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/

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Road Trip Chronicles: Adventures in Live Music

Each year, Spring Break arrives with its' car loads of college kids heading south for a booze-fueled week of frolicking and frivolity.  So, why would two friends, both in the latter part of middle-age, and both nursing recent knee injuries hop in the car for two full days of travel, covering over 1000 miles through five states just to see two live music shows?  Because...it's worth it! To paraphrase my companion on the journey "It's about the People, the Places, and the Music...and in that order!" (a turn of  phrase he usually reserves for our fishing adventures ...but that's a whole novel of other stories).

A "Must See" in Downtown Nashville
Since my last visit to Nashville, I've wanted to catch a show at the "World Famous Station Inn". The opportunity presented itself when Brent Truitt (mandolin player for the SteelDrivers) saw my SeMiBluegrass.com write-up of their performance at the Ark earlier this month and invited me to catch another show as his guest.  So...when I saw the SteelDrivers were playing the Station Inn on Good Friday, and I was conveniently on Spring Break at that time, a hair-brained scheme was hatched and a road trip born.  I was originally planning to drive down by myself, catch the show, find a place to crash, and drive back in the morning to see Samantha Fish live at Callahan's Music Hall back in Michigan.  Yes, an all day drive for the SteelDrivers on Friday followed by an all-day drive back on Saturday for Samantha Fish.  I like my bluegrass bluesy and my blues done electrified, funky and with soul, so this seemed like a perfectly reasonably idea.  Fortunately, my good friend Victor got a "pass" from both his new bride and his orthopedic surgeon and agreed to join me on this adventure.  Even being last minute on a holiday weekend, we were able to book a room at a reasonable rate at the Days Inn in Joelton (a no-frills motel, but convenient, clean with a very friendly and helpful staff) and hit the road early.

We left promptly at 7:30am on Friday for the 9-hour trip to Nashville so we would have plenty of time to check into the motel, freshen up from the road, change clothes and go check out Lower Broadway before getting in line early for the show.  Rumor had it that they sell out early and turn away more people than get in, so we wanted to get their by 6:00 or so.   Our plan lasted exactly until noon...when a series of minor traffic accidents, a light rain, and holiday traffic combined to stretch our 9-hour trip into something more like 12-hours.  We were forced to leave the highway, and old-school navigate via paper map to the hotel where we barely had time to change shirts and hit the road.  Battling even more traffic, we drove directly to the Station Inn, arriving at 6:45 to a line stretching around the block, in the rain.  We were 300 or so people back in the line and things were looking grim--we may have spent the whole day driving for naught.

The Taylor Brashears Band
Lucky for us, I ran into Brent as he was unloading his gear at the side door of the venue and, true to his word, he invited Victor and I inside as his guests and arranged for us to site with his wife, son and assorted family members right in front of the stage.  We thoroughly enjoyed not only the company (which was superb) but also the opening act, a county vocalist named Taylor Brashears.  Her pure Nashville voice coupled perfectly with a hot band that included a drummer with the rare talent of playing tastefully under an acoustic band.  Her guitar player took a vintage '63 Fender Jaguar and wrung  the full five decades worth of passion, tone and soul out of it with a wonderful, full reverb, semi-surf-guitar sound.  I suspect the world will be hearing more of this act.  This appears to be a pretty good YouTube video of the band doing Louise (an original tune)?  I also loved her rendition of Emmylou Harris' Two More Bottle of Wine done a bit up-tempo to really get the crowd primed for the main act.

The SteelDrivers, loose and enjoying themselves!
After seeing the SteelDrivers at the Ark (a pure listening venue) I was curious to see how their live show would translate to the Station Inn (their "home" bar and a somewhat looser and rowdier setting).  Overall we got the same, professional, polished show with a good mix of songs off of their current album Hammer Down (which I am starting to prefer) and older material.   I was immediately struck by the sense that the band seemed a lot looser and appeared to be really enjoying themselves.  They put just a wee bit more passion in their vocals and instrumental breaks and a lot of energy into their onstage bantering and antics including a memorable riff on a Mellow Yellow bottle. The grins on their faces and sometimes even laughter during each others' breaks were contagious and got the whole crowd into the show.  Perhaps the thing I love most in live music is when the audience can tell that a band is not only enjoying playing their music, but also genuinely enjoys being on stage with each other, and the SteelDrivers delivered this in spades!

Bad picture, great singer!
One noticeable aspect of a Station Inn show was apparent during the quieter/slower numbers; when the murmur, laughter and talking of the audience occasionally drowns out the band.  It sometimes sounded like the band had dropped in on a bachelorette party, but...what do you expect in a bar setting where everyone is having a really good time?  It didn't really detract from the show, just added some character to the evening.  Even the toaster-oven, Chicago-cut  pizza is pretty darn good (not quite as good as the Riverside Bar in Iron River, Michigan, where we ate pizza with our grandparents when we were kids, but that might be more a factor of inflated recollections of my childhood than actual quality of the pizza).  Overall, the Station Inn delivers what it promises, great live bluegrass music.  I definitely need to catch more shows there (even if it is a 9 hour drive).  After the show, Victor and I decided to head back to the motel where we partied like rock stars for 2 or 3 minutes and hit the hay for an early wakeup call and part two of our live music adventure.

Aww...Too Cute!
Our leisurely drive North took us only 9-1/2 hours (plus loosing an hour due to time zones) which put us at Callahan's Music Hall just in time to see a light-colored "band van" head out of the parking lot.  The fact that it was wearing fake eyelashes over the headlights convinced me we were at the right place.  As a member of the Marquette Area Blues Society I have had the great pleasure of meeting several amazing bands from the Kansas City area including Levee Town and Trampled Under FootWithout exception, they all say the same thing: "You have to check out Samantha Fish.  She's amazing".  Ms. Fish has gained quite a bit of notoriety from the Girls with Guitars tour and I was eager to see her perform.  I had a preconceived notion that she'd be yet another young gun guitar-slinger making a name for herself with one lightning fast lick after another.  I could not have been more wrong, nor more pleasantly surprized.  The Samantha Fish Band is a full-immersion trip into what a modern blues band should be.

Love the CBG!
The set started off with a deep, swampy and dark number featuring Ms. Fish on the cigar box guitar, which she plays with a brass slide to extract an incredibly rich tone.  Here's a link to a really good "fan video" from the show with sound from Callahan's board so you can hear what I mean.  I was immediately enthralled with her playing.  However, I was much more enchanted with her vocal abilities.  From soft and sultry to harsh and angry, she has a terrific dynamic range and sings with both soul and personality, a rare combination in female singers these days.  While her sound is fairly traditional, straight-ahead blues, her facial expressions, head bobbing and distinctly  feminine moves on stage give her a contemporary and funky edge that I really enjoyed.

The Samantha Fish Band Gettin' Down!
As much as I loved her slide work, when she picked up her Telecaster (well...a Telecaster inspired guitar from Delaney Guitars) her talent really shined.  While fully capable of face-melting solos, it's her subtle rhythm playing under her vocal work that sets Samantha Fish apart from the rest. Unlike so many performers her age, she seems to understand that sometimes, "less is more" and that soulful licks and subtle pauses can add more to a song that one virtuoso lick after another.   She also utilizes the dynamics of her voice to really sculpt songs, extracting tons of emotion and feeling from the lyrics. From catchy originals, to blues standards to some cool cover tunes (including covering Tom Petty, Tab Benoit and the James Gang), she pays respectful homage to the roots of the blues, and provides us a peek into what  it's future can and should be.

The Complete Package--Samantha Fish
From quiet passages barely above a whisper to throaty soul-queen roars Ms. Fish takes the listener on a ride and keeps giving them more.  A few times she even stops playing the guitar all together and punctuates her vocals with hand gestures, trusting her rhythm section to carry the groove for her.  By the way, bassist Christopher Alexander and drummer Go-Go Ray are incredible talents in their own right.  Under the leadership of Ms. Fish, the band is somehow greater than the sum of it's parts and truly delivers a professional and enjoyable experience to the audience.  Once again, we were treated to a show where the musicians were having just as much fun as the audience.  Between sets, and after the show, Ms. Fish chose ti forego a trip back stage to cool off and relax, instead choosing to mingle with the audience, sign CDs and talk to just about everyone in the bar.  Everything about this young lady screams "class" and "professional".  I am sure she will continue to be incredibly successful in what she does.

Both Callahan's and the Station Inn are well known for booking only the best in live music.  However, both the SteelDrivers and Samantha Fish proved that, even if it requires some effort, it is possible to see the best of the best.  So, was the 20+ hours and 1000 miles of driving worth it?  You bet!  Samantha summed it up best as we were leaving the club.  She came over to say "goodbye" and asked us "are you the two guys who drove all the way from Nashville?"  When we told her we were, she told us "You crazy F@#$%rs!", gave us a little hug and sent us on our way, smiling!  So...who's up for my next road trip?

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Thorougly Entertaining : The Corktown Popes @ Callahan's

This year, my wife and I have been making an effort to "embrace" each others taste in music.  When her favorite band, the Corktown Popes, booked a night at Callahan's Music Hall in Auburn Hills (one of my very favorite venues) on the Eve of Saint Patrick's day, it was kind of a no-brainer to get tickets, round a group of friends and venture out for a night of live music.  While not bluegrass by any definition, I was thoroughly entertained and pleasantly surprised by what I saw.

John Holk & the Sequins:  Pure Nashville
"This is definitely not your type of music" said my wife as the warm-up band, John Holk and the Sequins took the stage.  I took one look at the pedal steel guitar, cowboy hats and lusciously embroidered, fringed jackets and though, "Oh!  How wrong can you be!  I love this kind of stuff!".  Pure, twangy Nashville country/rock, their high energy mix of original material and killer covers (including a version of Devil in Disguise that paid homage to the Bluegrass Album Band) was just the type of SeMiBluegrass I love to stumble on.  By time they got to a Johnny Cash (Folsom Prison Blues) / Elvis Presley (That's Alright) mashup, I was grinning ear-to-ear and hanging on every note.  What a fantastic band.  Go see them!

The Corktown Popes kick it into high gear
As the Pre-Saint Patrick's Day party swung into high gear, and the Irish Whiskey began to flow freely (more on that later) the main event started with a pure Irish snare drum cadence from the heart of the audience.  As the Corktown Popes took the stage, they picked up on the cadence and launched into one of their many, high-energy original songs.  I was immediately intrigued by their eclectic mix of modern electric instrumentation (drums, bass, telecaster and keys) with more traditional, acoustic instrumentation (accordion, acoustic guitar, mandolin and Irish whistle).  It's an odd, hodgepodge of sounds, but it somehow works for them. Frontman, Terry Burns' powerful voice easily cuts through their rich, full sound and propels the band through beautiful slow songs and driving, high-octane barn-burners with equal precision and grace.  He immediately connects with the audience and builds on their energy throughout the set.

Goodmen, Youngquist and Burns getting it done
Like many of the band I listen to, their sound defies classification. On the one hand, they're a rock band.  But a Detroit rock band, with that quintessentially gritty, urban, Rustbelt sound so familiar to fans of the Detroit rock scene of the 80s and 90s.  On the other hand, they're definitely an Irish band, from Burns' subtle Irish brogue to Paul Goodmen's triplet infused fills on the accordion (a sound you usually hear on the fiddle, but way cooler on the accordion) there is a definite link to their heritage. Their vocal harmonies are spot on and sound like they've been singing together since they were kids.  The classic combination of Mike Martin's mandolin with guitarist Jason Kuehn's contributions on the Irish whistle help further define their sound and remind you of the band's Irish roots, especially on the mandatory traditional songs required by the nature of the event.  Drummer Dave Younquist and Bassist Joe Bagozzi form what might be the best rhythm section I've heard in quite some time.  Tastefull at times and powerful when needed, they kept the energy flowing all night long.

As midnight fell, the St. Paddy's day party started and the whiskey continued to flow (both on stage and in the crowd), the setlist naturally drifted from Irish Rock show into pure Irish holiday bar band fare.  The band shifted effortlessly into this roll, bringing out stools and acoustically covering many standard Irish pub songs.   The band, however, never let you forget you bought a ticket to a rock show in the first place.  From the  multiple, green-clad audience members dancing (swaying?) on stage to the epic, punk rock inspired, crowd-walk-turned-table-dive that sent dozens of audience members, drinks and beer bottles flying, this was one St. Patrick's day show I will always remember.

Like what you read?  Follow SeMiBluegrass on Facebook or at www.SeMiBluegrass.com. I'm always looking for interesting live music in Southeast Michigan.  Got a show, venue or review you'd like to see written up here?  Know of a band I should go see?  Want to contribute an article of your own?  Contact me at SeMiBluegrass@gmail.com.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Night of "Uneasy Listening": The Steeldrivers @ The Ark

I came to Bluegrass quite by accident in my mid-40s about 6 years ago when I witnessed my very first live bluegrass show on the banks of the Au Sable river in Grayling, Michigan.  The very next, day, on my way home, I swung by Elderly Instruments in Lansing because I had heard they sold Bluegrass CDs.  The SteelDrivers self-titled CD holds the distinction of being the very first Bluegrass album I purchased. I listened to it on the way home.  And then I listened again.  And again.  A mere six years and almost 1000 albums later, I can say that they certainly launched me on a wonderful adventure in acoustic music!

They found a parking space?
So, when the SteelDrivers (one of my favorite bands) booked a show at The Ark (one of my favorite venues) I had to go.  The cold, windy weather couldn't stop me from showing up early and staking out my favorite first spot in the line.  I was lucky enough to stumble on the band unloading their gear at curbside.  They immediately asked me if I was waiting to get into the show and introduced themselves.  Even though I have come to expect this type of humility from Bluegrass bands, I was struck by how down-to-earth and genuinely excited they seemed to be about playing at The Ark.  I was also intrigued by a large, sort of coffin-shaped case that came out of the van.  Turns out that Mike Flemming's Bass actually breaks down (or folds?) and fits in that case for travel.  After a cramped round trip to Marquette in a similar van spent jammed in a corner to make room for a friend's bass, I certainly see the value of this idea.  From first hand experience I can also tell you that Mike's "travel" bass sounds fantastic!

After the usual long wait in line made tolerable by the quirky, wonderful and cool people you get to meet and talk to while waiting, we got in the show and were fortunate to get a table right at the front of the stage.  I've been able to sit in those same seats for some fantastic acts (Jerry Douglas, Ricky Skaggs, The Steep Canyon Rangers...) and love being able to not only hear the show, but experience some of the small nuances of the performance that you can only see up close and in person.  The fact that a bunch of my friends were sitting near me made it even better.  Right on time the band started.  From the first note, they sounded fantastic. From a tongue-in-cheek reference to their music being "uneasy listening--where bad things happen to good people" to the onstage banter and lots of little smiles and giggle during and between songs, it was obvious that they were as excited about playing at The Ark as the audience was about hearing them!

Tammy, Mike and Gary: The Core of the SteelDriver's Sound
It's virtually impossible to write a review of a SteelDrivers show without mentioning that the band has undergone some personnel changes over the years (but what bluegrass band hasn't?).  This lineup, while the least familiar to me, has ended up being my favorite.  The core of their powerful, bluesy, melancholy sound comes from the unique vocal harmonies of Tammy Rogers (Tenor), Gary Nichols (Lead) and Mike Flemming (Baritone).  While not a traditional "perfect thirds" harmony, it is apparent that they spend a LOT of time perfecting their parts until they come together into a full, round and sometimes eerily haunting blend where it's almost impossible to distinguish their individual voices. For those not familiar with their work, a typical SteelDrivers set list is heavy on hill-country murder ballads, prison songs, good love gone wrong tales and songs about the evils and wonder of strong liquor.  Their unique vocal sound is perfectly suited for this type of material.

Coming a mere 2-1/2 weeks after the release of their new album Hammer Down, the SteelDrivers Ark Set covered almost all of the new material, and a remarkable number of songs from their first two albums.  My  favorite songs off the new album were Wearing a Hole, a honky-tonk number written by Nashville country singer/songwriter Deryl Dodd, and When You Don't Come Home, a lyin', cheatin', no-good-husband song done to a feel-good beat that really let's Tammy's vocals shine. It's nice for a man to come out on the wrong side of the "forty-five" for a change too!  I can honestly say that I loved every one of the new songs.  How Long Have I Been Your Fool, co-written by Tammy and old band-mate, Chris Stapleton, has the kind of cross-over potential that leads me to think you might hear that song on mainstream country radio in the near future.

Brent Truitt on Mandolin
It was their old standards, however, that most intrigued me.  This is probably the only review that you will ever read that doesn't compare Gary's voice to his predecessor.  Being an acoustic blues fan at heart, I was more intrigued by how their new mandolin player, Brent Truitt was going to handle the other former member, Mike Henderson's, part on songs like Good Corn Liquor where Mike chose to play a National Steel Guitar instead of his mandolin, and really gave those songs their signature bluesy feel.

I didn't have long to wait.  Corn Liquor came up as the third or fourth song and Brent stepped up to the mic to take his break.  "Pretty standard mandolin break" I thought as he began.  And then, out of his humble mandolin, came exactly the type of dirty, low-down, string bending blues licks you expect to hear coming out of a nicontine-stained telecaster in some back alley bar after midnight.  His foot-forward stance, low-slung instrument, faded jeans, well-worn shirt and long bangs covering his eyes (and a couple of fresh bandaids) only completed the illusion. This is not how the mandolin played.  It is not what I expected to hear. What is was my friends, was awesome!  For the rest of the show, every time he broke out one of those licks, I was giggling like a 5-year old with a new toy.  I loved it!

The SteelDrivers' Press Photo
To be fair, all of the SteelDrivers are incredible musicians.  Richard Bailey plays some absolutely ridiculous stuff on the banjo.  I'd try to describe it to you, but I'm sort of at a loss to compare it to anyone else.  He has his own, comfortable style that perfectly complements what's going on lyrically in the song.  It's smooth and mellow when it has to be and hard and edgy when it needs to be.  You really have to see him play live to see what I mean.  Mike Flemming lays down a groovy, driving bass line and, unlike many bass players, is able to sing without backing off his bass part.  Tammy Rogers is one of the most tasteful and dynamic fiddle players I've seen, able to blend in or stand out as needed.  It is plain to see that she loves playing music, and loves playing with this band in particular.  Her body language, smile and infectious enthusiasm all scream "fun" for the entire show.  Gary Nichols, while not a traditional bluegrass rhythm player, has a stripped down style that perfectly suits the SteelDrivers' sound.  That's not to say he's not an amazing picker; his "duel" with Brent before To Be With You Again showcased some of the finest flatpicking I've seen.  He can not only play lightning-fast licks, but can play them with soul--a skill many a hot, young picker never develops.  I was actually sitting close enough to make out the small (nickle sized) logo on the headstock of his guitar.  It turns out he plays a Hays Guitar, and it sounded great at The Ark.

I am aware that every show I see at The Ark seems to be my "favorite" show.  This one was no exception.  This time however, it has less to do with the fantastic staff at The Ark, who seem to know how to match great artists with their unique audience and setting, and more to do with the fact that the SteelDrivers were my "first love"--the first bluegrass act I really latched onto.  This show was special to me.  They are not really a traditional bluegrass band ("SeMiBluegrass"?  Hmmm...).   For me, the show had an element of weirdness, like seeing you high-school sweetheart at a reunion.  I was excited, yet oddly apprehensive before the show.  It's exactly the type of show that usually lets you down (no band can be as good as they are in your memories, right?).  The SteelDrivers, however, proved to be the real deal and did not disappoint.  I really need to see them again.  They've got a few shows coming up that sound fun (the Bluegrass Underground and the Station Inn in March, St. Joe's MI in May).  Anyone want to go see them with me?  You should. They are an amazing live band. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

What is SeMiBluegrass?

Wow, it's been almost 7 busy months since I updated this blog.  I got wrapped up and run over by the election season, and then caught up in some exciting, new projects at work.  However, I still found time to attend--if not blog about--a variety of live music events: Arlo Guthrie at the Ark, some good old Woody Guthrie tunes at a Capitol Rally in Lansing, the Wagon Wreck festival in Ann Arbor, my friend Biscuit Miller at Callahan's to mention a few.  My SeMiBluegrass Jam has really taken off, with over two dozen "regulars" who drop by to pick some SeMiBluegrass tunes once a month.  It's even grown to include some non-bluegrassers, like songsmith George Heritier with his amazing 12-string and blues harp playing.  So much fodder for future blogs!

So, exactly what is SeMiBluegrass?  It started out as a simple acronym for South East Michigan Bluegrass.  First, I must confess that I definitely have blossoming addiction to bluegrass and acoustic music.  My wife says it's a much better mid-life crisis than a red Corvette and a girlfriend with a boob-job (even though, in the middle of a 14 person jam at my house, she claims she's starting to thick she's got it backwards).  From my efforts to find others who shared my passion, I quickly found that, while there is definitely a lively, vibrant acoustic music scene in the area, there really isn't a good way to find it.  More often than not, I discovered a new band, or a new venue, quite by accident.  Sometimes I'd meet someone, who knew someone, who knew someone else who thought, maybe, there'd be some bluegrass at a local show.  Or, I'd look online and find lots of information about a scene that existed 10 years ago, but had evolved, faded or moved on.  So I decided to publish this blog, where I would share information about the scene I was desperately chasing.

So, is SeMiBluegrass really just about bluegrass music?  Well, yes.  And no.  I do love bluegrass music.  Unlike many people, I was not raised on it however.  I grew up on a steady diet of British Invasion and Classic Rock music in 1970s Ann Arbor and then some College Rock in the 1980s (think the Outfield and R.E.M.).  I was (and still am) an official "Parrothead" and still catch a few Buffett shows now and then (though I like some of his tribute bands even more.  Check out Jim-Morris.com or listen to some "Sunny" Jim White).  I found bluegrass music through my friends' bands (Chasin' Steel and Lonesome County) and fell in love with the driving beat, the vivid storytelling of the lyrics, and the vocal harmonies. I attended all kinds of bluegrass shows, and LOVED them.  I did, however, start to notice a disturbing fact.

The average age at most of the shows I attended seemed to be in the mid- to late- sixties.  There were some younger families at them, but not many.  And most of them seemed to be transplants from the south.  So I started looking for something more.  I found the Irish-rock sounds of Dragon Wagon (who also introduced me to Bluegrass Night at the Circus--a mob of college-aged bluegrass fans grooving on every note).  I found the Flutter and Wow and their Alt-Country sound.  I met George Heritier and his heavy blues and folk influenced songwriting.

So...SeMiBluegrass is a place where all are welcome.  Where we share our love of great music, regardless of genre.  A place where friends share information and turn each other onto new music, new places and new songs.  A place where we ALL can contribute posts.  It is the "scene" that so many of us have looked for and never found.  Enjoy it!