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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.

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