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Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Night Out on the Town with Nikki Holland and Camila Ballario

Camila and the Boys Getting Down at the Elks.
This past Saturday, with my wife and daughter out of town for the weekend, I went looking for some live, local music.  By happy coincidence, a couple of my old friends were playing with their new projects at the Elks' Club in Downtown Ferndale and I went to check it out.  For a variety of reasons, this impromptu outing turned into a truly memorable evening.  First, the usually "Members Only" Elks Club threw open their doors to the public for the evening and proved to be a class act from top to bottotm.  With very reasonable drink prices; fast, friendly and attentive service; and excellent attention to the sound and lighting, the Elks proved why they are one of the great venues in this already vibrant and welcoming nightlife mecca.  It's also rare to see two local bands play (mostly) original music and keep the crowd engaged for the entire evening--and these band surely did that! Lastly, the patently diverse and enthusiastic crowd at the Elks exemplified the ability for live music to bring people from vastly varied backgrounds together in these divisive times to have a good time with friends, old and new alike.

Ballario Singing Her Heart Out
Opening the evening was fellow River Rat and Ann Arbor native Camila Ballario and her acoustic trio.  This talented young songstress presented a number of original songs and a handful of covers by bands probably more familiar to the millennial generation than old dudes like me.  The standout tune was her opener, the title track from her debut album "Another Good Mistake"--a tune that is really growing on me.  Ballario's clear, high voice is perfectly suited to the emotional and sorrow-twinged lyrics of the songs.  At times, she has a real "young Stevie Nicks" feel to her vocals.  She moves well on stage and signs with the confidence of a honky-tonk vetran, yet she is able to remain enticingly humble and authentic on stage.  While I am not normally a fan of these pop-rock, twenty-something songs, the quality of her performance, and the polished professionalism of her band makes them genuinely entertaining and listenable.  Obviously well-rehearsed, the instrumental arrangements shared by Bill Arnold on the Dobro and Andy Schiller on the guitar are rich and complex and perfectly suit the songs.  The pair take turns supporting the melodies and adding melodic fills to the songs creating a lush tapestry for Camila to paint with her soulful vocals.  While they only played a short 45-minute set, it is obvious that this up-and-coming vocallist is going to make her mark on the Southeast Michigan live, local music scene.

Holland Keeping The Crowd on Their Feet
The night's headline act was Detroit folk-rocker Nikki Holland and the Dirty Elizabeths.  Perhaps no band leader I have met better exemplifies what it takes to find success in the Southeast Michigan Music scene.  She is personable and outgoing, taking the time to work the crowd and talk to everyone.  She has amazing stage presence and remembers to thank the bar, the band, and the staff as well as the audience--and it takes all of these to have a great evening.  The band pays attention to the sound mix, and you can hear each part clearly throughout the room--and they play at a volume that is loud enough to carry, but quiet enough to comfortably hold down a conversation, even near the front of the stage.  Rare these days, she was willing to share the show with an opening act, and even had Camila and Bill up on stage for a song during her set.   Most importantly, she is the master of branding herself with a ton of merchandise available--from free stickers, to CDs and a variety of tee-shirts (and...rare these days...in a variety of sizes form XS-3XL).  She literally has "something for everyone".  On stage, she mixed outstanding original folk-rock songs with just the right number of memorable and easily recognizable cover tunes to keep the crowd on their feet and on the dance floor.  It is impossible NOT to have a good time at a Nikki Holland show.

Behind Every Good Band...
Nikki is a master showman on stage--as comfortable belting out high-energy vocals as she is interacting with the crowd between songs (and always with a genuinely warm smile on her face).  And what a band this singer-songwriter brings with her.  My old friend Andy holds down the guitar duties and is as comfortable playing electric blues, southern slide and even acoustic guitar depending on the mood of the song.  Holland laughingly refers to him as "Andy Garcia"; a not-so-subtle poke at his love for all things Jerry Garcia.  And, in the tradition of all truly great nicknames, I hope this sticks as his "permanent" stage name as I couldn't imagine a better moniker to live with for the rest of your stage life.   Apparently the bass player was fairly new (I didn't catch his name).  However, he really added some texture to the band, transitioning effortlessly from a country I-V rhythm, to funk bass, blues walks and even some electric organ sounds to color his tone.  Holding court on the kit was Brian "BC" Cox, a true master of percussion dynamics.  I love that he plays a fairly simple kit and can resist the rock-drummer impulse that ruins so many live shows.  He's also added a killer cowbell rhythm to a couple of songs that was perfect for the glass-and-brick walls of the venue.  A highlight of the evening was the closing number where each member of the band took a short solo...until BC's turn came.  Moving effortlessly from snare to toms to cowbell to cymbals, BC rose to his feet and kept the rhythm going as he played his way across the stage, up the mic stands, down the dance floor and onto the beer bottles and table tops in the crowd.  It was a real show-stopper and the crowd loved it.  I hope he keeps "playing the bar" in his repertoire for upcoming shows.

The Elks--Keeping an Eye on the Future of Live Music
Overall, the Ferndale Elks club is to be commended for putting on a truly memorable and entertaining night of live, local music.  Keep an eye out for Camila Ballario and Nikki Holland & the Dirty Elizabeths coming soon to a venue near you.  Since pictures speak a 1000 words, I've posted a collection of shots from the evening below.  Feel free to tag, download, share freely--just give credit to SemiBluegrass.com and/or like us on Facebook.  Note:  These pictures are sized/compressed for the web.  If you would like the full-resolution originals, please email at semibluegrass@gmail.com.  See you all out there!

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