies that set Mipso apart.  Their original material was easily  approachable to the indie-rock crowd, but--at the same time--seamlessly integrated the plaintive, haunting and wistful tradition of mountain music that fans of traditional music could instantly identify with.  Many of their songs featured one of the band members on lead while the rest contributed harmony parts on the refrain and/or assorted vocal "fills" to flesh out the sound and give the song some soul.  Slow, soulful songs that built to a climax shared the stage equally with  with up-tempo rockers and even a quirky Davie Bowie cover.  I found their set very enjoyable to watch, yet even more enjoyable when I closed my eyes and listed to the intricacies of what they do.  While their more modern material was engaging and entertaining, when the band pulled out the condenser mic and gathered around for a "one mic gospel" number, the night really hit it's stride.  Leaning together to both hear each other and take visual clues, the bands' voices combined seamlessly into wave of music that washed out over the crowd mesmerizing and enchanting them.  Truly one of the more spectacular vocal performances I've seen.  So, when the night drew to its' far-too-early close, I was both impressed and pleased that the band returned for an encore, invited the crowd to gather at the front of the stage, and closed out the night with a non-amplified,  A' Capella version of Jimmy Martin's classic Drink Up and Go Home.  A perfect ending to a perfect night.

Miscellaneous pictures from the evening below.  Feel free to like/share/tag freely with credit to SeMiBluegrass.  Like what you see?  Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Doing Things The Right Way--Companion Custom Banjos

High Quality, Custom Work--and Right In Our Own Back Yard
I started writing the blog soon after I discovered bluegrass music and because I was absolutely convinced that there must be hundreds of other people in southeast Michigan with the same interest and passion as myself. Lo and behold, almost five years, 75 posts and 33,000 page views later I have met thousands of music fans, musicians, venue operators, festival promoters, instrument builders and all-around fine folks--most of whom I am priveledged to call my fiends.   Nonetheless, I am still humbled when I stumble upon something as special as the Companion Custom Banjo Company.  Working out of their backyard workshop, owners Chris and Stephanie Sorenson are hand-building high-quality, fully customizable 5-string resonator banjos for pickers and shops throughout the Midwest.  More importantly, they are doing it the right way, with the attention to detail and focus on friendly service that you expect to find in parking lot jam sessions and anywhere else bluegrass pickers get together.  Whether you are an aspiring beginner or seasoned, touring pro picker, Chris and Stephanie treat you like a member of the family, and pour their heart and soul into every build.

Chris and Stephanie and the Companion Workshop
Chris has been playing bluegrass on banjo and assorted instruments since he was seven years old, and brings his lifetime of experience to his builds.  He told me that he started out doing banjo repairs, eventually built his own banjo, and then made one for someone else--and a craftsman was born.  On the day I visited the shop, I watched him walk a teenager through all the steps involved in building a banjo and helping her through all the options open to her as she designed the banjo of her dreams.  His enthusiasm was impossible to ignore, and his knowledge of the "how and why" of each choice comprensive and thorough.  Both he and Stephanie really took the time to explain each choice, without letting his personal opinions or biases interfere with what the customer wanted--a skill often lacking in business today.  In preparation for the visit they had laid out dozens of components to show his client examples of every option and give them an idea of what the final build would look like.  The Sorenson's also maintain a comprehensive online-presence including a Facebook Page, Website and YouTube channel where customers and enthusiasts can see and hear everything they do.

Custom Wood from Companion Banjos
A companion custom banjo begins with selecting a wood or metal tone-ring to pair with a hand-built resonator from Mainer Jim Cox (though the Sorenson's recently acquired a resonator press and are beginning to build their own). Chris also hand picks select lumber from which he hand-cuts and shapes his necks and fingerboards  The shop is a woodworker's and machinist's dream with all the standard and custom tools to allow Chris to build most of these components on-site.  From their small shop, Companion can offer complete in-house builds--with the exception of strings, tuners and miscellaneous small parts. The specialty of the shop is definitely apparent in their custom inlays.  They can reproduce nearly any custom fingerboard, or design something special for the customer.  Their "signature" name block allows the new owner to add their name, the name of the banjo or anything else (up to 10 letters) in block or script fonts.  If Chris ever wanted to experiment with a 4-string tenor tuned GDae, I would be first in line to test one out!

Custom Inlays
Co owner Stephanie is also a long time musician playing fiddle and rhythm guitar. It  is patently obvious that she rolls up her sleeves and assists in all aspects of the design, production and marketing of the banjos.  Her background in graphic design is apparent in the custom inlay work she designs on the computer and manufactures on the CNC mill in the shop.  Chris told me that--while the mill is a great time-saver--Stephanie used to hand cut all of the inlays with a pearl say--a meticulous and time consuming task that takes a steady hand and commitment to perfection.  On the day I visited, she took turns explaining things with Chris and showing off some of the specialized machinery and tools it takes to build a banjo.  I have so say, as an "enginerd" at heart, the shop itself was just as impressive as the banjos and their builders.

As you could probably deduce from the passion of the owners, the shop itself is quintessentially cool.  It is meticulously clean (as you would expect from anyone doing spray-finish work) but there are cool gadgets, gizmos and interesting objects hiding everywhere--hand-cut neck templates, a set of well-worn banjo picks, assorted banjo (and other instrument) parts and even an old guitar and banjo over the workbench.  In the corner was a pile of scrap wood--but even that was super cool, with a variety of colors, grain types, and even some interesting cut-outs from previous builds. 

The banjos coming out of this shop are spectacular to look at and a visit to their website will confirm they sound justa as good as they look. So, if you're in the market for a full-custom, 5-string resonator banjo at a ridiculously reasonable price, give them a holler and start the build of your dreams!

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Power to Transform--EBird & Friends 9th Annual Holiday Show

EBird (Erin Zindle) Sharing an Emotional Moment and a Song
It has been a tremendous year of  SeMiBluegrass music here in South East Michigan;  a year simply overflowing with lovely and talented people, beautiful places and live, local music.  Be it at a bluegrass festival, house concert, music venue or bar show, when musicians gather to share their craft something magical happens; something that can transport you from the mundane to the extraordinary; something with the power to transform both musician and audience alike; something that can speak to the brain, encourage the heart and inspire the soul.  One need only peruse the more than 100 bands profiled in these pages during the year to see evidence of this transformational phenomenon in action.  So it is with great homage and respect to those performers when I state that the Ebird & Friends Holiday Show was---as it always is--not only the culminating event of my SeMiBluegrass year, but also the most incredible, impactful and important show I saw during the year.

Bringing Friends Together to Play and Sing
Musical legend has it that almost ten years ago Erin Zindle (EBird) of seminal South East Michigan Folk Rock/World Music Fusion band the Ragbirds was sitting at Ashley's Gastropub in Ann Arbor sharing with her friends how much she missed gathering at the holiday to sing Christmas songs with her family and the cathartic sense of joy and peace that it brought her.  From this fond reminiscence grew the kernel of a idea that would ultimately grow into the must-see music event of the holiday season.  While Erin is fortunate enough to share the stage with her husband Randall Moore and brother T.J. Zindle in the Ragbirds, she realized that her musical "family" had grown to include many of the local musicians and artists in South East Michigan.  In 2008, Erin gathered this "family" to share their music and sing Christmas songs at the Hartland Music Hall--and a tradition was born.  Nine years later, this annual event has grown to three sold-out nights at The Ark in Ann Arbor, and a magnificent, family-friendly Sunday Matinee performance at the Hartland High School Auditorium.  I have been going to these shows with my family for the past five years and have always found them excellent.  This year,  I was able to attend both the opening night performance at The Ark, and the Sunday show and found this year's show to be among the best.

House Band (Always Better with Horns!)
Unlike a festival or traditional variety show, where multiple acts gather and each get to perform their own material, the EBird Holiday show focuses on bringing together the best and brightest of the local music scene and putting them on stage in front of an incredible house band for a holiday mashup performance.  With a broad and diverse range of performances drawn from nearly every imaginable musical genre, there is literally something something for everyone in this show--which also presents quite a unique challenge for the house band!  The band is built around the funky, world-groove Ragbirds rhythm section of  Moore, TJ Zindle and John Brown, as well as percussion professor "Doctor" Dan Piccolo and Macpodz bassist Brennan Andes.  Add in a funky, jazz-fueled horn section (Ross huff of the Macpoz, Bethanni Greczynski of Rhytha Musik,  and Tim Haldeman on Tenor Sax) and multi-talented stings section of Brad Phillips (the Jeff Daniels Band), Brandon Smith (the Appleseed Collective) and Christina Furtado on Cello.  And holding it all together is the incredible talent of guitarist Mike Boyd and Keyboardist Loren Kranz (the Barbarossa Brothers).   Stage Manager and "Santa" Chris Good and Emcee Extraordinaire Shelly Smith keep the show rolling--no simple feat, especially when trying to wrangle 20+ performers on the Ark stage (which is crowded with a 5-piece band during ordinary shows!). From country to rap, folk to rock, and jazz to 18th Century Holiday music, the EBird House band rises to the challenge, and crushes it every time!

Everything a String Section Should Be!
This year's show opened with a complex and nuanced arrangement of "O Come All Ye Faithful" which showcased the string section in it's somewhat traditional opening, and then somehow transmogrified into the "infectious global groove" the Ragbirds have made famous.  All of the performers joined Erin on stage to sing an African harmony-heavy accompaniment (Ala Paul Simon's Graceland) and gospel counterpoint to give a nod of respect to the religious background of the holiday while simultaneously giving the song a contemporary update and high energy conclusion.  As the last glorious note boomed and echoed through the hall, a brief moment of stunned silence fell over the crowd before they erupted into thunderous applause.  This was followed by the House Band and their unique arrangement of "Carol of the Bells" that played the almost childlike simplicity of the xylophone melody against Ross Huff's complex jazz-tinged horn arrangement.  All-in-all it was a great way for the house band to showcaase their musical chops and set the tone for the rest of the evening.

The Magic of Chris Dupont
Next up was Ann Arbor area singer/songwriter Chris Dupont.  It is easy to find yourself transfixed by his ethereal and soulful vocals, but to do so would be to miss his remarkable finger-style guitar work. Able to mix traditional folk-based sounds with subtle blues-influenced licks, his playing is incredibly rich and textured and truly adds to his sound.  For the show, Dupont chose to update the Jackson Browne classic Rebel Jesus with a heartfelt, almost James Taylor vulnerability in his singing.  He followed this up with a Renaissance era ballad, Brightest and Best of the Sons of Morning; a song he updated and "punked up a little" with the use of a loop pedal rhythm and a remarkably powerful accompaniment by Jessica McComons of The Understory and the irascible Jen Sygit. Chris has the sort of pure voice that melds effortlessly into others, so it was no surprise that he was onstage multiple times during the show lending his voice to the chorus.

No Rest for These Merry Gentlemen
Up next were SeMiBluegrass Thrashgrass favorites, Alex Holycross and Jake Sawicki of the Native Howl.  Readers of this blog will remember that the Native Howl and the Ragbirds first met this summer in a "Ridiculously Cool Concert Event" at CAD Studios.  Impressed by their energy and professionalism, Erin invited Alex and Jake to bring their blend of bluegrass and thrash metal to the holiday show, and they did not disappoint.  Their country/bluegrass cover of Blue Christmas featured the Lindsay Lou of Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys, whose powerful and husky voice played well with the metal-tinged growl of Holycross' voice and Sawicki's bluesy harmonica.  However, it was their thrashmetal rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen that set the crowd on their ear and elicited joyous cheers from the audience. After an A Capella opening, a "Two-Three-Four" growl unleashed a frenetic, hair-flinging, head-bobbing assault on this yule-time classic, culminating in Holycross trading  blistering call-and-response bouzouki licks with Erin's fiddle.  This was definitely a high-energy point of the show and had the crowd on their feet cheering.

The Soulful Jen Sygit Letting It Rip!
A fixture at these shows is always Earthworks Music Collective artist Jen Sygit on backing vocals.  Professional as they come, her powerful voice serves as a massive foundation to build harmonies on.  However, she is so much more than a background singer.  As a member of penultimately SeMiBluegrass groups Lincoln County Process and the  all-female folk/roots band Stella, many readers of this blog are undoubtedly familiar with Sygit's powerful singing and rock-solid guitar work.  She also hosts a rare roots music radio show, Eclecticana, in the Lansing area and is tremendous solo performer as well.  Hard to categorize, her music at the holiday shows usually has a somewhat classic country vibe with driving guitar, poignant lyrics and killer harmonies.  Her selection this year, Home for Christmas, was no exception and was one of my favorite songs of the evening. 

The Timeless Talent of Frank Allison
During my college years in the mid-to late-80s, I fondly remember the music of Frank Allison and his band the Odd Socks.  No longer a bar-closing rocker, Allison has overcome the steady progress of time, and a severe vocal condition to bring his unique brand of holiday cheer to the Holiday show.  With an impish glint in his eye, and special "elf" glasses and hat, he presented two remarkable, original pieces of  Christmas music to the crowd.  Santa's Myth coupled Frank's gravely, yet remarkably warm vocals with a reggae-infused ukulele groove and some rubber-kneed dance moves that had the crowd "ho-ho-ho-ing" along as he sang.  With  costume change ("Shh!  Don't tell Santa.  This is a felony at the North Pole") and switching to slide guitar played dobro-style with Lowell George inspired Craftsman 5/16" socket for a slide, Allison told a somewhat melancholy tale of Santa with Ho Ho Ho and Here We Go.  Allison's performance this year somehow epitomized the joy and togetherness that Christmas means to so many.

Jess McComons Preaching "Love is Everything".
Closing out the first set was Jessican McComons, who somehow managed to transform Ariana Grande's pop hit Love is Everything into an instant Holiday Classic.  Aided in no small part by McComons' unbelievably powerful vocals, the cast of the show joined her on stage and took the crowd to church with a gospel-inspired background vocal.  Building on the pop-music vibe, Grand Rapids rapper Rick Chyme jumped on stage and, unbelievably, brought even more energy to the performance.  Later in the 2nd set, Chyme--fronting a funk-based rap groove featuring TJ Zindle's Wah-Pedal infused guitar work--brought the crowd to their feet answering his "Share That!" with "LOVE!".  Truly an inspirational performance, and a perfect message for this year's show.   A brief intermission followed the first set with an opportunity to meet many of the performers and visit the merchandise table.  As always, I find the perfect gift for the hard-to-shop for person on your list is the gift of local music.

Throwing Down with The Crane Wives
After kicking off the second set with an inspiring medley of Christmas instrumentals by the strings and percussion, Emilee Petersmark and Kate Pillsbury of The Crane Wives took the stage and showcased their unique and memorable approach to harmony singing.  I know that the Crane Wives usually perform as an electric-guitar driven rock band, but after hearing them at the Holiday Show I was blown away by their acoustic sounds and hope they find a way to incorporate that into what they do--it is fantastic!  In a stroke of genius, Erin suggested that Emilee and Kate cover Mr. Little Jeans' Dear Santa and their almost 50s Do-Whop guitar and swirling, dissonant and layered harmonies took a sweet holiday song and transformed it into a hard-edged, rock-n-roll classic.  Most importantly, it is obvious to the observer that these two love singing and making music together, and--like all great artists--that joy and respect for each other shows in their performance.

Lindsay Lou and the Horn Section--"Frosty"
Lindsay Lou kicked off her contribution to the show with a soulful version of  Frosty the Snowman.  Behind her uniquely bluegrassy, thumb and finger pick guitar work, Lindsay's smoky, sultry vocals set the stage for some incredible jazz improvisation by the horn section.  However, it was her cover of Ella Fitzgerald's What Are You doing New Year's Eve that proved to be the most memorable.  Channeling her inner torch-song diva, Lindsay showcased both her incredible vocal range, and  her complete command of dynamics and tone in her singing--starting softly and sweetly and slowly, agonizingly, building to a powerful and emotional climax.  It is easy to close you eyes and image you are listening to a wizened and seasoned vocal veteran, and not a young, self-taught bluegrass singer.  Lindsay is simply a gifted vocalist and I can't wait to see where here musical adventures take her.

Rocking Out with T.J. Zindle
As is traditional every year, there are several ensemble numbers featuring the house band and The Ragbirds that round out the show.  This year, solo performances by Erin and T.J. Zindle served as perfect bookends and counterpoints to the show.  T.J.'s original song Christmas in the Music Shop combined humorous storytelling with punk-rock guitar licks to celebrate the joy and happiness of the season, while Erin's touching and poignant nod to the pain of holidays without loved ones, Christmas In a Box, called on us to cherish those around us and reach out to those who are hurting.   Stage Manger Chris Good (as Santa) led the most SeMiBluegrass number of the evening with an almost pure bluegrass arrangement of Jack White's Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over, that allowed most of the guys to show off their instrumental chops on a song that would be right at home at any bluegrass festival campground jam.

The Joy and Emotion of Singing
It was the final three songs of the evening that most profoundly impacted me--each for a different reason.  The first was The Ragbirds cover of a traditional Christmas Hymn Rise Up Shepherd and Follow, featuring the entire cast on stage singing background.  Following Erin's lead the song continued to grow and swell until the vocals drown out the band, filling the room with  joyous harmonies that made the hair on my arms stand on end.  The power and emotion of the singing could fill the grand cathedrals of Europe.  In these small, intimate venues it washed over the crowd like a tidal wave, cleansing the soul and rejuvenating the spirit of all in attendance.

Arriving way too soon, the last song of the evening was Mary had a Baby, an ensemble piece that both lets the global groove of the band and ensemble singing of the cast shine.  Members of the audience, new and old alike join in and sing along during the chorus.  It is the perfect, celebratory song to end the show.

We all know that 2016 has been a brutal year for musicians.  We have lost so many of our musical icons.  It was therefore somehow perfectly fitting that the musicians chose Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah as their encore.  With the whole cast on stage, Frank Allison kicked off the song with his whispy and melancholy voice.  Chris Dupont took the next verse and added his pure, clean vocals.  Jake Sawicki added a little bluesy soul leading to Alex Holycross' metal-tinged outburst.   As the band continued to build the energy, Emilee and Kate of the Crane Wives contributed a powerful and moving duet during their verse.  Linsay Lou reached deep and took the audience from soft and sultry to proud and powerful leading into the whole cast singing the chorus with all their heart and soul.  With tears streaming down my cheeks and a sob in my throat, I did not want the song to end.  But when it did, I found myself transformed.  Somehow, in these difficult and chaotic times, this performance reminded me of all the good in the world;  that when all else fails, we have each other; and that music--especially live, local music--gives us hope.

Next year will be the 10th annual show.  Put it on your calendar and make it a point to go. It will profoundly impact you.  I promise.

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More Pictures from the Show Below:

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Right In Our Own Back Yard: Woodward Guitar Co. and MacMillan Guitars Demo Days at the Music Man

Novara and MacMillan Share some Secrets of the Trade
Sometimes the greatest thing in life are right there, under you nose, hiding in plain sight.  Nowhere is that more true that right her in Southeast Michigan.  Last Saturday, almost within walking distance of my house, three truly unique entities came together to create something magical.  At first glance, you might be tempted to think that this "Demo Day" was just a cliche' weekend sales gimmick from another, unassuming strip mall music shop, and you couldn't be further from the truth.  For starters, The Music Man in Brighton is far from another cookie-cutter guitar store--offering a great selection of high-quality guitars from all the best manufacturers (Fender, Martin, Taylor, Gibson and the list goes on) as well as exceptional customer service, knowledgable sales staff and talented instructors for persons--young and old--wanting to learn to play nearly any instrument.  There is something for everyone at "The Man".   Secondly, the two guitar makers showcasing their wares (Woodward Guitar Co. and MacMillan Guitars) produce not only superb, high-end guitars, but heirloom quality  instruments with a story worth telling--and both makers have a strong connections to SouthEast Michigan to boot!

This Home Became a New Guitar--Cool, Right?
The Woodward Guitar company owes it's start to detective and amateur woodworker Curt Novara making a trip to Reclaim Detroit in search of some wood to make furniture for his house.  For those not familiar, Reclaim Detroit specializes in salvaging building materials from blighted homes in Detroit that would otherwise be sent to the landfill.  As an amateur musician, Novara stumbled on a nice piece of old-growth Douglas Fir and realized that he could turn this piece of reclaimed timber into a great sounding electric guitar.  From those humble beginnings grew the Woodward Guitar Company offering a Les Paul inspired semi-hollowbodied "Standard" model and the Telecaster-inspired  solidbody "Telegraph" model.  An electric bass has recently joined the lineup as well.  The real standouts are the Telegraph models that feature reclaimed wood throughout, high-quality components and locally wound, custom pickups.  Traditional construction and classic nitrocellulose finishes give these guitars oodles of character, and Novara will work with the buyer to customize the builds to suit their playing style (just browse the website to see the depth and breadth of configurations he's already built!).  The coolest thing of all however--and what really gives these guitars personality and soul--is the Certificate of Authenticity that accompanies each guitar.  Along with a photo, you get the address and the story of the home the timber came from and how it was "reborn" in to the guitar.  Custom engraved heel-plates also feature a picture of the home on each guitar.   From twangy county-style chicken pickin', tone-dripping blues solos and even some Detroit-style funky rock-n-roll guitar riffs, these guitars sound GREAT.  If you're in the market for a one-of-a-kind guitar at a remarkably reasonable price, look to the Woodward Guitar company.  You won't be sorry.  A selection of Woodward Guitars are on display at the Music Man, as well as Motor City Guitars in Waterford  and Detroit Guitars in Birmingham. Or check out their website.

Sound Even Better Than They Look!
Also on display were the finely hand-crafted guitars of  Nashville luthier Marty MacMillan.  A Brighton area native, MacMillan made a name for himself building spectacular custom guitars, and has moved his operation to Mount Juliet Tennessee.  Returning to his roots, he brought five great guitars with him to show off.  These are beautiful instruments with woods picked not only for tonal quality, but for  beauty and character.  Like his binding, inlays and finishing, MacMillan eschews super-exotic woods and treatments, instead choosing simple elegance, immaculate construction and classic styling to set his guitars apart.  Most of the guitars he brought were "Orchestral" (OM) models (some with deeper, "dreadnought" depth) and, in the hands of some remarkably talented customers, sounded amazing.   These are sweet guitars producing the type of layered and complex tone you'd expect from guitars costing ten times more.  I got a chance to play the Maple dreadnought Marty brought with him.  The warm burst coloring on top and sides was exquisite, as was the classically understated herringbone binding.  This guitar would be right at home at any bluegrass jam.   As expected from a maple-bodied guitar, the tone was bright and clear, with subtly nuanced harmonics and crystal clear note separation.  I didn't expect the powerful bass tones this guitar produced--capable of standing up to any banjo player you know!  I have to admit, I loved this guitar.  Check out Marty's website for information on how to order yours today.

I've included some photos below.  Please feel free to check them out (or look for the whole gallery on the SeMiBluegrass Facebook page.