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, January 20, 2015

Do Wrong Right: The Devil Makes Three at St. Andrews

The Devil Makes Three in All Their Glory
     Yes.  I love bluegrass music.  But I'm by no means a bluegrass purist or traditionalist.  The very things that I like about the genre, lyrics with great stories, killer harmonies, acoustic grooves and driving beats can be found in may forms of music with their roots in, or paying homage to, these roots music origins.  Perhaps no band exemplifies this "semibluegrass" ethos better than The Devil Makes Three.  I've seen them play a handful of time, including their last stellar performance at St. Andrew's Hall in Detroit, so I knew this would be a great live show and bought tickets as soon as they were available.  I knew from experience that this is one of those bands that is light-years better live than on their recordings.  Whether it's their hard-to-classify musical sound,  their legions of devoted fans, or their effortless ability to both build and draw energy from a crowd,  a Devil Makes Three show is a true multi-sensory event that simply has to be experienced to truly comprehend. 
Gettin' Down with TDM3
     So, how do you begin to describe the TDM3 sound?  With a fairly traditional mix of acoustic stringed instruments--archtop guitar, 5- and 4-string banjo, dobro and upright bass--they definitely land comfortably in the bluegrass, old-time, folk arena.  Add in fiddle, twin fiddle, or even cello on a few tunes and they are much more than that--dabbling with blues, jazz, country and swing with a hint of mid-70s punk rock thrown in to sweeten the mixture.  Their songs all feature strong lyrical hooks and often intense vocal harmonies.  Their songwriting blends entertaining storytelling with fun, playful and ofttimes dark undertones--songs of love, addiction and rebellion blending effortlessly with semi-autobiographical tales of post-modern reality.  Never doubt that their message resonates with the audience, who seem to sing along with every verse and chorus as they sing, sway and cheer with arms and voices stretched out to the band.  This crowd draws their energy from the musicians on stage, who reciprocate in a positive feedback loop of energy, enthusiasm and emotion.  You can not help but be swept up by a Devil Makes Three show and carried along by the groove.  It's not bluegrass, or folk, or blues or rock played the same way anyone else does it.  But, as their own song says, "if you're gonna do wrong buddy, do wrong right", and this band totally does.
Pete Bernhard and Lucia Turino
     Lacking a traditional rhythm section, any type of drum, the steady chop of a mandolin or the driving rhythm of a Scruggs-style banjo, the band none-the-less manages to set up one of the deepest pocket grooves you will find in an acoustic band.  Their sou8nd
 begins with bassist Lucia Turino.  Belying her dance training, Turino employs a somewhat unique "whole body" approach to her instrument; wiggling, shaking and swaying in time to the music as she aggressively slaps and plucks booming bass notes and melodic runs with equal enthusiasm.  From the tips of her toes to the top of her pony-tailed head, she is 100% invested in every note--and obviously enjoying what she does equally as much as the audience enjoys her doing it.  With girly-girl bright red lipstick and oh-so-punk-rock steer skull tattoo on her chest, Mr. Turino is a unique as the band and one terrific bass player.
Bernhard on the Dobro
     If Turino is the heart of the band, lead singer and songwriter, the always dapper Pete Bernhard is their soul.  Able to take his fairly soft tenor voice and infuse it with incredible amounts of soul, pain and anguish as easily as joy, wisdom and puckish humor his vocals give life to the songs and make everyone want to sing along.  With a boyish grin on his face betraying the salt-n-pepper locks at his temples, Bernhard sings from his heart.  I'm convinced he would never make it as a cover-band singer; so obvious is his love for the songs he's written and enthusiasm for performing them.  His heartfelt "thank you" to the venue and audience seemed out of place--as if he was finishing up a 2am set in some cheap, dark bar instead of capping a sold-out night.  If you watch closely as he finishes a verse in his song, you can see him subtly tip his head to the side, as if waiting for the crowd to come in on the chorus...and a smile on his face when they inevitably do.
Cooper McBean on Banjo
     Multi-instrumentalist Cooper McBean rounds out this power-trio of Americana.  With tattoo sleeves and guaged ear-rings that would envy any punk band front man, McBean fiercely defies stereotypes with his killer guitar riffs, incredible banjo work and surprisingly mellow vocals.  That is not to say that he doesn't have a hard edge to his playing--from machine-gun fast strums on the banjo, to animated antics on stage between breaks he is less Lester Flatt and more Iggy Pop.  Like all banjo players, he lives to drive the band forward with rich melodic runs on the 5-string to some incredibly complex clawhammer work on the tenor.  In a nod to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seger before him, his banjo head loudly proclaims "This Machine Annoys Fascists" but definitely thrills and entertains fans of the band.
Thank You and Good Night!
     I usually think of St. Andrew's as more of a indy-rock, metal, hip-hop type of venue.  I am glad to see that they are open to semibluegrass bands like the Devil Makes Three and other Americana acts.  With the impending loss of the Magic Stick at the Majestic Theater, there are fewer and fewer places where you can get intimate with this type of music.  A comfortable walk from Greektown, this bare-bones concert venue (standing room only, bathroom in the basement) makes up for it's shortcomings with an very good sound system, great stage lighting and plentiful (and surprisingly helpful) staff willing to assist you in keeping the party going, but keeping you from getting in too much trouble.  Catching a show here should be something on every semibluegrasser's "bucket list".

More Random Images from the Show Below (Please feel free to share, but link back to this page)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Live Local Music on a Cold Winter Night

It don't get no better than this.
     The new year is upon us, and with it, a blast of cold Canadian air that turns our roads to skating rinks, our noses and ears red and our thoughts to warmer pursuits.  My favorite thing to do to beat the cold is search out some new bands playing hot music with the kind of heated passion that warms the heart and electrifies the soul.  When it came to my attention that two bands I've been dying to see were sharing a bill on a Thursday evening, I loaded up the Subaru and hit the road for the New Way Bar in Fashionable Ferndale.  Literally right around the corner from the house I used to live in, this fairly new addition to the trendy bar scene is bright, clean and--most importantly--home to great live music. Home to an eclectic group of regulars, quirky old-timers, new-age hipsters and the broad cross section of people you expect in this Detroit suburb, the New Way offers some of the friendliest, most attentive, and seductively competent service around.  From the hard working bartenders, polite bar backs, and even the pleasant bouncer taking the cover at the door, you get the feeling that they like their jobs, and love working there.  The fact that they give exceptional service is almost taken for granted--what else would you expect.  The ease with which they take care of their customers should serve as a lesson to many of the live music venues in South East Michigan!
A Nashville Belle
     The night kicked off with a short set by the Blue Mountain Belles...or at least one Belle (I appologize, I didn't catch her name) accompanied by a friend on the electric bass.  Playing mostly cover tunes on a well worn Martin guitar, she combined good guitar licks, with clear vocals and exceptional songwriting.  It came as no surprise to me when she announced she was now living in Nashville--her music had that combination of raw talent and polished presentation you find around every corner in the Music City.  While I don't usually care for that brand of singer/songwriter material, I was completely entertained by watching her show the songs quickly to the bass player and then launching into them.  I kept waiting for him to screw up (he didn't) or for her to simplify her songs (she didn't either).  Over all, the songs combined great storytelling and likeable melodies.  Rare in a young performer, she seemed genuinely comfortable on stage and had great rapport with the crowd.  Following the golden rule of opening acts, she remembered to thank the crowd, the bar and Billy Brandt for the opportunity.  A great opening act who seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the chance to perform her material for a live crowd.  I'd love to see her with a band to really flesh her songs out.
Detroit Rock Done Right
     I was originally introduced to the music of Chris Degnore and the Black Drops by my friend George Heritier (you should DEFINITELY check him out!).  George shared some very cool blues recordings of him playing harmonica with Chris (like this), and I fell in love with his Telecaster work and vowed to go catch him the next chance I could.  I knew he had some serious guitar chops.  What I was NOT expecting, was the in-your-face Detroit Rock and Roll Smackdown he laid on me at the New Way.  Rocking a blood-red Gipson SG on this evening, Chris and his band the Black Drops hit the stage full-speed-ahead and never took their foot off the throttle.  Playing almost an hour set of mostly original tunes (with the exception of a kick-ass cover of the Who's "Substitute"--one of the best I've heard), you can definitely hear the blues influence in the band; and some funk; and some reggae; and some modern rock; and a whole ton of soul.  But there was something at the same time uniquely and quintessentially Detroit about their sound.  Whether it was Chris' throbbing rhythmn and electrifying lead work or his piercingly clear vocals, you can not avoid being caught up in the melody and transported to the cars and bars and weekend stars of the Motor City. 
     The foundation on which Chris builds his musical masterpieces is his rhythm section of Joe Bagozzi on bass and John Porter on drums.  You really have to hear these guys to believe them, they created one of the funkiest, driving and irresistible grooves I've heard.  Bagozzi somehow effortlessly combines crisp, clear bass lines with impossibly intricate runs and fills that drives each song relentlessly forward.  While unique, his style reminds me of the playing of John Entwistle in the how deceptively simple he makes it look as he plays compared to how incredibly rich and interesting it is when it comes out of the amplifier.  I've actually seen him perform with a couple other bands, but have never seen him really cut loose like this--it was some damn fine bass playing!  Likewise, Porter performs some rhythmic prestidigitation on the drum kit, combining standard rock licks with cool, sometimes almost syncopated rhythms and unexpected dynamic variations.  This guy plays so smoothly sometimes you forget he's there and assume the drums are just playing themselves.  But, just when you least expect it, a subtle stick twirl and a quick smile reminds you that you're in the presence of a master percussionist.
     The headliner of the evening was long-time Detroit songster Billy Brandt and his band the Sugarees.  This Ferndale native and local legend is about a "SemiBluegrass" as they come.  His blend of acoustic and electric, old-time and modern, serious and irreverant material offers something for everyone.  Like most of the acts I cover in this blog, all of his songs combine interesting storytelling with catchy melodies and infectious grooves.  Walking in the bar it is hard to ignore the gray-haired man with the twinkle in his eye, a smile on his face and a hello or hug for everyone.  His genuine geniality make him immediately likeable and the center of attention.  When he takes the stage with his ever-evolving band of friends there is a very intimate, almost living room feel to the performance. 
Holk on bass and vox
     How do you define Billy's music?  It features--somewhat prominently--a pedal steel guitar so it's Country, right?  No....not really.  The guitar stylings of Chris Degnore make it rock or blues then?  Sort of...maybe folk rock or country blues?  The steady western-swing bass of John Holk must certainly pigeonhole their sound--alas--no.  What you have is a great songwriter, singing songs from the heart, and letting his friends play along.  Nowhere is this more evident than when Billy picks up his Telecaster Thinline and somehow turns even basic three verse ballads into hard-driving, high-energy jamband epics worthy of any bar or stadium that tries to hold them.  Another thing that set the performance apart was the outstanding three part harmonies, with Degnore's treble and Holk's baritone a perfect compliment to Brandts' remarkable warm and full lead vocals.   A Billy Brandt and the Sugarees show is not just a concert, it's an event, and you--and the rest of the crowd--are invited to join in the journey.  Go see him.  You'll love it.

More random pics from the show:

Degnore and Porter

Random "Dave" Sighting

Gotta Love Nashville Numbers

Singing from the Soul

Pedal Steel!

Photo Bomb!

Something about an SG and a slide!