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/

Monday, December 15, 2014

Pure Detroit: Gasoline Gypsies, Royal Blackbirds & Longneck Stranglers @ The Magic Bag

Live, Local Music at the Magic Bag
     I sometimes joke about the "tens of viewers" this blog attracts.  I know it's actually a lot better than that (I'm well over 50,000 page views now), but it's still nice when someone "stumbles onto" something I wrote and likes it enough to reach out to me.  Such was the case when a friend of the Native Howl (reviewed here) somehow got my business card and invited me to see their band, the Gasoline Gypsies open up a 3-band ticket at the Magic Bag in my old home town of Ferndale.  A quick look at youtube told me this mostly electric band had some deep acoustic and "SeMiBluegrass" roots, so I immediately agreed.

In the Groove with the Gasoline Gypsies
     The job of opening band can be daunting at best.  Especially when the "headliner" is hosting their fans for a record release party--they want to see the main event an usually could care less about the opening bill.  When the Gasoline Gypsies hit the stage, the bar was already mostly full, noisy and buzzing with anticipation.  Instantly reading the room, they launched into a high-voltage opening number that grabbed the audience by the throat and delivered a musical sucker-punch right in their faces.  They had the crowds attention from the very first note. That song might have been a Jim Croce cover.  To be honest, I was so mesmerized by the band's performance that I forgot to write anything down.  I hardly remembered to take a few pictures!  Keeping the crowd's attention throughout the set was easy after that.  The band rolled out one hard-driving original tune after another before closing with a "Beatles meets Metalica" cover of Eleanore Rigby.  When all was said and done, the band certainly had the crowd's attention.

Malooley on Lead Guitar
    How to describe the Gypsies' sound?  They definitely encompass all that is great about the Detroit rock sound (even though they're from Port Huron).  Their original songs feature impressive lyrics with rock solid vocal hooks and vivid storytelling.  The band members take turns singing lead with everyone contributing to some well arranged harmonies.  Their melodies draw from the rock tradition, with strong nods and passing winks to funk, blues, soul, country and Americana.  Every song is built around a crushing bass/drum groove with pure, clean-tone guitar leads, and deliciously crunchy rhythm guitar work.  The bands' CD has been on near constant rotation in my car for the past three days (it's a damn good piece of work!) gives you the kind of songs that get stuck in your mind and make you want to sing along all day.  I even think I detected the sound of a banjo on a couple of tunes (and who doesn't love the banjo now days?).  The more I listen, the more I want to hear more of what this band has to say.  It's rare to find lyrics both interesting and intriguing now days, and these boys are spot on with their songwriting.

Makowski on the Kit
     Gypsy drummer Joe Makowski lays down one of the cleanest grooves you'll hear.  Readers of this blog know I love a drummer with a light, fast touch, and Joe is all of that.  He has also mastered the subtleties of dynamic range; playing lightly under sweet melodies and blowing up over the top of power-chord driven jams.  Unlike many drummers, Joe is intently focused on his band mates while he plays, allowing him to both keep them on time, and mold his drumming around what they are doing.  It's pure magic.   His rhythm section partner, Steve Briere lays down a funky groove that really gives life to their original songs.  His combination of complex walking lines with a pulsing melodic style lends a ton of drive to the band and helps set up a pocket that makes this one of the very tightest bands you'll here.

Schwei Getting It Done!
    Another of my very favorite things about a band is watching bands that like playing together.  It's like that scene in "The Rookie" where Jim Morris says "we get to play baseball today" with that stupid grin on his face.  We all love music.  And I love watching bands who love to play.  No where is this more evident than in the Gasoline Gypsies' guitar duo of Caleb Malooley (lead) and Robby Schwei (rhythm).  These two could not be more different, yet work together more perfectly.  Caleb played a surf-blue stratocaster with a light touch and crystal clear clean tones.  It was soaring and precise in all the right ways.  Schwei, on the other hand played the living daylights out of his Les Paul, with heavy strumming and deep, full, over-driven tube-amp tones.  His approach to rhythm playing gave the Gypsies' sound the same kind of in-your-face drive as a great banjo player in a bluegrass band.  On top of this is his infectious enthusiasm;  he literally throws himself around the stage giving "body English" to his playing and grooving with his band mates.  The GoPro rig on his chest is a nice touch as well.  I'd love to see the crowd from his point of view!  In case you can't tell, I love this band and can't wait to go see them again.

The Royal Blackbirds
    Up next was a power trio of young blues rockers, the Royal Blackbirds from East Detroit.  According to their Facebook page, the band averages 21 years old, but I don't believe it.  Sure, they look like teenagers, but they PLAY like veteran Detroit rockers, with all grit and grime to their sound that only comes from decades of playing dark, smoky clubs for free drinks and tips.  They are a lot of fun to watch and have a very unique sound.  Pretty much straight, modern rock, with a heavy dose of mid-eighties punk and a not-so-subtle homage to John Lee Hooker thrown in for good measure.
The Kid Can PLAY!
    Where the Gasoline Gypsies were polished and tight, the Blackbirds where raw and edgy.  They had the amps turned up to "eleven" and play their instruments with energy and vitality of youth.  Lead singer/guitarist Rebecca Saad is a remarkable talent.  While her choice of musical genre lends it self to the cliche' 3-chord, power-chord anthem, her lead playing is powerful, melodic and creative.  She doesn't sound like anyone else.  She sounds like her.  She broke out of a fairly "prog rock" vocal sound for a bluesy number (might have been called "Misery") and showed off a powerful, luscious, soul-driven voice that raised goosebumps on my arm and made my hair stand on end.  Drummer Jeanette Gadette puts her heart and soul into her playing, beating the drums until they scream for mercy, but keeping exceptional time and driving the band forward.  Not my cup of tea, but PERFECT for the bands' sound.  Bassist Dennis Burck is a real standout.  He may have been the best musician on stage that night, laying down complex and funky grooves as he sways and dances to the beat, usually with his eyes closed and satisfied grin on his face.  This kid can flat-out play!

A Little Bit Rock, A Whole Lot of Country!
    Country Rock band the Longneck Stanglers finished off the night.  Unfortunately, my tank was out of gas, so I only stayed for the first half-dozen songs of their set.  Make no mistake, this ain't your usual Detroit rock band.  Nor are they a pure Nashville country band.  Somehow, some way, they take the best from both of these scenes and blend them into a coherent, and crowd pleasing, show.   They hit the stage with a rock-star attitude.  From the clothes they wear, to their high-energy antics on stage, they are there to put on a show--and their fans love it.  Lead singer Ricky Lenz is just as comfortable belting out rock-infused power songs as he is crooning county-laced ballads while strumming his six-string.  He really surprised me by pulling out a harmonica and adding some killer blues harp work over a couple songs.  Rick Broworski helps drive the band onward, whipping the crowd into a frenzy both with his pulsing guitar licks, and hyperkinetic stage antics.  Likewise, bassist Kevin Davis is all over the stage keeping the band in high gear as they shift effortlessly from one song to the next.  Throw in wild-haired drummer Jeremy Kanouse and it's easy to see why this country band with a rock attitude inspires such devotion in their fans.

Assorted pictures below.  Feel free to tag and share with your friends.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Pure Listening: Younce Guitar Duo wsg Miriam Pico @ Johnny's Speakeasy

A One-Of-A-Kind Place
     I am continually amazed at the quality of live, local music in South Eastern Michigan.  From spectacularly talented bands, to world-class venues, the music scene is as vibrant as Nashville, Memphis or Austin--if you know where to look.  Somehow, one of the very coolest of these venues has stayed under my radar until now.  This video explains Johnny's Speakeasy better than I ever could.  Owner and host extraordinaire Johnny Williams has created something wonderful in his basement.  Sure, anyone can build a stage in their basement (although, this is one COOL basement), hook up a sound system and decorate with quirky/cool memorabilia, but to create a true masterpiece of listening enjoyment obviously required the hand of a master.  When Johnny invited me to come see the Younce Guitar Duo play there, I was not prepared for the journey I was about to undertake.

Jerry Younce and Ray Shamma
   After introducing myself, and grabbing a great, comfortable seat (ALL the seats there are great by-the-way), the band came on stage and launched into a full-throttle, high-energy, driving version of a Santana instrumental.  The absolute musical talent on display was obvious from the first note.  However, I was quite taken aback by how intently every single person in the room listened to what they were doing.  You could almost see and feel the crowd connecting with the music.  And the band responded, pumping up the energy and throwing it right back at the crowd.  As the song ended, there was the briefest moment of stunned silence followed by enthusiastic applause.  Their hour-long instrumental set of mostly original music mixed with quality cover tunes only got better as the night went on.

Ryan Younce and a wee bit of Ty
     The core of the band is Father-Son duo Jerry and Ryan Younce, who take turns supplying the rhythm and lead guitar parts--Jerry on a Taylor steel-string guitar and Ryan on a spectacular nylon-stringed guitar.  Both guitars have a distinctly unique sound, and both men play with a distinct style.  Like so many of the bands I like, their musical style defies categorization.  If I was forced to call it something it would be "Jazz Folk Rock with a Latin/Flamenco Twist"...but that doesn't really do it justice.  Jerry plays with a blended thumbpick/hybrid fingerstyle approach and leans ever-so-slightly towards the melodic end of the solo spectrum, while Ryan alternates between classical finger-style and flatpicking styles with a slightly sharper, faster, more staccato approach to his solo work.  They both flow so easily between rhythm and lead that the listener is often unaware that they have switched.

A great night of music in a special place--perfection!

    Backing the band this night were bass player Ray Shamma and Younce Brother/Uncle Ty Younce on percussion.  Shamma played a beautiful wood electric bass with some terribly cool inlay work--a true work of art.  While I usually prefer a stand-up bass in acoustic settings, he was able to play subtle yet interesting bass lines that somehow fit perfectly with the music, relentlessly driving the band forward and pushing the energy to the limits.  Ty on the other hand is EXACTLY what I like as a percussionist behind an acoustic act. With a cajon kick-drum, two small mic'd bongos and a trio of small cymbals he is able to subtly blend sounds to perfectly complement the music.  He has an extraordinarily light tough, especially on the cymbals--sometimes, there's no front attack at all, the sound just seemingly swells up from nothing and rings with bell-like clarity through the woodsy guitar sound.  I also loved that he had a large "kit" of various sticks, strikers and brushes he used in addition to his hands--often switching multiple times within a song to get the perfect sound.  Truly one of the finest percussionists around!

The lovely and talented Miriam Pico
     After a short break singer-songwriter Miriam Pico took the stage.  I'm usually not a huge fan of the "single woman singer-songwriter" sound.  I could not have been more impressed by what she brought to the table.  Her songwriting is some of the best I have heard, with great stories, strong emotions, catchy vocal hooks and a poignancy that can not be taught--it must be earned through hard work and dedication.  She has an effortless rapport with the crowd with an easy-going personality and a quick smile.  Her voice has a perfect mix of deep soul and clear highs, mixed with an ever-so-slightly breathy quality to give it character.  Perfectly matched to the classic jazz ballad, she nevertheless effortlessly moved between her own songs, jazz standards and rock/pop covers from the Beatles, Jackson Browne and Led Zepplin.  Her signature song "It Is What It Is" (download this on iTunes, it's the best 99 cents you'll ever spend) involved a bit of crowd participation.  As the chorus wound around to hook, the crowd enthusiasticall joined in singing "It Is What It Is"...on cue...in time...and in perfect harmony.  It was amazing, and the beaming smile on Miriams face let everyone know she was as shocked--and pleased--as they were!  The night concluded with Miriam joining the Younce Guys for a short set of standards and cover tunes.  This was a special performance, in a remarkable setting, surrounded by people who share my enthusiasm.  I can't wait to go back!