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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.

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