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Friday, October 17, 2014

"A Six-Handed Acoustic Blues Guitar Party": Shari Kane & Dave Steele at the Ark (wsg Brooks Williams)

So many guitars, so few musicians.
     The start of a new school year is always hard for us teachers; so much to do, and so little time to get it done.  I love my job, but the stress level can be incredible this time of year.  So, when my friend and guitar-teacher Shari Kane invited me to the Ark for a show with her husband Dave Steele (http://sharianddaveblues.com/) it sounded like the perfect opportunity to unwind with some great, live, local acoustic music.  I've known Shari for years, having first run into her at the Marquette Area Blues Fest where she blew me away with her acoustic blues virtuosity.  When she mentioned that they would be sharing the bill with Brooks Williams (an artist I had not previously come across) and that I would "love him", it was a done deal. 

The Wonderful Brooks Williams
     I took the opportunity to take my daughter down to Ann Arbor for a Mongolian BBQ Dinner, and visit to the Vault of Midnight and Cherry Republic (her favorites) before sending her home and taking my usual "first in line" spot at the Ark.  It was a beautiful night to hang out outside in Ann Arbor with fellow music fans and random, interesting passers-by.  I got inside and found a good seat and settled in for a night of intimate music and personal storytelling.  The crowd filtered in slowly and steadily, finally filling about half of the auditorium (a pretty good crowd for a "school night" performance).

I do love a National.  Especially played this well!
     Being a school night, I had to resist the temptation to sample the Ark's every-improving selection of craft brews, and settled for a remarkably awesome cup of fresh coffee.  After the usual pre-show announcements by the night manager, Brooks Williams exploded onto stage with the energy and affable charisma of a Labrador retriever puppy watching his master walk up the sidewalk.  His barn-burner opening number features plenty of nimble-fingered blues licks interspersed with a unique, percussive rhythm style that included some sharp, almost-slappy accents on the bass-string downbeats.  Coupled with his comfortable, mellow singing style, Brooks' distinctive approach to the blues is somehow able to capture the depth and richness of a complete band with just his voice and guitar. He played both finger-style and flatpick, as well as mixing in some bottleneck (yes...a "real" bottleneck, cut from green class, not a made-to-order glass tube!).  An impressive slide-guitar version of Amazing Grace had me absolutely captivated until the very last note.  Brooks also threw in some very uniqe, if not downright quirky ending licks on some of his songs.  Like nothing I had every heard before, they somehow perfectly captured his essence.

Statesboro Blues with Dave & Shari
     Brooks frequent changing of keys, tunings and guitars (a woodsy OOO and a classic metal-bodied National) could conceivably break the momentum of his set, but his personal, and often very funny narrative keeps the audience engaged and the show moving forward.  He handled the interaction with the crowd with the skill and grace of a seasoned nightclub performer while at the same time managing that magical, almost empathetical connection to the crowd.  If you closed your eyes, it was easy to picture him performing in my living room, instead of on a stage in front of an enthusiastic crowd.  It was easy to see that Brooks enjoyed performing at the Ark just as much as the audience enjoyed seeing him play.  He kept saying he wanted to come back, and I will make it a point to go see him if he does.

The Bluegrass Police Would Not Approve (but I do!)
     After a short intermission, Shari and Dave took the stage.  As I mentioned before, I've known Shari for a long time, but my only interaction with Dave had been a few nods and grunts in the driveway as I arrived or departed for my lesson, so I was anxious to "get to know him" a little better.  For a man of few words, Dave has a spectacular voice for singing the blues, able to effortlessly transition from and old-time, gravely baritone (think Satchmo) and a easy flowing tenor.  No one will ever accuse him of singing tentatively, as he gives each word, note and phrase his full attention.   He and Shari shared the lead vocals, often coming together to sing harmony.  An Oh!  Those harmonies (but more on that later).   Singing a mix of classic blues tunes, and original songs (including his love-song homage to Shari, "I Can't Keep a Secret", 

Dave Steele
     Dave's guitar playing is perfect counterpoint to Shari's .  Each unique, each awesome.  While Shari take a more traditional acoustic blues approach to the songs, Dave's approach somehow calls to mind classic electric blues, especially when he plays lead with a hybrid picking style and massive string-bending licks up the neck.  I was definitely impressed with his attention to the details of melody, ripping of mind-blowing solos, but somehow ALWAYS coming back to the melody.  In a night filled with guitar blues, he also picked up the the mandolin a couple times to stretch the acoustic envelope and add some diversity to the performance.  My bluegrass purists readers will doubtlessly be appalled that he uses a capo on his mando, but somehow, in blues, that totally works.

Blues Woman Extraordinaire Shari Kane
     Shari, as I've come to expect, continued to amazing me with her versatility.   Surprisingly, it wasn't her guitar playing that really wowed me, but her vocals on this night.  From her usually soul-dipped lead, to tender and intimate harmony with Dave, her voice lends the perfect touch of class to every song.  During one of the opening sets, she even broke out a low-down-and-dirty "scat" style counterpoint vocal that seemed to amaze her as much as the crowd.  She smiled, laughed and chuckled through the show.  Sometimes, when she's really in the groove, she starts an intricate, funky and almost frantic dance along with her playing.  But only with her feet.  The consummate professional, she keeps the guitar and her voice firmly planted in front of the mic, while her feet keep the party going--she looks exactly like James Brown (from the ankles down)!

It's All About the Dobro (and that smile)
     Shari's guitar playing is the next best thing to a time-machine trip to the turn-of-the-century delta for a tour of back-room juke joints.  Her easy and intricate style is perfectly suited to providing both driving rhythm and soulful leads.  Equally versed in classic finger-style blues and groovy Delta slide, lick after lick flow into one another until the end of the song, when you just have to say "wow...what did I just see?".  Playing her Martin OOO or classic National resonator straight into the house PA system, Shari coaxes an amazingly rich and complex tone out of her guitars.  New to me, she even took a turn on the square-neck dobro where here blues-based approach was a nice departure from the usual bluegrass dobro I hear (I have a LOT of dobro friends all of the sudden).  Perhaps the coolest moments of the night came as Shari dedicated numerous songs to people in the audience.  Friends, former students, people dealing with loss, and blossoming new talents all received words of love and encouragement and songs of inspiration and joy.

A Girl and Her National.  Heaven.
   The real magic of the night came not from the individual performances, but when Brooks, Shari and Dave took turns teaming up for each others' encore performances.  As much as they kept tongue-in-cheek referring to all the planning that went into these songs, it was just a bunch of pickers with guitar getting together to share music--much like you'd find at an open mic, a fireside jam circle or my monthly bluegrass jams.  A quick "do you know...?" followed by "what key...?" and some "here...watch the chord changes" somehow came off as some of the richest performances of the night.  They were truly magical to watch.  These three musicians somehow have voices and styles that are comfortably similar, yet completely different, creating a synergistic masterpiece where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  During the last song, I would be watching Shari play lead, and realize somewhere at the middle that she was playing rhythm and Dave or Brooks had taken up the lead--and I had no idea when that change had happened.  In fact, at the very end of the very last song, of the very last encore....all three played a quick two-bar "outro" lick to end the song....each completely different...each so totally their own...and each fitting perfectly together.  You just can't practice perfection.

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