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/

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Getting my Bluegrass on with the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show

Where the Magic Happens at the OHBS
Lately, I've been trying to step up my game on SeMiBluegrass.com and feature some of the people and organizations working to support, promote and grow opportunities for the type of live, local music I love.  I have known Jerry Eicher of the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show for a few years now from local festivals and the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association.  His show, originating from Adrian Michigan, on WQTE 95.3 FM, is one of the few places to hear bluegrass music free over the airwaves.  Can't pick them up on your radio?  No problem...you can live stream or listen to the archived shows here:  LINK.  (The show referenced in this article is show #394).  Jerry has repeatedly asked me to drop in the show as his guest, and over the winter vacation, I finally made it to his studio in Delta Ohio (just over the state line south of Adrian) to tape a show.  Originally, I was only going to do a brief segment, but a last-minute conflict with his co-host Brad Long left a seat open for me to co-host the entire two-hour show with Jerry to discuss our shared love of bluegrass--and especially those artists who manage the delicate balance of staying true to the roots of bluegrass, but pushing the bounds into a more progressive sound and reaching out to a new generation of fans.

Merlin:  The Magician at the Controls.
When Jerry and his first-rate producer Merlin first reached out to me for suggestions of songs to play on the show I had to look deep into my SemiBluegrass vault and pick just the right tunes.  I know Jerry already had a far greater library of material than I, but--as a kindred spirit--was always looking for something new.  Each song had to have some meaning to me; something I wanted to share with his audience.  I also wanted to showcase the type of music I love to go hear live: respectful to the bluegrass tradition, but pushing the boundaries of what bluegrass can sound like.  It was also important to me to pick  songs that are easy to sing and play--as a large part of my "SemiBluegrass Experience" revolves around playing music with others at festivals and jams.  In the end, I was able to find three songs that fit the bill.

A SemiBluegrass Playlist!
There was no doubt in my mind about my first selection, "Trout Bum" by my Marquette friends Chasin' Steel.  This is the band that first got me interested in bluegrass, and the song that set the hook (pun intended).  For a long time, the band only performed this ode to the fly fishing lifestyle in their live shows, until the eventually recorded it live on the banks of the storied Au Sable River, in Grayling Michigan.  If you listen closely, you can hear the river flowing by, the breeze in the birch trees and birds chirping in the recording.  You'll also hear the impressive Dobro chops of my good friend Bill Arnold.  The video also features my boat, my beer cooler and yours truly in some under-impressive live fishing action.  How could I not choose this song?

Jerry Showing Off His Home "Indian Ridge" Studio
Next was a local offering from my favorite Ann Arbor area songwriter, Chris Buhalis.   "Highway Shoes" is the sole "pure" bluegrass number on his decade old album "Kenai Dreams".  This is a fairly straight-ahead, classic bluegrass arrangement of a "boy meets girl, boy looses girl" song reminiscent of early Bill Monroe or Country Gentlemen tunes.  This is a great recording with a superb backing band of the best bluegrass session players in the area.  However, it is Chris' gritty and soulful voice that adds just right amount of bluesy emotion to really elevate this sad song in a happy key to bluegrass greatness. The song (actually the whole album) also features some really impressive Dobro licks by Texas slideman Jeff Plankenhorn. This is rapidly becoming a SemiBluegrass jam session favorite.  Due to a tragic worksite saw accident, Chris' sophomore album is FINALLY ready to be released this spring--the early, live performances of the material are really first class and I can't wait to hear more.

So Much Music, So Little Time
My friend Dave is to thank for the last number as he introduced me to the Cincinnati-based bluegrass trio, the Rubber Knife Gang and their traditional bluegrass anthem "Tennessee Mountain Girl".  These guys are the perfect embodiment of the SemiBluegrass Ethos.  Pretty much straight up bluegrass technique and lyrics played in a catchy, upbeat and jam-worthy style.  These are young guys playing old music and making it appealing to fans new and old.  I almost always end up playing this at jam sessions when people want to hear something "different".  Lately, they've been asking for it by name!  Jerry pulled out all the stops this night, introducing me to a bunch of great music I wasn't familiar with.  Some Christmas and old-time music keep the mood light, a killer bluegrass cover of  "Tommy" by my favorite band the Hillbenders and a great, young band called the Deadly Gentlemen.   A day with the crew and cast of characters that circle the Ol Hippie Bluegrass show was just the ticket to get out of my funk; energize myself about live music and hand out with some great friends.  And the post-show picking was even better!  Tune in to the show every Saturday night at 10:00pm or the Wednesday rebroadcast at 9:00pm.  Or better yet, drop by and say "Hi" at a concert, festival or bluegrass event near you!

Jerry's Isolation Gizmo

OHBS Superfan Rick

The BEST Tee Shirts Around

Live Music During the Show?  Yes Please!

More Live Room and a Studio Plug

"Live" Audience!

A Great Collection of Memories

"Vintage" ohbs

Jerry and His Studio Setup

Beginning of a Drum Circle!

Control Booth!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Magical Night with Billy Strings and Don Julin at the Ark

The Magic of Billy Strings and Don Julin Playing Live
Readers of this blog know that I love live, local music and I go see a LOT of shows.  Not all of them make these pages;  some are just not to my liking (and who am I to criticize anyone who has the guts to get up and play live on stage?) and others are bands I've covered before.  When I saw that Billy Strings and Don Julin were playing the Ark, I almost didn't go.  After all, I'd already seen them play live a half a dozen times this year, and watched them them playing "live" around numerous festival campsites.  However, with the recent announcement that they were going to quit touring together (Billy to purse his solo career in Nashville, and Don to focus on a Jazz project) I suspected that this show might be something "special" and made the last minute decision to attend.  As I got in line to buy a ticket to what ended up being a sold-out show, I was lucky to run into another fan of "Semibluegrass" music fan who had an extra ticket and graciously gave it to me--an omen of how special the night was to be.

"This Might Get a Little Weird"
Billy took the stage for a brief four-song set of solo music to kick off the night and give the audience a wee peek into his outrageous talent and some of the wildy creative and innovative ideas rattling around in the brain of this musical trendsetter.  I can't imagine a better constructed set to kick off a night of groundbreaking music,  Somehow, this affable and humble young man pulled off the perfect nod to where he comes from and road map to his future.  Beginning with a traditional bluegrass number, he showcased his bluegrass roots and prodigious flat-picking talent.  I was once again taken aback by his ability to seemingly effortlessly transition from driving rhythm lines to crisp, complex melody lines.  He truly is a one-man bluegrass band!  After giving his respects to all the great musicians who'd graced the stage he stood on, he launched into a killer arrangement of a Doc Watson standard--every bit as mind blowing as the original (especially when he somehow managed to incorporate an up-tempo section of the Black Mountain Rag melody into one of his breaks).  Prefacing his next number with "this might get a little weird",  Billy managed to get the crowd dancing in their seats with a rhythmic instrumental number--beating out an Afro-Centric rhythm on the body of the guitar and tapping out the melody line on an open tuned finger board.  This was an amazing display of talent that had Billy grinning ear-to-ear while he played it.  Finishing up the set was a modern-sounding jam-bandy number featuring Billy jamming over  a complex rhythm line laid down courtesy of a loop pedal.  I'm usually not a fan of this technique, but this particular number was both interesting and engaging...and resisted the urge to turn into a 30-minute free-for-all experimental jam.

The Mr. Natural Project
Next came Don Julin and his 4-piece jazz quartet the Mr. Natural Project.  A perfect reference for those of us who grew up in southeast Michigan in the 70s and early 80s I can't imaging a better name for the band.  For those of you struggling with the pop-culture reference of the name, do a google search until you find a cartoon picture that looks like Don Julin's head and goofy grin atop the Grateful Dead's "keep on truckin'" dude and you've found it!  While I'm not usually a fan of jazz music, this quartet might change my mind.  Built around a killer rhythm section of bass and jazz drum kit, the band lies down killer grooves and builds a pocket that reaches out, surrounds the crowd and draws them along with the band.  It is refreshing to see a band where the rhythm section is able to not only support the melody, but add to it, add counterpoint and sometimes wander off on their own to give texture and character to the song.  Melody is handled by a truly gifted jazz fiddler, Daniel Seabolt, and by Don himself.  While Daniel sticks to his traditional fiddle (eschewing the electric fiddle for some KILLER tone) Don throws down on a variety of electrified mandolin-family instruments (electric 8-string mandola, 5-string electric mandolin and a telecaster-esque octave mandolin).  During their set the band improvised  their way through four songs including the memorable Don Julin original "Mr. Natural" and even a traditional bluegrass fiddle tune that somehow morphed into a killer jazz jam.  The energy in the room was beyond electric during and after the set and the crowd was primed for the main event.

Bluegrass--As Good As It Gets
Fans of Billy and Don would be right at home with the beginning of their set, where the two of them traded off lead and rhythm licks over the driving bass lines of Kevin Gills.  Their mix of traditional and original bluegrass-based numbers really got the crowd up and going.  The magic of the Ark is how intimate the setting really is, allowing everyone to hear every nuance of the performance on stage and the interplay of the band and the audience--the crowd shouting out requests and the band doing everything they could to play them all.  Halfway through the set, the band had worked up to a level of energy that was truly impressive, even for them.  I thought there was no way they could take it further.  Boy, was I wrong.  When Daniel Seabolt joined the trio on stage, all hell broke loose.  With he and Don trading melody lines on traditional, fiddle-driven bluegrass tunes, Billy got down and dirty with his bass player driving the tempo, the rhythm and energy to soaring heights. It was a good thing this was an instrumental number, as there is simply no way he could have muttered an intelligible vocal with the lip-splitting grin plastered to his face.

In The Groove and Holding On For Dear Life
The sound coming from stage was so engaging; so rich and nuanced; so interesting to listen to it it became one of the premier live performances of my year.  It made me simultaneously wish they always played as a larger ensemble, and jealously horde this night as the truly special event it was.  And then the magic happened.   Billy somehow tore himself away from the crazy rhythmic cauldron stirring on stage (Don Julin seamlessly substituting in) and tore into a crazy instrumental break.  As he wandered the fingerboard with reckless abandon, the band gathered around and cheered him on.  At one point, Seabolt leaned in and kept yelling "higher kid, higher!" as Strings ventured well past the 20th fret into those crazy harmonic notes that live over the soundhole in an acoustic guitar. By the end of the show the crowd was on their feet and remained standing and cheering through not only a killer encore, but demanding the band come out for a final curtain call.  This was truly an incredible night of live, local music played from the heart.  I've included a few more pictures from the evening below.  Feel free to share with your friends and tell them about SeMiBluegrass.com for more insight into the local acoustic music scene in South East MIchigan.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Future of Live Local Music

Ebird Strings Throwing it Down!
Caught some amazing live, local music in my home town this week.  I went to see the "EBird and Friends Holiday Spectacular at Hartland High School (and it was--as usual--an amazing collection of incredibly talented, mostly acoustic and mostly LOCAL musicians).  It's great to see young people so engaged in making music. I love that my local music scene is so diverse, and that these artists can be both respectful to the tradition and wildly creative as they push the envelope of what music could, and should, be.

Where Will the Next Musical Generation Come From
I often ponder "will there be a new generation of musicians to take the place of these youngsters as they move on in their lives, settle into careers and start raising families?"  As a teacher, I see every day the lure of self-entitlement, instant gratification and "something for nothing" ethics that plaque the millenial and internet generations.  Compounding the problem are the "test till you drop" and  "STEM or bust" attitudes of the education reform and draconian budget cuts that lead to the elimination of Art, Music and vocational offerings in our schools.  Without these creative outlets we face a future as a nation of doers not thinkers, wishers not dreamers and wanters not makers.

Payoff for all those hard days after school...
I was therefore extremely pleased to attend my daughter's middle school band/choir holiday concert and find it alive, energetic and enthusiastic.  Packed into an overcrowded gym, I saw a glimmer of hope.  From the opening color guard flag routine choreographed by members of the team , to the triumphant 8th grade band's cover of a Trans Siberian Orchestra holiday number to close the show, a diverse and far ranging spectrum of talent was on display.

It Takes a Lot of Hard Work To Get Here!

Like most school jazz bands this night featured an eclectic mix of traditional band instruments, with electric strings, piano and a drum kit.  Somewhat unique was seeing the students take turns rising and soloing (some even improvising as they played).  The choir was spot-on with their arrangements.  I loved that a couple of girls were allowed to front the choir on one number and show off some remarkable scat-singing abilities.  Two students even sang A Capella solos (no easy feat in front of several hundred of their peers and their parents).  A quartet of students stole the show with their a A Capella/Hambone number, weaving complex harmonies with even more complicated hand rhythms to receive the only standing ovation of the evening.  Both the 7th and 8th grade bands were rock solid, mixing some traditional holiday numbers with intriquing Afro-Cuban instrumentation and rhythms.

The Hardest Working Elves of All
All in all, it is easy to see why every kids there was laughing, smiling and tapping their foot along to every number.  The dedication of their band and choir teachers is truly spectacular to behold.  If you looked close, you could even see the elementary and high school directors seated with the students playing the odd instrument or two.  And a small army of parents and volunteers all chipped in to make the evening a success.  I shared a bunch of pictures below.  I hope they inspire you, or your child, or a friend to embrace music in your life.  It is the best chance we have for a bright future.

Jolly Oboe Saint Nick?
Singing Her Heart Out
This Drummer had a BALL Playing the Kit
Lots of Marimba for Sarajevo 12-24
White Christmas?
'Merica (couldn't help it)
Gotta Work on the Girls on the Stands....
Long Before "Pitch Perfect" There Was The Hambone.
Director Called his Percussionists "Enthusiastic"
Another Teacher Sneaks in on the Tuba
What it's all about
The Four Smartest Boys in 8th Grade
Cool Kids Play French Horn (with their hat on!)
Love a Doghouse and a Swinging Beat!
Future Blues Horn Section in the Making?
Impressive Scat Singing
Having WAY too much fun!