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.
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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, October 21, 2014

"A Serious Addiction to Rhythm": The Ragbirds @ The Ark

The Year of the Accordion Continues
     Readers of this blog must certainly know some things about me.  I'm obviously a serious fan of Live, Local music.  I love a wide variety of musical genres: bluegrass, folk, acoustic, blues, folk-rock, country, Americana and just about any type of authentic, creative music featuring great melody and honest lyrics.  Less obviously, I have a distinct preference for female vocalists and groove-heavy, funky rhythm sections.  I love small, intimate clubs, where you feel part of the music, and can see what the performers are doing--not just listen to them and watch them on a blurry "jumbotron" screen.  I love meeting the people in the audience who are there to see the show with you.  Lastly, I'm passionate about new, interesting and unique bands; those with a sound all their own, who leave you asking "why didn't I ever go see them before?"  So it should come as no surprise that when my favorite folk / bluegrass / country / reggae / jazz / conga / ska / rock-n-roll band, the Ragbirds, booked a show at the Ark, I'd be right there in the front of the line to see them.  Throw in a chance to see a show with my father and his wife Jann, along with my old friend Phil, and it didn't even matter that it was the third night in a row I'd attended a show--and what a show it was!

The Incredibly Talented Erin Zindle
     How do you describe the Ragbirds.  Lead vocalist and face of the Ragbirds, Erin Zindle summed it up pretty well when she called called herself a "singer/songwriter with a rock-and-roll brother, ethno-musicologist husband and a serious addiction to rhythm--with an eclectic collection of instruments."  Throw in the fact that they tour in a fryer-grease powered van (really, they do) and you know they're not like any other band you've seen.  Like all truly great roots musicians, the ragbirds start with a basic premise, and then borrow freely--perhaps exuberantly--from a multitude of rhythm-centric styles to craft a unique sound.  The band is fronted by Zindle and features mostly her original tunes along with an eclectic mix or modern and traditional (sometimes even classical) covers.  Their take on the Pete Townsend classic "Let My Love Open The Door" simply blew me away.

Josiah and Nicholas of Bennett
     Songs about the reality of being young, in love, scared or a new parent provide the backbone on which the band weaves its' groove; coming together to transport the audience to a magical place where drums, guitar and Erin's seemingly bottomless collection of musical instruments live, breathe and add their soul to the music.  The Ragbirds are more than entertainers; they're musical hosts, inviting you to share their music with them.  And it's obvious that they love what they do--every member of the band is quick to smile, moves with the rhythm and effortlessly connects with the audience.  A Ragbirds show is an participatory event, not just a musical exhibition.  You don't go see the Ragbirds, you experience them.

Nick.  A Great Young Fiddle Player
     Another thing you just have to love about the Ragbirds is their efforts to "pay it forward".  They frequently host new, upcoming bands at their shows, and this was no exception.  The band Bennett from Grand Rapids provided a short, but intense opening set.  This twenty-something trio of best friends, named after the street guitarist Josiah grew up on featured a groovy mix of fiddle, guitar and keys with some killer vocal harmonies draped over.  They have a very modern sound, and boy-band good looks (I mean that in the most complementary manner).  I'm sure they will find an eager and willing audience in the "Gen Y" generation--starved for high quality, authentic music.  Fiddle player Nick, in addition to some killer vocal harmonies, added some really great fiddle fills and breaks--something you don't often hear in young bands, and it adds a great deal of depth to their sound.   Their original songs were poignant, catchy and upbeat.  They play with great enthusiasm and you can tell they love playing together.  For a young band, they were very professional with a polished stage presence.  The finale featured a parade through the crowd with keyboardist Nicholas switching to the accordion.  A truly great ending, to a great band, with a promising future!

Percussionist Extraordinaire Randall Moore
     I do love a great rhythm section, and one could argue--persuasively--that the Ragbirds is really a brother-sister vocal act with a 5-piece rhythm section (yes, I know there's a guitar and fiddle on most tunes--and they play melody--but there IS a strong rhythmic element to their style).  At some point during the set every member of the band finds a way to play a percussion instrument of some kind---drum kit, bongo, djembe, conga, marracas, shakers, tambourine and variety of Afro-Middle Eastern traditional drums.   The funky groove is anchored by Chief Percussionist Randall Moore who also happens to be Erin's husband.  During the show, he is a whirlwind of activity, switching between an incredible diversity of percussion instruments, somehow laying down just the right syncopated, funky, oh-so-right-but-not-what-I-expected rhythm line on which the band builds their pocket.  If Erin is the heart of the band, Randall is definitely the soul; drawing on the best rhythmic traditions of Africa, South America and the Middle East (and probably a few other places as well).

John Brown on the Drum kit
     Holding down the more traditional rhythm section role on drum kit is percussionist Jon Brown.  As you probably know from reading this blog, I tend to favor drummers with a "less is more" attitude, both in their approach to drumming and their drum kit and Jon is the prototypical example of this.  His drumming is rock-steady on just on the front edge of the beat (as it should be) laced with subtle, yet infinitely skillful licks and fills.  He's confident enough to make a quick "rat-a-tat" statement without resorting to the cliche', rock-god Tommy Lee roll that proceeds down the drums and up in volume.  Likewise, his kit is simple (snare, tom, floor, kick) with a few cymbals and a tambourine mounted.  What it lacks in size and complexity, it more than makes up for in tone.  This is a well tuned--and well played--kit, and that makes all the difference in the world.

Jones Rocking the Hat (and the Bass)
     Jon's partner in rhythm section crime is bassist Dan Jones.  This bald-headed behemoth of the bass guitar lays down one of the steadiest, funky grooves around.  His prowess was on display early in the set when he played the melody part in unison with Erin's fiddle--pure genius.  Unlike many bands, where the bass guitar is relegated to a back-room role behind the guitar player, Dan plays right out front.  His sense of style (both in fashion and music) make him hard to miss!  Often closing his eyes and moving to his own beat, his easy smile and bright eyes show he's in total harmony with his music and enjoying every minute.  A couple times during the show, after playing some super cool lick, he kind of stares and smiles like he's thinking "Holy Crap!  That was awesome!"  I love his approach to his instrument and his contribution to the Ragbirds' sound.

Another Zindle on the Guitar
    Erin's brother TJ Zindle brings a Rock-n-Roll edge to the band.  He's hard to miss with his rock-star hair, bright red pants and frenetic antics on stage.  I saw moves like Pete Townsend, Chuck Berry and Angus Young from him--and that was just during the first song!  In addition to both acoustic and electric guitar work, TJ sings lead with a powerful, pure soul voice.  His greatest singing, however, comes when he sings harmony along with his sister.  There is something about sibling harmony that is hard to explain, but awesome to see.  There voices loop and soar, supporting each other as they climb new heights.  Often, when they sing together, you can see their eyes meet and the quickest of little smiles touches their face.  There's is a partnership built on years of singing together, and caring about each other.  

     TJ's guitar work is spectacular, blending many different styles.  It starts with a rock guitar bass, but adds a definitely Jazzy use of chords, some incredibly powerful rhythmic elements, and some uncommon scale/mode work (there's definitely an Indian and/or Middle-Eastern flare to some of his leads--coupled with some classic electric blues elements).  His tone, especially on the acoustic guitar is full, rich and luscious, with cutting fills and licks up the neck.  I would go see ANY side project he fronted--he's that good.

One End of The Drum Line
     Like most Ragbirds shows, the band left something special for the end.  After a soulful and touching second-to-last number, the band shifted into their "everyone grab a drum" mode and started on an African song (some type of love song/ballad?).  They were quicky joined on stage by a U of M Latin Percussion Band "Vencedores".  Their Brazilian Carnival influenced rhythm, complete with street whistle brought the crowd noisily to their feet.  Building on the crowds energy, and with beaming smiles, they brought the night to a pulsing, pounding, dance-in-your seat close.  As I said before, you don't go to a Ragbirds show, you experience it.  And I, for one, am so very glad I did.

More Pictures From the Show:



Monday, October 20, 2014

A Night of "Motor City Americana" at the Old Miami

One of the best dive-bars in the country
     I'm always looking for something new--a cool band, a funky venue, a new event, etc.   When my buddy Bill told me he and his band, MindDrive, were putting together a three-band, co-bill at a quirky little venue in downtown Detroit, I was all ears.  I've seen MindDrive a number of times, but they were rolling out a new drummer, and some tweaks to their sound, so I figured this was a great way to see the changes.  Adding to the draw was the fact that they'd booked a fairly traditional bluegrass acts, Behind the Times, as an opener--a band I've been meaning to see for some time.  Filling out the bill was a band I was not real familiar with, the Native Howl.   I really didn't know anything about them, but the fact that their ReverbNation page featured guitars and a banjo, and that they were all over Google and social media piqued my interest, and got me thinking they might just be "SeMiBluegrass" enough for me.

Something is watching you...
   Everything pointed to this being a cool way to spend a Friday night in "the D".  What I didn't expect was how totally cool the venue was.  It's rare that a bar steals the show, but  the
 Old Miami is the kind of funky old dive-bar that doesn't just demand your attention, but grabs you by the collar and head-butts you in the face.  How does one describe this place?  Vietnam Veteran's clubhouse meets hipster hangout?  Frat-house party meets New York punk club?  Your best friend's basement meets garage-band rental space?  A visit to a cultural museum and Central Park at night?  Words simply can not describe the overall assault to your senses that is the Old Miami.  Vietnam mementos adorn every scrap of available wall space.  Old guns hang from chains.  The beer for the bar back-line is stored in mismatched old refrigerators.  And then there's the back yard.  It's not an alley.  It's not a patio.  It's not really even a back yard.  It's a big chunk of green-space in a uniformly gray downtown.  There's random statues and a stone gargoyle.  A fire pit welcomes you to start a fire and hang out with your friends.  There's a hot-dog guy...with gourmet dogs....and home-made toppings...who cooks to order.  The beer is cold (and cheap--if you want to drink Black Label), the staff works their butt off, and they offer live music.  This place feels kind of like home to me.

Behind the Times
     Behind the Times is a stellar acoustic trio from the Waterford, Michigan area consisting of Rachel Pearson (fiddle, bass, vocals), Ben Luttermoser (guitar, bass and vocals) and Benjamin Teagues (mandolin, vocals).  Their sound is primarily bluegrass and roots oriented, but they definitely stretch the boundaries to include reggae, old-tyme, country and rock-n-roll sounds in their set.  I usually don't like smaller acoustics groups as they tend to sound a bit thin in an club setting.  This could not be further from the truth with Behind the Times.  They rock the one-mic set-up like professionals capturing the subtle nuances of their performance.  Their vocal harmonies are spot-on, often sounding like a single voice singing all three parts.

Rachel Handling the Bass Like a Pro
     They are proficient technical musicians as well, handling changes of key, genre and instruments with ease.  Rachel's fiddle playing perfectly complements the songs and helps fill them out.  With her smooth vocals and instant charm, she is an easy crowd favorite.  Ben plays guitar and sings with an obvious intensity, mixing solid rhythm playing with guitar leads that are packed full of blues and soul, a nice change from the usual blistering-fast, "I-want-to-play-like-Tony" stuff you so often hear.  His bass playing is solid, and really stands out when he tackles more complex parts and takes the melodic lead with the bass.  He is one of the best stand-up bass players I've heard.  Period.

Ben Giving it All to be on a Steam Powered Aeroplane
     Rounding out this dynamic trio is mandolin player Benjamin Teague and his turn-of-the-last-century A4 mandolin.  His twangy, pure country-soul vocals perfectly complement the rich, full, woodsy tone only a century of music can pull out of a mandolin.  His penchant for western hats, jeans and plaid shirts, along with a quick smile and the twinkle in the eye can easily bring on visions of a young Jimmy Martin.  True to their name, Behind the Times pays homage to classic Bluegrass and Old Country Standards.  What really sets them apart, however, was their inclusion of some fantastic, and original covers of less traditional material, including a reggae infused Taj Mahal number, a killer version of John Hartford's "Steam Powered Aeroplane" and a great spin on the Little Feat Classic song of love gone wrong, "Dixie Chicken".    Towards the end of the set, the young hipster crowd began filling in to see the Native Howl.  I was wondering how they'd react to Behind the Times.  I wasn't sure they'd "get it".  These worries were unfounded, as the crowd gathered around the front of the stage and took it all in, smiling, dancing and cheering.   I guess great music, and great talent, can simply transcends genre, audience and era.  Go see Behind the Times.  You will simply love them.

The Native Howl
     What to say about the Native Howl.  Billed as an acoustic duo, this twenty-somethings band features guitarist/songwriters Jake Sawicki and Alex Holycross.  Their blend of acoustic rock with a metal, folk and/or punk edge makes them a wee bit hard to define.  Start with a cross between Chris Stapelton and James Hetfield on vocals, mix in some surf-punk meets grunge band.  Throw on some Greenday bass lines and a thundering drum kit with the obligatory Djembe solo and you get close. Sort of.  They are very unique, featuring a mix of instrumentation, and an identifiable sound.  Once you've heard them, you would know they were playing before walking into a club.  Their vocal harmonies are surprisingly good for the genre, and it's obvious they spend a lot of time working on their arrangements.

A Truly Powerful Voice
     Their mostly original set featured plenty of hard-driving, high-octane melodies belted out with grit, soul and angst.  Acoustic guitars played through a variety of effects creates a lush sonic tapestry to drape songs featuring rust-belt images of young love, rebellion and coming of age.  There is a certain jam-band feel to their music, with a both guitars sharing lead lines, and rhythm work--each in their own distinctive style  And their fans love them.  Three notes into each song they lose their minds, cheering, dancing and crowding the stage.  The band obviously feeds off this energy, pushing themselves to soaring heights both vocally and instrumentally.  Make no mistake, this is a rock show.  Pure Detroit rock.  And it's great!

MindDrive Co-Frontman Bill Arnold
     Closing out the night was MindDrive, with their unique blend of electric- and acoustic music fittingly refer to as "Motor City Americana".   Debuting a new drummer, and some tweaking of their arrangements, the band hit the stage with a vengeance.   The changes to the band have certainly re-energized the band and songs alike.  The new drummer has that rare--yet essential--ability to shift between soft, quick beats to complement acoustic instruments, and the louder, more beat-forward work required behind electric guitars.  He also gets points from me for playing a smaller, stripped-down kit (my preference) and even more for working closely with bassist Les Miller to provide a unified, steady heartbeat to their songs.   Once this rhythm section sets up the pocket, the groove takes of and just keeps running.

Getting In The Groove
     Like all the bands at the Old Miami that night, MindDrive's sound is hard to pin down.  At their core, they're a rock band with an electric bass, drum kit and electric guitar on most songs.  But, almost half of their songs feature acoustic guitar and/or mandolin giving them a definite folky edge.   Bill Arnold's dobro adds a bluegrass feel to some songs, his lap steel calls up classic blues sounds, and his Telecaster is pure Nashville country.  Lead singer Jeff's clean tenor vocals slide effortlessly between jazz, British-invasion rock and prog-rock / trance-rock feels, while his complex leads and fills on the guitar add a layer of complexity to the band's sound.  Andy David is just as comfortable ripping off a stinging lead on the acoustic guitar, as he is throwing classic blues rock licks around on the Stratocaster. 

Layin' Down Some Hot Licks
     MindDrive's set list this night featured 100% original music (a fitting tribute to a 100% original venue).  OK, one of their "encore" songs may have been a deep-cut Beatles tunes...but none of the youngsters their at last call are old enough to have guessed that!   In this era of disapearing live music venues; streaming and "on demand" music; overproduced, autotuned and ultra cliche' pop; and cookie cutter top 40, most bands have to choose between pursuing their art, and making money.  Luckily, MindDrive chooses to make the hard choice, writing songs about love, loss and dissatisfaction.  Their song "Goodby Summertime", allowed to grow, evolve and mature, had moved from a fairly standard power-ballad, to a rock-anthem ode to warm weather, good friends and good times.  No music factory around today could ever create a song where the band sings "Goodby Summertime, I miss you my old friend" and have everyone in the crowd feel the intense happiness of the great times, and overwhelming melancholy at their loss.  This is the mark of a great band.  Taking words and transmogrifying them into living, breathing beings capable of transporting the listener away from their daily lives and wrapping them in layers of melody and rhythm, until your feet start to move, you lips begin to smile and your heart sings with joy!  Say what you will about Detroit, but there is still magic here.  An beauty.  And love. An you will find it anywhere there is great live music, played by a great local band, in a great local club.  Go find some.

Random Photos Follow: