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Monday, September 29, 2014

Show Review: Yellow Barn Benefit Concert

Hard to find....but worth the effort!
Somehow, I always knew about the Yellow Barn (http://www.ouryellowbarn.com), but it somehow stayed off my musical radar.  As Ann Arbor's "home for Community Supported Culture", this quirky venue is home to some of the best in live music Ann Arbor has to offer.  So, when a Facebook friend sent me an invite to the Yellow Barn Benefit Concert last Sunday night, I decided it was finally time to show up and see what all the buzz was about.  An impressive lineup of Ann Arbor based musicians helped seal the deal.  I forgot to bring a pencil, so I'm relying on my memory for the review below.  I apologize in advance for any misspellings, omissions or miss-identifications.

The One and Only Alicia Marie
The show kicked off with one of my favorite young blues pickers, Alicia Marie.  Fresh off an appearance at the Detroit Blues Challenge, Alicia once again blew me away with her hard-driving acoustic blues.  A great mix of blues standards and original material keep her show moving right along.  Her soulful voice was perfectly suited to the intimate setting at the yellow barn and certainly added a depth and complexity to her performance.  Later, I saw her sitting and chatting with fellow Ann Arbor blues woman Shari Kane.  Hmmm...now THAT'S a double bill I'd love to see!

Johnny Williams
Next up was Johnny Williams of Johnny's Speakeasy (another Ann Arbor gem that has evaded my music radar--I'll have to do something about that).  With an impressive band drawn from some of the other acts, Johnny's affable charm and quick smile quickly won over the crowd during a quick set of poignant cover tunes and witty original numbers.  His easy harmony with event sponsor Judy Banker were pure bliss.

The Bowdish Brothers
I'd never heard of the Bowdish Brothers before this show, which is remarkable: 1) because they've been around Ann Arbor as long as I have and 2) because they are an excellent band!  Again, a mix of cool covers and original materials, I loved the jazzy guitar solo's one so rarely hears at an acoustic event.  Also some of the best "brother harmony" I've heard (especially from non-brothers).  This band provided one of the memorable moments of the evening, taking time to not only thank Judy and the others who put the event together, but pointing out how important--even essential--spaces like the Yellow Barn are.  Without places like this, there would be nowhere for musicians to gather; no place to share our passion for music; no place to freely exchange ideas...and feelings...and emotions.  They reminded us all to support local, live music.  If we don't, we will lose much more than just another local business.

Judy and her All Star Band
Somehow, between organizing this amazing event, and talking one-on-one to literally everyone in attendance, Judy Banker somehow found time to get up on stage and share some songs of her own.  Backed by Tony Pace on Dobro, David Roof on bass, her band really brought the songs to life.  However, the vocal harmonies and fiddle licks of Greta Mae Barnard were transcendent, filling the barn with lush, rich sounds and entrancing the audience.  This was a special performance for sure.

Michigan Treasure Jay Strielstra
Most of the band stayed on stage for the next performer, legendary Michigan songsmith Jay Stielstra.  It is truly a treat to see Jay perform.  His songs all capture the special pride Michiganders feel for their beloved state.  His songs drip with imagery of nature, fishing and hunting with mentions of pure Michigan landmarks like the Manistee and Tittatbawassee rivers.  The crowd gleefully sang along on the choruses, sometimes nearly drowning out the band.  Tony Pace's work on the dobro was simply perfect, even causing Jay to say "let's here that one again!"

  At one point during the set, Jay momentarily stumbled on the lyrics to a verse, and a couple of the young performers in the back of of the room, piped up and sang the first few bars to him--a touching tribute to his influence on thousands of young performers over the years. 

David Roof Trio
After a brief intermission, David Roof put down the bass and picked up a guitar to perform a quick set of his own original material.  With a groovy bass line and funky rhythm provided by the cajon, these enthusiastic world-rhythm inspired folk-rock songs were refreshingly original, bringing to mind a young Paul McCartney or Paul Simon.  All three members of the band were smiling ear to ear and visibly enjoying themselves...and the crowd was loving it too!

Billy King (More Banjo!)
Next up was Billy King, musician and organizer of Hollerfest each year.  This multi-instrumentalist began the night with an upbeat number featuring his oh-so-cool tenor voice over a rapid-fire, rhythmic guitar strum style that was fresh and remarkably enticing.  He followed up with a quirky cover tune on the 5-string and closed things out with a cool ode to Autumn on the mandolin.  It was patently obvious that he was having just as much fun as the audience was.

Buhalis and Dennie.  Pure Perfection.
Taking the stage next was one of my favorite performers, Chris Buhalis with accompaniment from mandolin master Jason Dennie.  These two cornerstones of the South East Michigan acoustic music scene combined for one of the very best sets I've seen this year.  Chris' haunting vocals combine with Jason's tasteful fills and licks to transport the listener to places of joy and sorrow; tragedy and triumph; love and hate and compassion and all the emotions in between.  Their cover of Woody Guthrie's "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos", framed by the state of immigration and world conflict dominating the news today served as a poignant remider to remember that there are people behind the headlines; people with names; people we should care about.

Closing Out the Night
Closing out the night were Annie & Rod Capps.  With a great band behind them, they kicked things off with a great, upbeat number.  I wish I could have stayed for the end, but...being a school night...I needed to take off and get home.  However, the Yellow Barn has touched a special place in my musical heart and I'll be back.  Soon.  And often!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Detroit (IBC) Blues Challenge at Callahan's

A couple of great organizations!
I have meet so many interesting and talented people through my musical adventures in South Eastern Michigan that it really came as no surprise when this blog caught the attention of the promoter for the Detroit Blues Challenge at Callahan's.  As part of the International Blues Challenge (IBC) sponsored by the Blues Foundation, the Detroit Blues Society hosted a competition this past weekend pitting the finalists in the "Solo/Duo" and "Band" categories against each other for the honor of representing South East Michigan in Memphis this January.  I was honored to be invited to cover the event here, and got to see some incredibly talented musicians giving it their all.  As overheard several times at the event "I'm glad I'm not a judge today!"
A true gem in South East Michigan
In all, four Solo/Duo acts and six Bands competed in the event over the seven hour contest.  Quite the value for a mere $10 ticket price (especially when we learned that the entire $10 was being awarded to the winning acts to help defer some of their travel costs to Memphis)!  The bar was fairly full with a good mix of musicians, their friends and families, various blues society members (I got to share a table with a couple representatives of the Black Swamp Blues Society (Toledo) and found them--like all blues fans--to be friendly, engaging and passionate about live music).  One thing I loved was that almost everyone stayed for the entire event, supporting every musician equally.
Sweet Willie Tea & his Didly-Bo
Like bluegrass, folk and jazz, the definition of what constitutes blues music can vary widely, and lead to much debate.  Reading up on the guidelines for the event, I was pleased to see the it was evident that the Blues Foundation has really made efforts to embrace the spectrum of blues music around world.  Instead of dwelling on the interpretation of the blues, the rules focus rather on the individual musicianship (both vocal and instrumental) of the artist, as well as the the performance or "entertainment" value of the act.  The acts at the DBC definitely represented a broad spectrum of the genre, which made it a lot of fun to watch!
First up were the Solo/Duo acts.  Due to the mostly acoustic nature of the acts, it should be obvious that I have a rather soft spot in my heart for these artists.  Things began with an amazing One-Man-Band artist "Sweet Willie Tea".  Playing a variety of drum-kit parts (bass, snare, ride, crash) with his feet while singing and playing guitar/harmonica, Willie played in a variety of styles and included a variety of guitars including steel-bodied tri-cone resonator, wood-bodied dobro, a cigar-box guitar.  Perhaps the highlight of the performance was his closing number on the didley-bo.  Besides that classic slide sound, Willie was able to produce a variety of sound effects and even "voices" to accompany the song and the story that went with it.  A fantastic guitar player, smooth vocalist and captivating entertainer, Sweet Willie Tea was definitely the complete package.
Lauren Crane and her Koa Guitar
Next up was Singer/Songwriter Lauren Crane.  A captivating folk/jazz vocalist singing blues ballads with all her heart and soul.  She accompanied herself on a stunning Koa 000-style guitar.  Like many singer-songwriters, her playing tended to be mostly strum-based rhythms to support the song, rather than typical blues solos.  However, no one was there to hear her guitar.  Her incredible voice and inventive songwriting were clearly her strong suit.  If the contest had been held in a dimly-lit jazz club, late on a Saturday night, instead of noisy "battle of the bands" setting, Lauren would have blown the crowd away. 
Michigan Mick
Next was solo-guitarist, "Michigan" Mick.  Again, a mostly single dimensioned artist, his mix of blues-rock standards and high-speed originals played to his strong suit--lightning fast blues licks on the acoustic guitar.  Imagine if Stevie Ray Vaughn had never picked up a strat and had performed on a standard flat-top guitar and you'll get a good feel for his performance.  Micks voice was easy to listen to, but I found myself wanting to get to the next blistering solo just to see if he could top himself again!  One thing I notice was that Mick, of all the musicians there, seemed to be having a really good time.  His smile was infectious and the crowd was in to him big time.
The Amazing Alicia Venchuk
The last Solo artist was Alicia Venchuk from Ann Arbor.  A finger-style blues phenom, this college student was clearly the most talented musician of the night.  Playing both the round-neck dobro and an 000-guitar, Alicia tackled a wide range of both vocal and instrumental numbers featuring spot-on rhythm work and mind-blowing guitar breaks.  She closed with an instrumental number that featured percussive and scratching techniques on the dobro (ala' Tab Benoit) with the surprising addition of complicated rhythmic sounds produced by playing the sound-hole screens of her dobro. Overall, this young lady has the chops of a serious, seasoned musician.  I did notice that she seemed a bit shy about talking/interacting with the crowd between songs, preferring instead to launch right into the next incredible song in her repertoire. However, when the crowd would cheer during a song, she would perk right up, beaming an award-winning smile and mouthing a heart-felt "thank you" to the crowd.  Overall, I gave Alicia the nod on musicality, and Sweet Willie credit for his stage presence and called it a toss up.  The judges had a difficult decision, but picked the experienced showmanship of Sweet Willie over the pure talent of Alicia Venchuk.  Either choice would have been the right one.
Chris Canas and the Amazing Disappearing Guitar Strap
After and excellent burger (and better cup of coffee!) I was ready for the Band competition to begin, and it began with a bang! The Chris Canas band is a pure-Detroit blues machine boasting Chris' high-voltage guitar antics coupled with his soulful, almost R&B voice fronting a killer rhythm section and a fiery keboard.  Switching off with Chis on vocals was "Mrs. C" (claimed she was his Mother, but looked like an older sister!) with a soul-drenched voice that reminded me that Aretha, Gladys and Martha all came from Detroit too!  In the heat of one blistering solo, Chis let his guitar strap slip off and still managed to blow me away with his guitar work, all the while somehow holding onto the guitar during a series of wild guitar moves and pelvic gyrations!  The Chris Canas band not only put on a complete show, but spent the rest of the night mingling with the crowd.  They were truly demonstrating what it takes to be the "Ambassador of Detroit Blues".
Detroit Blues-rockers Drugstore Cowboys
Next up was the Drugstore Cowboys, a straight-ahead blues rock power trio.  I loved that they played almost entirely original material.  They have a unique sound...thing Ted Nugent doing Neil Young's "Rust Never Sleeps".    Digging through the hard-rock assault, their songs were surprisingly intelligent and poignant.  I particularly loved "My Wrench Don't Fit My Ford No More", a lament over cheap metric imports taking over the Motor City.  Probably a case of "great band / wrong setting", I really enjoyed the Drugstore Cowboys and would love to catch them at one of those classic Detroit rock clubs in the near future.  They are real-deal Detroit rockers!
Sandy Muligan gettin' her groove on....
How do you begin to explain Sandy Mulligan and the Gypsies?  I have a thing for all-girl bands, and even give them a lot of credit for their coordinating black-n-bling outfits, but it was their admission that they played mostly mellow and sometimes lusty blues that really sold me.  Nothing fancy here, a great singer-songwriter on acoustic guitar, backed by rhythm guitar, bass and drums.  At first I didn't care for the fairly simple structure of their songs, but then they hit their groove with a low-down cover of "Suzie Q" that left me somewhere between exhausted satisfaction and the need for a cigarette and a shower.  It was naughty....and a wee bit dirty...and amazing!  From there, the show continued to build with their infectious enthusiasm washing over the crowd until--too soon--it ended.  The Gypsies are a LOT of fun!
Real southern slide work from Elijah Craig
Elijah Craig--besides being a fairly good bourbon--is also a pretty good southern blues-rock outfit!  With a pair of lefties in the band, their mix of Allman-Brothers covers and original blues-based material featured not one, but TWO great guitarists combining slide licks on a Gibson SG and blues licks on a tele (I do love telecaster blues!).  Really good mix of soulful and more powerful rock-based lyrics here too.  Probably the best rhythm section of the night, with a quick, light-fingered drummer and a driving bass player who established a pocket it was impossible to fall out of.  Overall, a very good band with a great, danceable repertoire.

Next up was party-blues band Big Smooth & the Hellraisers.  I gave them very high marks right off the bat for realizing that they were in a competition, not another show.  So many bands now days dress in jeans and tee-shirts that it's sometimes hard to tell the band from the crowd.  Not so with this band and their quirky blend of aloha-chic and bowling-shirt couture wardrobe.  Somehow, it works.  Most of the bands started slow and built up during their sets.  Not so with Big Smooth, who kicked it off by saying "We're Big Smooth and the Hellraisers, and THIS is what WE bring to the party" before launching into a full-speed, hard-driving blues number that reached out and punched the crowd right in the face.  There was no doubt that these guys came to make a statement.  Backing up their bravado was a deceptively great band.
Big Smooth & the band raisin' some hell
One of the quickest and most tasteful drummers of the night coupled with some complex, sometimes funky riffs on the 5-string bass give the band all the energy they need to maintain their high-octane performance through the show.  The guitar work blended complex rhythm with blistering blues licks, shifting seamlessly between styles and sounds with ease.  And then there's Big Smooth.  A powerful vocalist and one of the best harp players I've heard in a long time, he somehow finds time to dance all over the state, never standing still for a moment.  Between an infectious smile, big-guy dance moves and a handful of Mardi-gras beads for the crowd, it is impossible not to have a good time at a Big Smooth show.  THAT'S what they bring to the party.
The BBSB (coolest rhythm section of the night)
The night ended with the Barrel Brothers Street Band.  This southern-style, piano-driven, boogie-woogie band played mostly cover songs, but in their own style.  Definitely and old-time, Tin-Pan-Alley feel to this band.  Great piano lick were accompanied by a great stand-up bass and a drummer playing a thrown together kit of snare, cowbell and cymbals somehow mounted on a Sampsonite suitcase (that also doubled as the kick drum).  A sax player rounded out the sound, contributing bluesy fills and jazzy solos.  Great semi-acoustic band!
In the end, it was six VERY different bands each offering something.  On my scorecard I had Chris Canas barely in the vocal/instrumental category and Big Smooth owning the stage presence.  Again, I don't know how the judges broke this toss-up, but they did choose the Chris Canas band to go to Memphis.  They are a great band, and will represent Detroit well!
Oh, the things you notice....
So there it is.  Another great weekend.  Another TEN great bands.  And more great music in South East Michigan.  There's nothing better than live local music, so go find some!