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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.

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