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, August 27, 2012

The Little Known History of Detroit Bluegrass

Guest Commentary by Hugh Fader

Editor's Note:  SeMiBluegrass welcomes submissions from all our readers.  Here's an excellent article by Hugh Fader on the History of Bluegrass in Detroit.   Good Job Hugh!

CKLW Press Photo: Sonny & Bobby Osborne, Jimmy Martin
When people think of Detroit music they usually think Motown or the early garage rock rumblings of The MC5 and The Stooges. Or possibly as the home of Jack White and location of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. What's not well known is that for a brief period during the 1950s, Detroit was also a hotbed of bluegrass activity. This is documented by Neil Rosenberg in Bluegrass: A History – a great book with loads of facts about bluegrass music. (And you know this is a serious book because there's a colon in the title.)

Sonny Osborne on WJR
The immigrants from Appalachia that poured into the city to work in the auto factories in early to mid-20th century brought their musical tastes with them. And this provided a ready-made audience for the music that was soon to be called bluegrass. Most notably, former Bluegrass Boy Jimmy Martin teamed up with The Osborne Brothers for The Lazy Ranch Barn Dance on WJR radio and CKLW television. Later, Jimmy and the Osbornes split. While still in Detroit, Jimmy formed his band The Sunny Mountain Boys.

Wayside Records Ad in Billboard Magazine
There was even a bluegrass record company headquartered in Detroit: brothers Wade and Wiley Birchfield's Wayside Records. The Birchfields were songwriters and players themselves and active on the Detroit bluegrass scene. In fact, Wade wrote Jimmy Martin's first single “Hit Parade of Love.” In his book Rosenberg shows a small ad for Wayside Records that appeared in a 1957 issue of Billboard. There are two things I find interesting about this. First, the ad is subtitled “Music Blue Grass Style.” This is one of the first documented commercial uses of the term bluegrass. Second, the ad gives the address of the record company (the Birchfield's house) as 1298 St. Jean Avenue, Detroit 14, Mich. Sadly, Google Street View shows that this is now a vacant lot off of Jefferson Avenue

Wayside Records Logo?

It's really great that we have a growing family of bluegrass musicians here in the Detroit area. And hats off to John Bayerl for SemiBluegrass.com and his other tireless promotional work. As a born and raised Detroiter, I love that there are venues inside and outside of the city limits to hear this great music.


Rosenberg, Neil V. (1993), Bluegrass: A History.  University of Illinois Press.

Billboard Magazine, April 16, 1955 article discussing Osborne/Martin on Detroit radio and TV

Note: this is a link to the record company's google map

Link on Banjo Hangout to Sonny Osborne identifying photo from CKLW

Link to site where I found Wayside Records logo. Not positive it's the same Wayside.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Fantastic Festival on Harsen's Island!

Festival:  Harsen's Island Bluegrass Festival

Lots of great SeMiBluegrassfestivals this year...but this one could be my favorite.  Not 100% bluegrass, but did have the copious amounts of "the Three Bs--Beer, BBQ, and Bluegrass."

Concert Promoter Kristin talks to the boys backstage
This year marked the 3rd Harsen's Island Bluegrass Festival put on by Schoolhouse Grille owners Kristin and her husband.  They are blessed with a beautiful field in their back yard and make excellent use of it for the festival.  There was plenty of space to park, lots of sunny grassy areas to set up chairs, and ample seating under the shade tents as well.  The beer tent was well supplied with bottled beer, great wine and awesome microbrews (watch out for the Black IPA--deadly).  There were several very cool art vendors set up, including a local found glass artist who was simply amazing.  The Schoolhouse Grille provides the food...and it's terrific!  Walking onto the grounds to see a couple of bone-in  steamship rounds of beef rotating on spits over charcoal could be one of the sexiest food sightings I've had all summer.  Breakfast at the restaurant the next day was even better.

The Hillrays
Chasin' Steel
The bluegrass was terrific as well.  The Hillrays from Ann Arbor got the crowd going with their swingy, western-influenced take on classic bluegrass. Chasin' Steel drove all the way from Marquette to melt the crowd's faces with their high-energy "bluegrass with a rock-n-roll edge".  This was the first time in a couple years that Chasin' Steel has made trek down to the SeMi area and the fans still love them.  They are looking to entrench themselves in the SeMiBluegrass Scene with an appearance at Bluegrass Night @ the Circus bar in a couple weeks (August 29th).  You won't want to miss that! The hard-driving, made-in-Michigan sounds of Dexter's Lonesome County finished the crowd off and sent them home smiling.  Every time LC plays, they get better.  The mix of  killer instrumentals and great new originals is really coming together to form something special.
George Heritier wowing the crowd.

The Motor City Melodies
Their was definitely a SeMiBluegrass element to the festival as well.  Local cover artist "Jammin' Joe Vance" entertained the crowd with his powerful voice and guitar licks. A group of young ladies called the Motor City Melodies took turns singing lead and harmony to some popular pop and country songs.  Not even remotely bluegrass...but very cool to see some kids learning the music biz by getting up on stage and doing it.  Ann Arbor legend David Mosher and Teresa (sometimes the Pine Warblers) gave us a stunning set of dual-vocal harmony songs.  And George Heritier from Oak Park shared his clever songwriting, cool and entertaining lyrics and hot guitar/harmonica riffs.  He got the best round of applause for the whole festival!  I am a huge fan of acoustic blues and folk music and George is one of the best I have heard.  I would make it a point to go see him ANY time he plays, it will be well worth the effort!

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Listening Festival

Festivals:  Milan Bluegrass Festival 2012

One of the great things about Michigan is the fantastic variety of music festivals every summer.  It seems like there's some sort of festival going every weekend!  Perhaps this is why many festivals have evolved distinct personalities:  The Kendallville Festival is THE pickers' festival...the WMBA Mayfest is the FIRST festival of the season...and the Wilder Festivals (Charlotte and Milan) are where you go to see the BEST acts.

Rhonda Vincent meets the future of SeMiBluegrass
I always make a point of attending the Milan festival (since it's in the heart of SeMiBluegrass country--I feel like it's our "home" festival).  The host venue (KC Campground) is a nice little campground, clean, well maintained and staffed with hard-working and caring people to make sure you enjoy your stay.  There's plenty of shade, both indoor and portable restroom facilities, and a large beach/playground/swimming hole for the kids.  The center of the campground (with camping on all sides) is a large field with a stage on one end and a large pavilion in the center that becomes the festival grounds.  There is plenty of grass area to set up your chair and even a good deal of shade near the stage.  There is always a decent sound system, though it seemed to me that they had "upgraded" this year, as the sound was fantastic all over the campground.  In fact, due to light rain most of the day Thursday and Friday, my daughter and I sat at a picnic table under a canopy on our campsite and listened to many of the acts from a distance.

Festival Favorites Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out
Traditionally, Thursday is devoted to smaller and regional acts, with Friday and Saturday building up though national and "A List" acts, culminating in the Saturday headliners.  Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out play their traditional Friday sets, complete with a picnic dinner and their annual, rousing game of "cornhole" with one of the local families.  As usual they were fantastic and it is easy to see how they earned (and deserved) nine IBMA nominations this year!  Well rehearsed stage banter, tight -three and four-part harmonies, Moore's quintessentially bluegrass vocals and the ridiculous talent of Wayne Benson on mandolin/mandola are a pure joy to watch. 

Junior and the Boys Getting It Done In The Rain!
In an era of dwindling attendance and aging fan bases, it was good to see the concert area nearly full for many of the acts.  In fact, there were a LOT more young families and tons of children there this year.  Several of the acts mentioned that Michigan fans were diehard fans, and this was put to the test Friday when Junior Sisk & Rambler's choice showed up ON THE WRONG DAY!  The event organizers managed to squeeze them in during dinner and a late night set to close the day.  Unfortunately, it was fairly cold and raining during both sets.  However, most of the seats were full of raincoat and umbrella wielding fans.  The band responded to these hardy fans with two amazing sets.  Junior is a great lead singer and rhythm guitar player who really knows how to embrace the traditional style.  The high, lonesome vocals are powerful and clear.  And nobody works the single mic as well as Rambler's choice.  While some might ignore the bands constant swaying and fidgeting, it is obvious to those who watch them that they are subtly controlling the rise and fall of their sound, mixing and equalizing it to perfection.  They really stole the show Friday.

Audie Blaylock and Redline.  Hard Driving.  'Nuff Said.
After a long night of jamming with a couple of the infamous "big" jams at Milan (yes...there is jamming there...and it's damn good), we woke on Saturday to clearing weather and a little bit of sun.  There were a lot of great acts scheduled.  My daughter and I caught sets by Rhonda Vincent (solid) and the Grascals (entertaining), then ate lunch and got set up for two of my favorite acts.  New Found Road used to play on Thursday and made the most of their "promotion" to Saturday this year.  They were tight, played some killer instrumentals and were very entertaining.  I was going to call them the best act of Saturday (they were really very good) when Audie Blaylock and his band Redline took the stage.  Great young pickers, Audie's timeless voice and enthusiasm, the killer mandolin licks of Jessie Brock and Audie's unique, machine gun style rhythm playing really define the word "drive" in bluegrass.  This is an amazing band.  I was afraid to blink in case missed something.  Go see them.  Really.  Do it.

Guitar Raffle for the Pickin' on CF festival at KC Campgound
 This year, Milan wins my award for best vendors of the year.  They have the usual bluegrass t-shirt trailer and a great local music shop with lots of entry level instruments, picks, strings, etc.  I saw at least six kids walking around with starter guitars and mandolins, so I assume they had a great festival.  The food's pretty good too.  The ice cream shack didn't seem too busy...until they added hot coffee!  There was a local non-profit hosting a pulled pork dinner on Saturday (I tried a sample...it was excellent).  But I really look forward to a beans and cornbread dinner from the campground snackshop each year.  Both the green beans with ham and potatoes, and slow cooked pinto beans are to die for.  Nothing better after a long day of listening to music and getting ready for yet another all night picking session.  In closing, make it a point to check out the Milan Bluegrass Festival next year, it's a great event with fantastic people.  See you there!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Best Band of the Summer

Band Profile:  Back Forty

In my opinion, there is nothing better than good live music.  And I see a LOT of live music.  So it is rare that a band sneaks up and grabs me like Ypsilanti's own Back Forty.  

Back Forty Getting Their Groove On
 First, I should admit that I blatantly stole the images and bio information for this article from the band's website, www.backfortymusic.com , and Facebook page.  They are both very well done, so check them out.

I grew up in Ann Arbor, literally a block from the Ypsilanti border, and graduated from Eastern Michigan University--twice--so it's always fund to discover homegrown bands, especially "SeMiBluegrass" bands.  I stumbled on these guys at Bell's Brewery where I had gone to catch Dragon Wagon's set.  Wow!  When I walked in, these guys were in the middle of a high-energy, infectious groove that had every face in the place glued to the stage.  It was impossible to really focus on anything else while they were playing.  I'm normally a fan of more traditional bluegrass/newgrass, so the inclusion of a drum set and (mostly) electric instrumentation usually turns me off--but not this time, these guys are GOOD! 

Love This T Shirt!
From their website: "Back Forty is a staple of the Midwest live music scene. Over the last 5 years Back Forty has played just about every venue and major festival in Michigan and choice venues throughout the Midwest. The Band has also recorded and released two full length albums and is working on their third.

The Band is comprised of Dan Ripke on guitar, Andy Benes on mandolin and guitar, John Yax on drums, Colin Murphey on fiddle, and Jeff Friesen on bass. The band is also joined regularly by their three piece horn section and a slew of guest musicians."

Deep in the Groove
So, why do I like them so much?  First, they understand the groove.  Not worrying about being classified to a single genre, they play what the crowd wants to hear, and inevitably get every face smiling, every foot tapping and most of the dance floor swinging. They bill themselves as "Funkgrass", but I hear more "Country Blues", "Folk Rock", and "Reggae-infused Jam Band?"

Next, I love the mix of traditional bluegrass instrumentation (fiddle, mandolin) with electric (guitar, bass) and killer drum riffs.  Without this eclectic mix of instrumentation, the band would have a hard time carrying off their diverse mix of original tunes.  Their songs bring a good mix of bar-band fodder with poignant, timely songs and lyrics about living and surviving in the world today.  Lastly, I LOVE that the band posts all their live shows online for download .  With thousands of tracks spanning at least 6 years it's cool to hear the band grow and mature.  I'm completely blown away at the quality of these live recordings.  While an audiophile might not care for them on high fidelity equipment, they're more than good enough for iPod/Digital listening...in fact...they're as good or better than a lot of professionally mastered music I've got in my collection.  Can't wait to see these guys live again, they make my day!  You should make it a point to catch them at your earliest possible convenience.

Want to read more band and show reviews?  Like to contribute an article?  Like us on Facebook, or submit materials via email SeMiBluegrass@gmail.com. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Just Plain Fun

Show Review:  The Waynewood Boys at The Steak Hut

And then sometimes, you find cool music in the darndest places! 

Live Bands!  Well...Alright!
I've run a bluegrass jam at my place for a couple years ago, and quite a few musicians have found their way through my door.   At one time or another 3/4 of the Waynewood boys have jammed with me, so when they told me about this gig...in a "greasy spoon" diner...in Detroit....I admit I was somewhat hesitant to believe it could be worth the 45 minute drive.  However, they're good guys, and good friends, so I loaded up Brooke (my daughter and "concert buddy") and gave it a shot. At very worst, we were going to get to spend some time together over breakfast.  Well, I must confess, it turned out to be a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon and I enjoyed myself immensely.

During the week, the Steak Hut serves typical cheap breakfast and quick lunches to mostly blue collar workers in Downtown Detroit (1551 W. Lafayette Blvd).  However, on Sundays, in addition to great breakfast specials,  they offer up live acoustic bands playing for tips during their otherwise slow weekend business hours.  For a mere $4.95 I got a VERY good breakfast platter of eggs, American fries, bacon, ham, sausage and toast.  Classic diner fare, done they way it should be...and delicious. 

It Takes a Team to Pull of a Breakfast This Good!
The wait staff and cooks are friendly, attentive and right out where you can see them.  Beside keeping my coffee cup full, they circulated constantly among the customers, chatting with long-time regulars and introducing themselves to newcomers.  This led to a very welcoming and inviting atmosphere.  Perhaps 12-15 seats at the counter, several small booths and a couple tables make up the entire service area.  The small space, coupled with the hard-surfaced diner setup meant that no amplification was necessary for an acoustic band.  Even the vocals sound great in the room.  This is my daughter's new favorite restaurant, because they serve M&M pancakes (a delicious riff on the classic chocolate chip cake!)

The Waynewood Boys
The Waynewood Boys are not your typical, high-octane, mile-a-minute bluegrass combo.  Instead, they offer up a smooth and soulful mix of bluegrass standards and rock/folk covers perfect for casual listening while eating.  Their opening set included (at one point) the Band's the Wait, Bill Monroe's Blue Moon of Kentucky and a great version of the instrumental Cajun Fiddle.  The band definitely has a cool groove, and an easy lope to their music that--like the M&M pancakes--is somehow familiar and comforting, yet full of occasional delicious surprises.  The stripped down vocals are exceptional not for their harmonies (which aren't bad), but by the infectious smiles and near giggling enthusiasm with which they are delivered.  This band obviously has a ton of fun doing what they do and it shows.  Catch them next time they play (and drop a few bucks in the tip jar). 

Right Under Your Nose

Festivals: Brighton American Music Festival

Sometimes, the coolest things in life are found in your own back yard.  I found a hidden gem in the Brighton Americana Festival, 10 minutes from my house!

The Flutter and Wow.  Who knew?
This  music festival was (barely) on my radar.  Even though it was in my home town, I figured it would be another collection of aging classic rock cover bands in a downtown park.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  The Greater Brighton Area Chamber of Commerce and 2 Stones Events have teamed up to create one of the finest downtown events I have ever attended.  Coupled with a large sidewalk sale in the barricaded downtown business district, and complete with an incredible children's "bounce house" area and some killer food vendors (including a terrific barbeque house) a very family-friendly, small-town feeling, summer weekend of live outdoor music was born.  I took my 9-year old daughter and we had  a ball!

Ann Arbor's Dragon Wagon
We arrived early and paid our ridiculously low entry fee ($5 for me, kids free!) and entered the concert and beer garden area.  For those not interested in paying the entry, the festival offered a cool, and rather unique feature.  Located all over the downtown area were speaker stands, broadcasting the live music from the stage to all corners of the festival grounds.  Very cool.  Since we had some time to kill, we grabbed some seats and checked out the band on stage: Detroit-based husband and wife band The Flutter and Wow.  While the drum set, pedal steel guitar and song list pegged them as squarely alt-country, the inclusion of a doghouse bass, dreadnaught guitar and killer harmonies was just "SeMiBluegrass" enough for my tastes.  I loved this band!  Very entertaining.  Easy to listen to and very high energy.  Go see them.

Steppin' In It hits the stage
As night fell and we narrowly skirted the torrential rains that soaked mid-Michigan, Ann Arbor's Dragon Wagon took to the stage for their set.   I am used to this band in their energetic, somewhat baudy, bar-band persona and was pleasantly surprised by the polished, professional way they took to the festival stage.  A couple more traditional bluegrass tunes filled out their mostly-original set list.  Outside of a noisy bar, I was captivated by the subtle details of their instrumental work that often go unnoticed.  Given the tremendous sound system, I could hear every nuance of every note and really got an appreciation of the varied musical backgrounds this band draws from.  Is if bluegrass?  Folk rock?  Irish fiddle tunes?  I don't know...but it's awesome.  The more I see this band, the more I appreciate them.

Lansing's very own SeMiBluegrass band Steppin' In It closed the show and the festival with their unique take on Americana music (Harmonica, accordion and trombone?  Why not!)  Unfortunately, a long day of swimming and playing with friends began to take their toll on my daughter and we only stayed for a couple tunes.  This band understands a "groove" and really caught the fairly large crowd's attention.  As we left, we were amazed at the sea of bodies we saw swaying back and forth to the infections rhythms and melodies booming off the stage.  I really need to go see these guys at their weekly gig at the Green Door in Lansing.  Watch for a future show profile.

Getting it Done Live

Festival Review: Marine City Music Festival

It's festival season.  I'm encouraged by the number of small communities starting to offer summer music events (often featuring great, live acoustic music).

Best Festival Shirt Design So Far This Summer.
Hankering for an outdoor music fix, I braved stop lights, traffic accidents and non-stop construction last Saturday as I traveled to Marine City (located at the north end of Lake St. Clair, at the base of the "thumb") for the Marine City Music Festival.  Located on the shore of the lake next to the Ferry dock, this small festival was remarkably well put together.  A professional stage and large shady tent  with plenty of table/chair seating made for comfortable viewing, despite the high humidity and mid 90s temperatures.  There was a great food area with on-site barbeque, plenty of cool beer and soft drinks, and ample, clean portable restrooms.  The event organizers were present, and easily spotted in their cool, yellow tie-died shirts (one of the best festival shirt designs of the year!).  There was plenty of parking (including "reserved" spaces for the band--a first!) and the food was excellent

Mustard's Retreat

I originally planned to catch the southeast Michigan sounds of local band, Lonesome County whose set was sandwiched between Ann Arbor Roots/Folk icons Mustard's Retreat and  the headliners, Buffett cover band Air Margaritaville.  The fact that little-ole Marine City pulled in this type of "A" list talent speaks a lot about the event organizers and the state of live music in small-town Michigan.  Arriving early, I got to hear most of  the opening set by Mustard's retreat.  They covered a lot of the "chain gang" folk classics and old-time ballads so crucial to the formation of the bluegrass sound.  Their mix of acoustic and electric instrumentation, solo and harmony vocals and some cool a' capela work made for a truly enjoyable listening experience.

Making the Best of a Bad Situation.
Lonesome County took the stage right on time and quickly got set up.  The front-of-house sound guy was right on the ball, quickly checking the 5 instrument and 3 vocal mics and getting the mix right in record time (too much reverb for my tastes, but that seems to be the "in" thing this summer).  Unfortunately, the monitor guys just couldn't get things right.  After 15 minutes of juggling cabinets, switching microphones and cords and a lot of head scratching, the band first offered to play acoustically (which would have been fine given the tent setting) a then just launched into their set without monitors (which didn't matter--as I mentioned, the front-of-house sound was terrific).  Unfortunately, despite numerous request from the band to "stop messing with the sound" and "we'll play with it as-is" the sound crew kept fiddling with their equipment (complete with uncountable "pops" and "snaps" as live cables were plugged/unplugged during the perfomance) even switching out a microphone IN THE MIDDLE OF A DOBRO SOLO!  Yes, that's right, they took the microphone off stage while the musician was playing his  solo into that very microphone!  This is inexcusably rude at best, and horribly unprofessional at worst.

However, despite the sound problems, I really enjoyed the Lonesome County set.  You really have to see this band live to appreciate how good hard-driving, traditional bluegrass can be.  Their set list of bluegrass standards and "hippygrass" originals has really come together this summer, helped along by some stunning harmony vocal arrangements.  They had the audience's attention from the first note, and even got the (mostly older) crowd on their feet and dancing.  Each song ended to enthusiastic applause and assorted "wows".  This was a great little festival and a terrific band.  A great way to spend a summer weekend afternoon.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Tale of Two Shows

Show Review: Dragon Wagon CD Release Party at the Blind Pig (Ann Arbor)

Sometimes it's not about the music.  I saw two great shows last night.  They couldn't be more different, but I really enjoyed them both.

The 11-member Tedeschi Trucks Band at Hill Auditorium
A couple friends had an extra ticket to see the Tedeschi Trucks Band perform at Hill Auditorium.  I've always been a blues fan as well as a bluegrass fanatic, and Susan Tedeschi's solo blues work has always been on my radar.  However, the 11-member, jam-band influenced TTB was  something I didn't expect.  This is generally not my favorite genre, but I found it mysteriously enjoyable. Once I got past the medieval torture devices that pass for seats in the Mezzanine (easily fixed by standing at the rear of the auditorium), and a superbly talented, yet uninspiring opening act (sorry...not my cup of tea) I focused on the real star of the show--Hill Auditorium.  I hadn't seen a show there since my high school band concerts and had forgotten the magical acoustics of this grand old venue.  Closing my eyes and listening to the warble and swell of that incredible Hammond B3 organ cranked through a sweet, big, old Leslie speaker cabinet as it reflected down from the ceiling of the hall, engulfing the crowd in rich, velvety waves of sound,  took and entertaining and majestic show and transformed it to something spiritual for the listener.  I don't think I would have liked this show nearly as much had they played the Palace, Cobo or Pine Knob (no...it will NEVER be DTE to me).  Hill Auditorium is a place where serious music fans go to seriously listen to seriously good music.  It is the best.

Dragon Wagon.  As Seen From a Crowded Dance Floor.
After the show, we drifted over to the Dragon Wagon CD Release Party at the Blind Pig.  Completely different show, totally different crowd, and just as thoroughly enjoyable.  No need to worry about seating at the Pig (there really isn't any), but the beer is cheap, the bartenders excellent, and the sound system remarkably good for a bar..  Unlike Hill Auditorium, the crowd was there to do more than listen: they were there to sing along, dance, sweat, and generally hitch a ride as the bands whipped them into a frenzy.  I've seen these guys more than a few times, and--while never lacking for energy--they were definitely inspired and bringing their "A" game Friday night!  Well set up by opening acts Match by Match (bummed I didn't get there in time for this set...does anyone have photos, want to write it up?), my new favorite funkgrass band Back Forty (who absolutely KILLED it--again!) and EmCee Nickie P who kept the crowd energized, the gang from Dragon Wagon took the stage and tore through the songs from their new album in order.  With the last-call crowd nicely primed, they closed the show with a flurry of original bar-band classics (definitely not for the PG crowd) including a cover of Push It, their party-anthem Smoke and Wine and a brawling, inspired rendition of F*** You I'm Drunk. 

All the bands I saw tonight are great .  (Hey...I don't go see bad music!).   But when a great band hits the stage in that perfect venue, something happens.  Something magical.  A bond forms between the band and the audience and we are transported to a place where music is king, and we're all a part of the show; hanging on every note, and singing along with every verse.  Time stops, our cares vanish and we live--together--in the music.  Thanks, I loved it all!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Yet Another Hot Band and Cool Bluegrass Venue

Show Review:  Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys weekly residency at the Wolverine State Brewing Co. 

Wow!  What a terrific couple weeks of SeMiBluegrass! (Like us on Facebook or follow us by email!).  On a whim, I headed out Tuesday night to the Wolverine State Brewing Company in Ann Arbor.  Literally right around the corner from my Dad's place, I'd walked by there a million times and never noticed it before.  Who knew a pretty good microbrewery and great live music venue was so close at hand?  Live music that night was supplied by Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys, playing their weekly gig at the brewery.  Both the bar and the band were MUCH more than expected.

The "Sampler"--always a good idea (but pretty big here!)
First...the bar/beer.  Wow!  Basically a cinder block building, they've managed to set up a really comfortable and inviting bar.  I LOVED the hot-dog cart  guy set up outside (what a great example of two businesses helping each other out).  There was abundant outdoor seating, lots of room at the bar, and plenty of tables for friends to sit, enjoy a beer and listen to the band.

Having never tasted their beer, I ordered the "sampler"--10 small beers for $13.50 (this is usually the best value at a microbrewery).  However, I am used to the "normal" 4oz sample of each beer, and the Wolverine pours a 6oz  (or is it 8!) glass of each of their hand-crafted beers.  I'd definitely recommend splitting the sampler with a friend if you want to walk/drive home (as opposed to crawl/crash).  Based on my brother-in-law's theory that "there are two kinds of microbreweries--those that make 10 colors of Bud Light and those that loose money, I prepared to be disappointed and dove right in.  The first three beers (an American, dark and amber lager) were definitely "type 1" beers.  Happily, the rest of the rack proved to be pretty good, with the "Green Thumb IPL" really standing out.  Friendly bartenders, an impecibably clean facility,  and a diverse, mellow crowd combine to make for an enjoyable evening.  My only negative observation was is that there's only two "single seat" bathrooms (one male, one female) so there was usually a line for the restroom.

Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys
I had first heard the Flatbellys when they played a Bluegrass Bash set with our buddies, Chasin' Steel in Marquette.  I liked their groove up there.  However, I love Linday Lou and the Flatbellys!  (Readers may notice that I usually really like most of bands I review.  Rest assured this is due to the fact that I don't usually see any really bad bands, and wouldn't write up any who were.)  By any measure, this was a great live show.

Lindsay Lou has a complex and powerful voice that easily cuts through the murmur and babble of a bar setting and really sets off the sound of the band.  The whole band was tight, rides an upbeat, driving groove and has obviously come together during their busy tour season.  They've apparently also worked out the intricacies of making their PA sound good inside a cement block building (can anyone say "locker room"?).  All the instruments could be heard and the overall mix was rich and melodic--without being overpowering (I hate being in a bar where you either can't hear the band, or have to shout to hear the guy next to you).  The vocals were crystal clear, and the harmonies spot on.  I loved their mix of original tunes and bluegrass standards done with an old time / swing / jazzy feel to them.  The standout song (to me) was their cover of Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out's My Angeline--an updated version of the classic Angelina Baker.  Not a pure cover (who could ever approach the perfection of Wayne Benson's Mandola part on that song), the Flatbelly's mix of darker, low vocals with a touch of swing in the chorus is really, really, really superb!

Nothing better than "With Special Guests...."
The coolest part of the night (well, the first set anyways, as I had to leave early--"school night" and all) was when the Flatbellys called up some special guests.  First was Peter "Madcat" Ruth, an incredible Ann Arbor-based harmonica player I was familiar with from his appearances at the Marquette Area Blues Fest in the past (definitely NOT a SouthEast Michigan (SeMi) nor bluegrass even, but a fantastic Labor Day festival none-the-less).  Instead of playing through an amp, he played "acoustic style" through a vocal mic and it sounded fantastic!  I'll admit, I'm a fan of the harmonica in blues AND in bluegrass (Flatt & Scruggs anyone?), and Madcat is one of the best.  I was pleased to hear he recorded at least one track on the band's upcoming album.  Before the end of the set, the band also called up a trumpet player (Serious talent here--U of M music student?  Didn't catch his name, sorry.   Update: Ross Huff of local band the MacPodz!  Thanks to the anonymous poster below.).  The new 7-piece ensemble launched into something that started out a bluegrass instrumental,  moved into a 40s era vocal torch song, metamorphosed to a Spanish-tinged jazz piece, and then something pure jam-band...and awesome.  I was too mesmorized to take a good picture, so this one will have to do.  Overall, I found this to be a very cool venue for live bluegrass, and Linsay Lou and the Flatbellys to be very entertaining and well worth the effort to catch them live--anywhere and everywhere they play!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

More Than Great Beer at Bell's!

Show Review:  Dragon Wagon wsg Back Forty at Bell's Eccentric Cafe (Kalamazoo, MI)

While not exactly a Southeast Michigan venue (it's a 2 hour drive from my Brighton home), Bell's Brewery in Kalamazoo has really come on the scene as an excellent place to see live bluegrass.  I'd been meaning to go for a long time, and found myself with some time on my hands this weekend, so I loaded up the car and made the trek.  Boy, am I glad I did!

view from stage.jpg
This construction photo gives you a feel for the space.
For a mere $6.00 cover charge, I was able to see not one, but TWO, great live acts in a fantastic setting.  In order to accommodate great live music (especially acoustic music), the management at Bell's apparently tore out the back wall of the bar and has added on a large, spacious, and warmly appointed back room.  There is a lot of comfortable seating (even a second floor balcony with a great view) as well as a spacious dance floor in front of a world class stage.  What can I say about the sound system?  It is probably the best I have heard in any bar setting (rivaling even the sound at the Ark in Ann Arbor).  The bar stocks a large variety of Bell's beers, as well as assorted soft drinks.  Even the immaculately clean bathrooms are well thought out with multiple stalls, a large hand washing station and lots of room.

Back 40--Bad Picture, Great Band!
I arrived as Ypsilanti's "Back Forty" (www.backfortymusic.com) took the stage for an electrified funkgrass set.  I had never seen them before, and was in for a treat.  I didn't know what to expect from a "semi" bluegrass act featuring a drum set and all electric instruments (bass, guitar, mando, fiddle).  They blew me away!  While not traditionally bluegrass, their set is definitely grounded in the newgrass tradition.  Excellent original and cover songs, coupled with superb musical talent, a driving rhythm section that pulls the audience into the groove and great stage presence make this a very entertaining group.  I intend to catch them when they play live closer to home--as often as I can!

Dragon Wagon Doing What They Do Best!
After a short break to reset the stage, Ann Arbor's "Dragon Wagon" (www.dragonwagonband.com) took the stage.  They were definitely in their element and had the crowd on the dance floor from the very first note.  I've heard these guys (and gal) a few times previously, so was blown away by how good they sounded over the Bell's PA system.  You could hear every note of every instrument.  Even at full volume, the instrumentation and voices rang clear over Fritz's driving drums.  Likewise, I was intrigued by the awesome, full sound bass player Mike was getting from his "ukelele bass" (you HAVE to see this to believe it).  The band worked through almost two hours of music with a single 5-minute break, all set to the flashing lights and booming thunder of a torrential summer storm.  Their unique sound really fits their mostly-original music selection and keeps the crowd engaged for the entire show.  I was highly amused by their cover of Salt-N-Peppa's "Push It"...lyrics and sounds that should NOT be coming out of a bunch of dorky white kids, yet somehow kind of cool!

Overall, I loved this venue and loved the show!  Even though the two hour drive there was bad, and the drive home at 2am was worse, I wouldn't hesitate to make the drive again to catch a cool, local act.  I know some of the brewhouses / bars in the SeMi area are starting to host these kinds of gigs--I only hope they catch on and thrive.  

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Kicking Off a Long Fourth of July Week

Show Review: WAAM Freedom Festival

 When Independence Day falls on a Wednesday, it always seems to create TWO holiday weekends that bookend a long week of celebration--and this year seems to fit that pattern to a "T".  I started the holiday ball rolling on Saturday, June 30th by taking my 9-year old daughter to the WAAM Freedom Festival (AKA "WAAMStock") in Whitmore Lake.
Perfect Weather for Live Outdoor Music!

On a personal note, I definitely prefer to keep my music and my politics separate.  It seems to me that, regardless of where on the political spectrum you fall, taking a stand will inevitably alienate half of your fan base!  By no means does my review of this event constitute my support of this or any other political cause, or of any of the organizations supporting such causes.  It is about the music, PERIOD! With that said, once you got past the one-sided political hard-sell at this event, it was a pretty groovy little mini-festival with a whole lot to offer.

Local Band Lonesome County Opens the Festivities
First, the music:  WAAMStock offered the very best in live, local music.  I showed up to watch local bluegrass band Lonesome County kick off the show with their killer, high-energy bluegrass set.  It is rare that an acoustic act sounds good through a sound system designed for electric rock bands, but the boys in LC really pulled it off.  Following them were George Bedard and the Kingpins (Rockabilly), the Washtenaw Big Band (30s era jazz/swing), the Shelter Dogs (Swing and R&B) and the Witch Doctors (Classic Rock & Blues).  A great variety of live music for only $10!

In between bands, this event had a surprising array of the things I like best:  Great BBQ from not one, but TWO, fantastic local restaurant.  Cold beer and soft drinks at reasonable prices were available for puchase (and really necessary given the 90+ degree weather).  The event organizers had a large grassy area in front of the stage perfect for dancing, or setting up your lawn chairs to watch the bands.  In addition, several large tents provided ample tables and chairs with a great view of the stage for those seeking a place to eat, or just to get out of the sun.  Basic amenities included ample portable outhouses, easy in-and-out parking and lots of volunteers willing to assist.

A very professional stage and sound system.
The event coincides with the annual fireworks display over Whitmore Lake.  Those who stayed through the end of the event were treated to one of the largest and best run fireworks shows in Southeast Michigan (Although, due to the huge fireworks crowds and numerous road construction projects, the traffic afterwards is always a nightmare--another reason we left before it got dark).  Overall, if you can ignore the political nature of the event, this is a great place to catch live outdoor music.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What an Awesome Festival

Everyone always says “you HAVE to go to Kendallville”…and they’re RIGHT!  The Northern IndianaBluegrass Association puts on one heck of a festival—and they do it twice a year (Memorial and Labor Day weekends)!

Home Sweet Home
I don’t know where to start.  First…it’s only a pleasant 2-3 hour drive from SEMI to Kendallville.  Truly, this festival is a jewel practically in our own back yard.  From the moment I pulled up the NIBA volunteers went out of their way to help me.  Even though the festival is a steal at only $25 (with free camping!), they will give you another $2 discount if you belong to ANY other bluegrass association.  There was ample space to park (although, the premier—read “shady”—spots go quickly) and even electric and water hookup for your camper.  By Friday night, most of the hookup sites were gone, but campers kept flocking in, setting up on just about every inch of grass!

A Killer Old Tyme Jam at Kendallville
The amenities are pretty good.  Plenty of indoor and portable restroom facilities, a “midway” with all kinds of food, snacks and treats and an army of NIBA volunteers drives around in golf carts offering taxi service for free (which was a blessing in the oppressive midday heat).  The stage was located centrally, with both open, and covered seating areas (small bleachers, but most “bring their own” chairs).  The sound system was small, but impressive.  Plenty loud to hear the bands while they played, it didn’t blast all over the campground.   A great lineup of local and regional acts provided plenty of opportunity to hear great bluegrass.  I particularly liked the Hillbenders' take on modern grass, but was blown away by Michigan’s own Detour Bluegrass who flat out rocked their set and stole the whole show.  I saw lots of kids and young families and found the festival very dog friendly as well. 

My Aspiring Picker
Then there’s the picking.  From sunup to sundown, there is an unbelievable amount of picking going on.  Some of the best picking in the campground was found at what seemed like (and might have been) hundreds of small jams at campsites throughout the festival.  From old tyme, to traditional bluegrass, to newgrass, Cajun and gospel grass, it was all there.  Pickers of all abilities were welcomed with open arms and the jam goes on until almost dawn. 

Other commitments will keep me from attending the Labor day festival, but I will NEVER miss going to Kendallville again…it is a GREAT festival! (and you should go to).

Possibly the World's Best Capo

Product Review: BMF Capos

The problem with playing guitar is that, once you’ve bought a couple good guitars, there’s not really that much more to buy:  Strings?  Picks?  A strap?  A Capo?  Well…for me…lots of capos.  Once I figured out that a capo was indispensible in bluegrass jams (Yes…I know I could play bar chords, but I like the open sound, and simplicity of just capoing up to the right key).  The problem is…I have large, wide hands that either knock capos out of the way, or simply can’t fit up tight to the capo for those pesky C and F chord shapes. 

The BMF High Precision Guitar Capo
In my search for the right capo, I bought a lot of good capos, each with it’s pros and cons.  The old-school elastic capo was slim and stayed out of the way, but just wasn’t durable, and tended to slip out of place.  I bought (and still use around the house) a Kyser capo, perfect for quick changes, but it really gets in the way (and seems to pull my guitar more sharp than most).  The Shubb worked great if I put it on the guitar upside down, but still wore a sore spot in the lower, meaty part of my hand at jam session.  The Paige capos were pretty much ideal (low profile and easy to use/store) but I seemed to constantly knock them loose, causing them to drop to the floor. 

The Perfect Accessory for your BMF Capo
Then, I found the BMF capo while shopping one day at Elderly Instruments in Lansing.  I was intrigued by its rugged design and classic engineering. Although fairly expensive at $99, I sucked it up and bought one...and boy, was I glad I did!  It was slim enough to stay out of my way, but rock solid once screwed down.   I bought one…and never looked back.  As long as you fit the capo right on top of the fret, it does not alter your tuning.  Once snugly fit to the neck, it never moves.  Made of high quality stainless steel, it is as shiny as the day I got it—even after more than a year of daily use.  My one complaint was that the plastic sleeve is fairly soft and tends to wear out.  Then, one day, lo and behold, Elderly started offering replacement sleeves (and only a buck!).  Perfection!  I will never use any other capo.  Hmm…I wonder if their “B-Style” banjo capo would fit a <Gasp> mandolin!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Great New Band and some Cool New Venues

Events:  Waynewood Boys in Hamtramck

The Waynewood Boys
Newcomers to the SeMiBluegrass scene, the Waynewood boys have proven resourceful as seeking out cool, funky places to play live bluegrass.  This group of cool, laid back dudes has a great groove and are a lot of fun to see live.  Check out their upcoming gigs.

Come on down to Skipper's Hamtown Bar this Friday, June 22 at 9 PM.   Skipper offers a great selection of exotic brews and a cozy Hamtown atmosphere. And the boys will be playing their mix of bluegrass standards and grassed-up classic country and rock favorites.

Skipper's is located at:
  9735 Conant Street (at Evaline)
  Hamtramck, MI 48212

Also note these upcoming Waynewood Boys shows:

   The Steak Hut - Sunday, July 15, 11 AM - 1 PM

   Plymouth Coffee Bean - Saturday August 11

Find out more about the Waynewood Boys music at: http://www.reverbnation.com/thewaynewoodboys

Sunday, June 17, 2012

More Than Just "Steve's Band"--The Steep Canyon Rangers

Show Review: The Steep Canyon Rangers @ the Ark (Ann Arbor) 

SCR rocking the 1-mic at the Ark
A great band on their own, the Steep Canyon Rangers have gained a good bit of notoriety as Steve Martin's (yes...THAT Steve Martin) backup band.  These guys are so much more than professional sidemen.  In fact, their album Lovin' Pretty Women was the very first bluegrass CD I bought (Yes, I'm pretty new to the genre).

A fairly traditional act (down to the suits and ties they wear on stage and there preference for the "1-mic") they are among the most entertaining live acts I have seen.  After blowing my socks off at a show in Royal Oak a few years ago, I was excited to see them (sans Steve) when they played the Ark in  March.

I originally bought two tickets and was going to take my Dad to the show.  He loves bluegrass harmony, and these guys do it as well as any.  However, a quick trip to the ER and a cardiac catheter the day before changed those plans at the last minute.  As usual, I arrived early at the Ark and was first in line (I like to sit right in front of the stage whenever I can).  I met a young couple in line who were talking about a friend who really wanted to see the show.  I had and extra ticket....ended up making some new friends and really enjoying the show!

They guys in the band did not disappoint.  They played a good mix of old songs and material off their new album, both noticably showing the "tarnish" that 100s of shows on the road brings to a song.  I love their stage presence and who couldn't be mesmerized by the crazy fiddle stylings of Nicky Sanders?  However, the memorable tune of the night was actually a  song they co-wrote withSteve Martin --Me and Paul Revere (that would have bugged my Dad--It should be "Paul Revere and I").  Great story, outstanding harmonies, and some killer licks...everything I want in a bluegrass show.

I never dislike shows at the Ark, but this one was definitely one of the best I've seen.  I would highly recommend you catch the Rangers (with our without Steve) the next time they're in town.

John P. Bayerl