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Monday, November 16, 2015

The Native Howl at the New Way Bar

A great place for live, local music!
While I love my bluegrass (and semibluegrass!), sometimes you just need a jolt of electricity to keep you going after a long week of work.  With this in mind, I caught up with my friends in The Native Howl for a four-band set at the New Way Bar in my old stomping grounds, "Fashionable Ferndale".  I applaud the New Way Bar for their commitment to providing high quality, live music when so many of their competitors are cutting budgets, bringing in Karyoke or a DJ, or just shutting the doors.  Don Kanners at Music Movers is one of the most thoughtful and innovative promoters in the metro area.  On this evening, mixing the party-band enthusiasm of Lansing's Off The Ledge Band with the Native Howl's "ThrashGrass" energy was a stroke of pure genius.  When he threw in a pair sets of original, progressive rock from a couple of Texas bands who happen to be traveling through and you had one hell of a night of live music!

Jonny Gray Band
Leading off the night was Jonny Gray from Austin, Texas.  You don't cut your teeth in one of the greatest live music scenes in America and not have something special to offer.  Lead singer Gray presented a silky southern soul voice laid over smooth, jazzy guitar riffs.  The mostly original material was definitely rock based with a folk edge.  It was also decidedly Beatles influenced (including a killer version of "Strawberry Fields Forever").  I really loved the bass player's approach to his instrument.  Playing complicated walking lines up and down the neck he truly transformed the bass from a rhythm section standard to the melodic star of the arrangements.  Throw in a slick drummer and some nice three-part harmonies and you had one entertaining set.

Off The Ledge
Next up was Off The Ledge from Lansing. At first look, you have to think "another middle aged hobby band"...and you couldn't be further from the truth.  These guys are terrific!  Definitely high-energy with a party-band mentality.  They expect--no--demand the crowd gets on their feet and dances!  With an eclectic mix of 90s standards and surprisingly funky original materials.  And you never see someone play a baritone guitar on stage!  All four members of the band are killer musicians, with the lead guitar's screaming blues licks standing out.  It is impossible to see these guys and not have a good time.  A short set from the San Antonio band (featuring a couple members of the Jonny Gray band) rounded out the electric portion of the evening.

Getting Ready to Howl
Closing the night out was The Native Howl.  The few (very few) people who left early missed a truly innovative and entertaining set.  These guys are on the bleeding edge of Motown musical innovation.  Their sound is nearly impossible to categorize.  They're definitely a folk-based rock band.  They freely explore their roots in thrash-metal and bluegrass.  They play electric music on traditionally acoustic instruments. Their shows are high energy from before the first note, with the crowd gathering in front of the stage during their set-up and sound check.  The members of the band wear their hearts on their sleeves.  They all love playing music on stage, and it shows on their faces.  You can not help but be drawn in by their enthusiasm, skill and talent.

Frontmen Alex Holycross and Jake Sawicki are the driving force behind the Native Howl sound.  A true student of music, Holycross brings an immense instrumental talent to the mix.  He shifts effortlessly between a standard-tuned acoustic-electric resonator guitar for the harder, edgier songs, and an open-tuned acoustic for the folkier side.  He plays piano on a couple tunes.  He's at his best, however, when he switches to the bouzouki--an 8-stringed cousin of the octave mandolin featuring a mix of paired and octave strings.  From bluegrass-style flatpicking licks, through Irish-tinged melody lines, to lightning-fast thrash-metal phrases, Alex strums, plucks and beats some sophisticated, complex and amazing sounds from this traditional instrument.  Likewise, Alex is able to use his voice to get the most out of a song.  From a crazy-eyed, head bobbing growl, to a soft harmony counterpoint, he is always in control of the songs' emotions.

Alex's partner Jake is also a multi-instrumentalist.  He displays an impressive ability to extract a near-eclectic guitar tone from his acoustic rig.  Where he has really been putting in the woodshed time lately is in his banjo playing.  When I first saw these guys play last year, he'd play banjo on a tune or two, using it more like a twangy, 5-string guitar than a finger-style instrument.   It's obvious that he's been working his way through the library of Scruggs-style licks lately, which has really added some classic bluegrass drive to his playing.  Jake is also an accomplished harp player and even throws the crowd a Djembe-laced bone from time to time.  Jake also provides a lot of the on-stage energy during the set, dancing, swaying and moving around the stage totally immersed in the music around him.

Drummer Josh LeMieux is the pure soul of the band.  Far beyond keeping them on track with his drum licks, he pitches in on harmony vocals when needed, and is always the first to thank the crowd for their enthusiasm.  In person, he maintains a refreshingly honest and open mix of youthful innocence and working-class wisdom.  You can not help but feel that he is dedicated to his music, one hundred percent, twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year.  He works hard at his profession, and it shows.  He has the rare gift of being able to avoid the temptation to over-embellish his drumming, instead relying on immaculate timing to keep the pocket tight and the band in the groove with his rhythm section partner, Mark Chandler on bass.  This was my first time seeing him (well..kind of seeing him, as they had him stuck behind the PA where I couldn't get a good picture of him) and I was duly impressed.  He has a clean, almost melodic approach to the bass that really adds some complexity to the Howl's sound.

As usual, I've shared some photos of the event below.  Feel free to tag, share and use them freely, just credit SemiBluegrass.com.

It's All About The Song--Jay Stiestra at the Ark WSG Chris Buhalis and Madcat Ruth

Singing from the heart (and the soul)
Don't let the unusually mild temperatures of late fool you--the long, dreary days of yet another Michigan winter are right around the corner.  With the hectic whirlwind of the back-to-school season behind us and the always chaotic holiday season in front of us, it is important to find something you can use to slow down, enjoy a moment of peace and recharge your body, mind and spirit.  For me, nothing fits this bill more than live music, performed in front of a small crowd, by local artisans.  And there is no finer place to indulge in this pastime than The Ark.  For the past 50 years the volunteers and management of this superb venue have been providing the very best in honest, live musical entertainment to their loyal fans.  If the southeast Michigan music scene has a soul, it can be found at 316 South Main Street in Ann Arbor.

Buhalis doing what he does best
On a windy autumn night in November, the Ark presented a night of local folk music from singer/songwriter Jay Stielstra and several musical guests.  Jay chose local songwriter and friend Chris Buhalis to open the night.  I have followed Chris for some time and can say, without reservation, that--in addition to being a remarkable talented songwriter and performer--he is among the finest human beings I have ever met.  An old soul in a young man's body, Chris manages to embody all that is best in the hard-working, blue collar people that built the motor city, stocked the arsenal of Democracy and founded the middle class.  With his feet planted firmly in tradition and his fingers on the political pulse of the present, Buhalis manages to merge the roles of historian, activist and storyteller into a seamless commentary on the way things are--and the way they should be.

Working man's hands
Like all great American music, the very best songs are often rooted in tragedy.  The  artistic journey has not been easy for this troubadour of the working class.  Two years ago, Chris seriously injured his hand in a table saw accident at work.  He was in the middle of recording his second album, "Big Car Town" at the time--an album that may never have been finished it not for an outpouring of support from the local music community to help pay the medical bills and sustain Chris during the long days of rehabilitation.  Fortunately, Chris has recovered from his injuries and has begun performing songs from the album.  His striped down melodies and rhythms on guitar, paired with his passionate baritone voice color his songs with joy and pain and sorrow all at the same time.  Chris has an uncanny knack for lyrical hooks and metaphors that make his songs thought provoking and entertaining.  On this evening, two of his songs-- the prohibition era ode to the Detroit area bootleggers "Whisky Six" and the cautionary tale of timber-era greed "The Virgins"--brought the crowd to their feet.  If you would like to contribute to Chris' kickstarter campaign and bring the rest of this excellent album to life, click this link.

Legendary Songwriter Jay Stielstra
The night's main event was two sets of original music from Michigan singer/songwriter Jay Stielstra.  Far closer to the end of his legendary career than it's beginning, it is fair to say that Jay's old fingers don't always cooperate and play the right note; and that--like all of us refugees of the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s--he sometimes has trouble remembering the next verse of a song.  But, like a favorite pair of old jeans and a worn-out flannel shirt it is these very flaws and imperfections we return to again and again to feel comfortable, alive and at home.  Reminiscent of the waning hours of a back-yard fireside singalong, this evening embodied the sense of community music brings to a gathering of friends.  The crowd this night sang along with every song--and what songs they are!  Part songwriter and part-storyteller, Stielstra's songs draw on familiar Michigander themes with stories of hunting and fishing in the natural beauty around us; songs about loving a pretty girl and disdain for all things "southern".  Like a favorite uncle, and with indefatigable sense of humor, Jay delivers the punchline lyrics of his songs with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face.  To call him good natured would be a titanic understatement.  With unforgettable lyrical and melodic hooks, Stielstra's songs are easy to sing along with, fun to share with your friends, and ultimately unforgettable.  He is among the very best songwriters you will ever hear.

The one and only Judy Banker
Joining Jay on stage was his long-time musical partner Judy Banker.  A monster singer/songwriter talent in her own right, Judy's voice--whether singing harmony or lead--blends seamlessly with Stielstra adding color and life to the songs.  The effortlessness with which they sing together underlies a lifetime of performing together.  She also contributes classic folk-style guitar work to the performance.  For a light-touch, thumb-and-finger strummer, her playing is remarkably rich and nuanced and provides a very full sound to the band.  With a flexible voice that moves effortlessly from a sultry tenor to a crystal clear soprano depending on the mood of the song, melodies flow seemingly effortlessly from her as she sings.  Her on-stage banter with Jay is priceless!  From reminding him of the next verse with a whisper, a wink and a smile, to plenty of good-natured ribbing, it is easy to see how comfortable they are performing together.  It's also great to see how much fun Banker has on stage.  She is constantly smiling, often laughing and looks like she's having a great time (and I'm certain that she is!).  Judy plays out with Jay a couple times a month, sings/plays with a few other singer/songwriters and folky bands, and somehow even finds time to play with her own band.  Find an opportunity to go see her, you will love every minute of it.

Really adding to the evening was the cast of special guests joining Jay and
David Roof
Mary Seelhorst
Peter "Madcat" Ruth
Judy on stage.  Bassist David Roof (yet another superbly talented singer/songwriter in his own right) contributed some killer baritone and bass harmonies, as well as a truly world-class bass solo on one number.   Mary Seelhorst carried much of the lead/solo work on the fiddle.  She has one of the fullest and richest fiddle tones I've heard and seemed to be having a great time all night.  Her washboard/one-man-band rhythm section piece near the end of the night had me in tears.  And who wouldn't appreciate Ann Arbor's own Peter "Madcat" Ruth on Harmonica.  I have heard all of the best harmonica players, and he is among, if not THE, best of the best.  Somehow he can make a simple harp sound like the entire Marine Corp band in a 1" x 3" box!  After one of his solos, I heard about 70% of the crowd muttering "wow!" and "unbelievable!" under their breath.  On this night, the ensemble on stage was pure magic.

Overall, this was a tremendously relaxing and enjoyable night of music on an autumn night.  I've included a few other photos from the evening below.  Feel free to tag/share/and use them at will, but give credit to SemiBluegrass.com.