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.
Articles, news, reviews and band profiles welcome.
Email to: SeMiBluegrass@gmail.com

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/

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Local Music is Alive and Well in SouthEast Michigan

"Live Life Loud" with PJs Lager House!
One of the great benefits of my "day job" as a teacher is Spring Break--a week to refresh and rejuvenate myself before the final push towards the end of the year; a time to engage in things that make me feel alive; a time to shake off the last vestiges of grey Michigan winter and discover how alive you really are.  For me, my spring break has been about seeking out amazing, vibrant local musicians who bring passion and interest to their performance regardless of the genre.  There is perhaps no more pertinent example of this than this Easter weekend where I managed to squeeze in no less than SEVEN killer bands, in three great venues, and still made it to Easter brunch with my father well rested, reinvigorated and ready to take on the world!

Add caption
The weekend started with the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association's monthly open Jam  at the Kentuckian's of Michigan.  In a "good news/bad news" situation, almost everyone I meet confuses the SEMBA folks with SeMiBluegrass.  Luckily for me, I'm also the Vice President of SEMBA, so I can direct them accordingly.  For the record, SEMBA is an organization dedicated to the "support and promotion of bluegrass music in South East Michigan".  They tend towards traditional bluegrass bands and festivals and preserving the long history of bluegrass in Michigan.  SeMiBluegrass is my blog.  Also located in South East Michigan (hence the "SeMi" in the name) I try to publicize and support bluegrass and other acoustic music in the region (another play on "semi").  You will find plenty of SEMBA events and bands written up on these pages.  SEMBA is a great organization, full of wonderful, talented and passionate people.  If you're even a casual fan of bluegrass music, you should definitely check them out, and consider joining the organization.  Like most bluegrass events, the SEMBA jam, hosted by one or more of the members,  is always open to all, and a great way to get involved in playing music with others, learn some great new tunes, and enjoy the fellowship of other bluegrass fans.  For those not familiar with the Kentuckians, this private social club offers up live bluegrass music on Friday nights (as well as a killer home-cooked dinner if you get there early enough).  On this past Good Friday night, the Ron Bloomfield band offered up some tasty and soulful bluegrass including a Dynamite cover of "30 Years of Farming".  Definitely put the Kentuckians (and the Flat Rock Eagles) on your radar and go catch some live bluegrass!

The Guys in Rickett Pass Gettin' it Done.
As most of you know, I'm also a huge fan of progressive and derivative bluegrass music.  I've been trying to catch Rickett Pass (a band I met--coincidentally--at the Kentuckians) for a long time.  Coming off a brutal tour schedule, I saw that they were booked at PJ's Lager House in Detroit's Corktown Neighborhood (just a few blocks from the old Tiger Stadium).  I'm going to try and do an entire blog about this fantastic music venue someday soon, as it is one of the few remaining places that consistently brings the very best in live music to South East Michigan.  And they do it in style.  Affordable but fare cover charges insure the bands get paid.  A great selection of domestic, import and craft beers.  Surprisingly good food for a small establishment.  Ample parking near the venue, and friendly, helpful security to make sure your vehicle is safe.   And killer acoustics for bands plugged and unplugged alike.  

Songstress/Poet Michelle Held
The  night started off with an unexpected surprise as Detroit area singer/songwriter Michelle Held took the stage.   She is a writer with the great gift of telling heartbreaking and jarring tales in an honest and open delivery.  "Fearless" is what my friend called her performance, and it was eternally fitting of this night.  I've always said it takes great courage to step on a stage to sing and play for strangers.  Harder yet is to sing deeply personal, sometimes uncomfortable songs, while playing guitar and connecting with the audience.  On this night, the pure poetry of her words, perfectly enhanced by the splendid uniqueness of the soprano tremolo in her voice, carried the crowd on a raw and emotional journey and moved them to enthusiastic applause after every song.  She even put melody to a friend's lyrics (poet Hala Dika) in one of the nights most touching moments.  This was everything that pure singer/songwriting is supposed to be about, and it was spectacular. 

Jennifer Westwood
I came to see a bluegrass show and got absolutely run over by a female blues-rocker and a slide playin', chicken pickin', telecaster magician.  Jennifer Westwood and the Handsome Devils could be one of the  best live acts I've seen this year (and maybe ever).  As a vocalist, Jennifer has one of the most powerful and soulful voices you will hear--a perfect match for the blues, soul and southern-rock/country material she performs.  There should not be any way all of that sound, and grit, and feral emotion can come out of someone that small.  She must have some ethereal connection to all the greats that have gone before: Janis Joplin, KoKo Taylor and Grace Slick can all be heard in her voice.  And then there's Dylan Dunbar on guitar.  His tone is unbelievable, and has that magic "Telecaster through a Fender Tube Amp" lusciousness that plays so well in small venues.  He's a phenomenal slide player and one of the best country pickers I've heard.  He also possesses a magical connection to the audience, giving it 100%...and then when the crowd connects...another 50% just to push them over the edge.  Putting these two in front of anything but the very best rhythm section would be a sin.  On this night, Bassist JD Mac and the drummer were so in tune, it sounded like they were playing a single instrument.  There is no doubt in my mind, I'll go see this band again (and probably every time they play somewhere near me).

Giving them their all...and their shirts (Rickett Pass)
Capping the evening was Rickett Pass.  They are exactly what I like in progressive acoustic  bands: rooted in the tradition without being beholden to it.  In fact, this band owes as much to the classic bluegrass bands of the 40s and 50s as it does to the Punk bands of the 70s and 80s.  They are pure entertainers, and their loyal fans will simply not tolerate them giving anything less than all they have, leaving everything on the stage.  I love this band.  Propelled by the less-than-traditional yet more-than-awesome banjo picking, songwriting and singing of Mason Tinsley and the blue note, minor chord vamping mandolin work of Joe Vega, Rickett Pass perfectly translates both punk and bluegrass ethos to fans from their early twenties to late eighties.  Add to that some off-the-hook rockabilly bass antics from Matt Moore and hard working rhythm guitarist Dallas Cooper and you have an eminently danceable, impossible to ignore groove that takes hold of the audience and sweeps them along in a musical frenzy.  This band is so atypically Detroit; so down-and dirty; so blue collar in their work ethic that it's impossible to ignore them and obvious why they have such a passionate and loyal fan base.  Good job boys...keep doing what you do!  

Opening Act on the State-of-the-Art Machine Shop Stage
After far fewer hours of sleep than I needed, and a less-exciting-than-expected movie outing with my daughter, I found myself headed to the Machine Shop in Flint for the Pole Barn Rebels' CD release party.  This concert venue--while catering more towards hard-edged rock and heavy metal--is still a place where you can go see great live "semibluegrass" type acts in a purely professional setting.  Funky industrial/post-appocolyptic decor not withstanding, the joint is easy to find, has ample parking and a very helpful and knowledgeable staff equally versed in helping get the party started and making sure things don't get out of hand.  They also boast one of the greatest merchandising areas in any venue around--with plenty of branded Machine shop merch, and a large area for bands to display and market their wares.  This night started with a cover band (I didn't catch their name) that did a great job warming up the crowd with their renditions of southern and classic rock anthems.  There was some great guitar and harmonica work, and a stunning guest vocal by a sultry, blues/soul singer.

Kenny Kens giving the crowd what they want!
My very favorite musical set of the evening came from Kenny Kens & the Brown Bottle Boys.  It took a wagon load of moxie to play a large venue, opening for a wildly popular local act's CD release party, and make the choice to play 100% original music with a fairly new band. And it paid off--they totally killed it with their set of old-country music supported by the skilled country blues licks of guitarist Brian Coogan, the rockabilly stylings of Steve Wyse on Bass, last-minute steel guitar/keyboardist (yes...he was playing piano with thumb/finger picks...I saw it myself) Kevin Morris, and the perfection of Caco de la Sotta on the kit.  The songs were spot on in their lyrical content, delivery and opportunity to give the band some rein and let them charge onwards.  Kenny is an experienced and likeable front man; easy going on the mic, animated as he moves around stage and smilin' ear-to-ear every single second of the performance.  The crowd loves this band and lets them know it--crowding to the front of the stage and getting the dancing started early.  The Brown Bottle Boys embody everything good about classic roadhouse and honky-tonk country and deliver it--in spades!

PBR and the Pole Barn Rebels.  What an evening!
The night ended with the much anticipated set from Machine Shop regulars and local favorites the Pole Barn RebelsFrom their beginnings as an informal pickup band in (you guessed it)the lead singer's pole barn, this band is pure outlaw country in their songs, their performance and their swagger--both on and off the stage.  Over the past few years they have worked hard to become the most well known outlaw country/party band in the region; delivering that perfect mix of hard-driving, hard-drinking cover songs (heavy on the southern rock and country) with catchy, fan friendly, beer and whisky fueled original tunes that keeps the party going, the beer flowing and club owners happy.  Their secret?  Bad-to-the-bone lead singer?  Check.   Twangy, lightning fingered guitarist?  Check.  Pedal Steel guru? Check.  Blue jeans, black hats and PBR tall boys.  Check, check and check.  The Pole Barn Rebels really are one of the most unique and fun to watch bands in South East Michigan.  Look them up online, buy the CD, and go see a show.  It's a darn good time. 

Included some pictures from the shows in the gallery below.  Feel free to use, distribute, share as you like, with credit to Semibluegrass.com.  Better yet, subscribe to the blog or follow us on FaceBook. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Live, Local Music with The Corktown Popes CD Release @ the Magic Bag

The Corktown Popes are not your typical Detroit rock band!
I've covered my wife's favorite local band, The Corktown Popes, before.  This eclectic group of veteran Detroit rockers continues to make outstanding music that defies conventional boundaries of Genre.  Sure...they're got an Irish voiced lead singer...but they're a Detroit Rock band, right?...with and accordion, which makes them a Tex/Mex Tejano band, right?...and a mandolin which makes them country/roots band, right?...and uileann pipes (they're NOT bagpipes) and we're back to Irish band?.  Whatever they are, they are tremendous performers and wildly popular, so, with a second album--The Body and the Blood--ready for release, the band booked the Magic Bag in Ferndale, invited some friends to share the stage with them and promptly filled the joint with their loyal fans.  My wife and I met some friends there for an evening of live, local music and had a great time.

The Brunswick Brawlers
First up were the Brunswick Brawlers.  Occupying that delicious zone between jazz and blues where  swing, rockabilly and jump blues thrive, this honky-tonkin' dance band got the crowd up on their feet and dancing. Each member of the band took turns singing their favorite songs, adding complex harmonies and swinging rhythms to each tune.  Smokey jazz songstress Liz Mackinder killed it on 40s and 50s era ballads.  Jazzy guitarist Niko Pittman was equally comfortable singing lead and ripping off unexpected, yet excellent blues leads and fills.  The doghouse bass stylings of Rudy Varner were--of course--a crowd favorite, as was his deep-cut cover of a Johnny Cash tune.  Jarrod Champion on the keys added a little western swing / boogie woogie vibe to the set, as did his rich, lush lead vocals.    Loney Charles was everything a jazz/swing drummer should be--quick, light touch staying in the background, but providing the perfect accent when needed.  At one point in the evening, I was watching him on the brushes.    You knew that crash cymbal hit was coming to end the phrase...but he held off until the last possible millisecond, letting the anticipation grown until, with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face, he reached out, cat-quick, for the tiniest little tap on the cymbal, releasing the crowd and starting the process over.  It was perfect.  This was a fun band to watch  and a perfect selection to open the night and get the crowd up and moving.

This is what perfect harmony looks like!
Ryan Dilliaha and the Miraclemen too the stage next for a set of driving, original Downriver Rock.  As blue collar as can be, and with just the tiniest bit of country twang from the superb telecaster for of guitarist Jason T. Portier, this band brought their A-game.  The pulsing and driving rhythm of drummer Jesse Soriano and bassist Chris Diener kept the songs moving along at a crisp pace as keyboardist Jarrod Champion built the energy and excitement.  This background provided the pefect canvas for frontman Dilliaha to paint his songs of Working Class; whiskey fueled adventures and bad decisions; and the never ending pursuit of love, meaningfulness and friendship that makes us who we are.  What truly makes this band is not the musicianship--though it is excellent and Portier's solos are as good as you will find--but rather the stunning two-part hamonies that the band employs.  Dilliaha and Portier sound like they've been singing together since they wore diapers and the truly lush and complex structures of their arrangements are pure joy to listen to. 

All Heart an Soul with Burns and Brown
Of course, everyone was there to see the Corktown Popes.  As drummer Ron Pangborn laid down a groovy beat, the members of the band filed onto stage one-by-one, joining in and laying down the background for a high-voltage cover of David Bowie's Panic in Detroit which saw Popes lead singer Terry Burns joined by Detroit vocal icon Greg C. Brown.   The party kept rolling and the band kept the crowd on their feet with a great mix of original music drawn from their first two albums, and some late 80s/early 90s cover tunes.   All songs are performed at 110% with everyone in the band keeping things rolling.  Mandolin player Steve Taylor  was all over the stage, obviously enjoying his gig as the newest member of the Popes.  There just isn't anyone cooler or more professional on stage than bassist Takashi Iio.  Paul Goodmen continued with his usual outstanding harmony vocals and the accordion/keyboard licks that define the Popes sound.  Jason Kuehn--as always--wears his passion for electric guitar all over his face and didn't disappoint with powerful and cutting fills and solo work on every song.  I really liked his 12-string electric work on "Paint it Black"--somehow able to mimic the classic Stones sound, yet in a totally modern way.  And it just wouldn't be a Popes show without the authentic (yet electrified) sound of "Mighty" Tom Donohue who's inclusion on the uileann pipes gives more than a little credibility the band's Irish roots in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit and likewise is essential in defining their sound.  Even guest musicians Gary "Indiana" Czabot on blues guitar and Johnny Evans on saxophone threw in a little bit extra to make the evening special.  As always, you don't go to a Pope's show, you experience it.  Get out and see some live, local music.  There's plenty of it around here!

Pictures from the show below.  Feel free to use, share and tag freely with credit to SemiBluegrass.com.  Like us on facebook for more great bands and reviews of live, local music in SouthEast Michinga (SeMi).

Photo Gallery by QuickGallery.com

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Chris Buhalis Releases "Big Car Town" at the Ark

An Impressive and Important Album!
As spring creeps in and Michigan awakens, I have found myself seeking out great live, local music.  In fact, tonight was the fourth show in a fortnight I've attended at The Ark in Ann Arbor--and I saved the best for last!  I'm a huge fan of Ann Arbor singer/songwriter Chris Buhalis' first album "Kenai Dreams" recorded nearly two decades ago.  It featured a perfect mix of well written and intelligent lyrics, creative and talented musicians and songs about things that matter.   Tonight, Chris partnered with his long time musical partner and friend Jeff "Plank" Plankenhorn to introduce the world to his long-anticipated second album, Big Car Town.  The Ark was packed with Chris' family and friends as well as an impressive array of Ann Arbor area musicians.  They were in for a treat as Chris and Plank, backed by an all-star rhythm section of Dominic John Davis on Bass and Michael Shimmin on Drums, gave life to the songs and set them loose on the world.  From the very first note of the very first song (the title track to the album) it was apparent that the crowd was in for a special experience.  As the song says "we shine 'em up and we drive 'em all around".  Even with little-to-no rehearsal, this band of professionals and friends was as tight and in tune with each other as any long-touring ensemble that has graced the Ark's stage.

Chris Buhalis singing from the soul
For those not in the know, one reason this album was so long in the making was an unfortunate accident Chris had at work.  While I know there was a lot of pain, and surgery and therapy during his recovery, you would not know it from Chris' playing--it is as vibrant, poignant and alive as ever.  If anything, the experience seems to have strengthened and renewed him.  This night was definitely a celebration of the joy and healing that music can bring to us all.  He was in a great mood all night, sharing quips and stories between songs and while he tuned his well-loved Gibson guitar. Chris is intelligent, well-educated, and not in the least shy about sharing his opinions.  A great fan of Woody Guthrie, he carries on the tradition of pointing out the humanity in us all and the injustices of the world.  His cover of Woody's Plane Wreck at Los Gatos was one of the most touching and powerful moments of the night.

Jeff Plankenhorn and the "Plank"
There is no doubt that Chris is a capable and talented musician and vocalist, but it is his writing that truly sets him apart from his peers.  A working class poet of the middle class, Buhalis has a keen eye for the truth in everyday life and a gift for creative and thought provoking metaphor.  In describing his father in Daddy Worked the High Steel Chris writes: "When times get tough, as times will do--like a Mickey Lolich fastball riding up and in, to make the count 2 and 2--he always digs back in, that’s all there is to do--he’ll stand for me, and he’d do the same for you".  My favorite, however is near the end of Finish Line (a go-for-broke rocker) where he pens "Well this love, will grab you by the onions--knock you down, sock you square in the dreams."  Half the fun of a Chris Buhalis show is listening to the guys on stage joke with each other, the other half is listening to the lyrics and waiting for these inevitable gems.  Oh yeah....the music's a lot of fun too!  The absolute poetry of The Virgins could be one of the very best examples of thoughtful and meaningful songwriting today.  The album is worth the $15 for this song alone.  With my strong connection to the Upper Peninsula and the North Woods, this song moves me nearly to tears every time I hear it. 

The Affable Dominic John Davis on the Doghouse Bass
With two full sets of music to draw from, Chris broke out some great cover songs.  Mostly from other singer-songwriters that inspired him but also songs from his youth, a Townes Van Zandt tune and even a DEEP cut from Bruce Springsteen.  During the night, Chris played nearly all the tunes from the new album.  I was also glad that he pulled freely from his first album.  I loved Kenai Dreams and it's tribute to the human relationships necessary to survive in wild places, Footprints in the Snow (not the Bill Monroe tune, but an ode to loosing one's self and setting your soul free in the mountains) and especially Highway Shoes, a bluegrass barn burner re-envisioned as a rollicking roadhouse number showcasing Plankenhorns prowess on his custom built slide guitar he calls "The Plank".

Shimmin demonstrating his amazingly light touch on the kit
This unique instrument looked to me like an electric lap steel adapted as a through-body neck for a dobro and fitted with a couple of humbucking pickups (ala a Telecaster Thinline).  Painted Johnny Cash Black with enough chrome to build a Chevy it was a visually stunning instrument.  But that paled in comparison to how it sounded. Plugged into a Fender tube amp and routed through a distortion pedal for a good amount of crunch and reverb; lush, power chords, steel guitar licks, and sweet melody lines flowed from his hands like magic.  Then he added a WahWah pedal to the mix and pulled off some amazing solo work that often had the crowd cheering and clapping.  The fact that he then proceeded to pick up a telecaster blow me away on that instrument is a true testament to his passion for music.   His playing is the perfect complement to Buhalis' songs and it's easy to see why they have remained musical partners--and close friends--over all these years.

The pure sound and soul of a Tele
Jeff also wowed the crowd with a cut off his own solo album "Soul Slide".  A somewhat funky, upbeat and happy song, it ended with Plank repeating the last chorus, and then having the crowd sing it along with him--demonstrating the magic that can still be found in places like the Ark.

I first ran into Chris Buhalis at a demonstration in Lansing where he and Joshua Davis stood on a makeshift stage amidst a throng of hard-working, blue collar workers singing protest songs to keep their spirits high.  The first song I ever heard him sing was, coincidentally, the song he chose to use as an encore on this night: This Land Is Your Land.  Perhaps Woody Guthrie was looking down on this night, and I imagine he was smiling as the crowd sang along with Buhalis, drowning him out on the chorus, and ending with "this land was made for you and me!".  Like Woody's song, I think Chris also made this album for all of us.  To inspire us.  To move us.  To make us think.  And to bring us Joy.  Well done Chris.  Well done.

I've included some additional photos from the evening below.  As always, share, tag and use freely, but credit Semibluegrass.com.  Like us on facebook as well (www.facebook.com/semibluegrass)

Friday, March 11, 2016

How About Some Thrashgrass with the Native Howl?

Great New Album from the Native Howl
 Readers of this blog will know I love The Native Howl and their eclectic and eccentric mix of acoustic Americana and Metal-influenced rock and roll.  Thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of promoter Don Kanners of Music Movers LLC, a lot more of you have had the opportunity to see them play--from live appearances at Arts, Beats and Eats the the Winter Blast in Campus Martius to appearances with Ann Delisi on WDET, Mitch Albom on WJR and multiple morning new appearances like this jewel from WDIV. 

What most people don't know about the Howl, is that front-man Alex Holycross and partner Jake Sawicki are serious fans of both traditional and progressive bluegrass.  While Alex has contributed some banjo parts on previous projects, it is Sawicki who has thrown himself wholeheartedly into the learning the 3-finger Scruggs style and now chooses to play the banjo far more often than the guitar in their live appearances.  Similarly, while Holycross is a fine guitar player, and his frenetic hearvy metal licks on acoustic and resonator guitars defined the early Native Howl sound, he now often chooses the rarely seen bouzouki as his weapon of choice (think of a mandolin tuned a full octave lower, with paired octave strings on the lowest two courses and a sound somewhere between the mando and 12-string guitar).  Alex is equally versed in playing traditional bluegrass mandolin licks and deathmetal thrashing on his instrument.  This Bouzouki/Banjo combination has forged a unique new bluegrass/metal fusion that the band is calling "Thrash Grass".  The 5-song EP dropped today and it is outstanding!
Sawicki, Holycross, Chandler and LeMieux--The Native Howl

Leading off the EP is the thrashiest track "Thunderhead".  Propelled forward at warp speed by finger-blurring banjo licks from  Sawicki and an accelerator mashing rhythm line from drummer Joshua LeMieux and new Bassist Mark Chandler, the song is the perfect vehicle for Holycross' dark metal vocals metaphorically comparing the band to pistol-packing, thunder headed horsemen.  Shred-worthy guitar licks fill our the song and provide all of and angst and bravodo this is pure Motor City Grit Metal tune could hope to have. 

My favorite track is "Doomed From the Start".  With definite roots in traditional bluegrass, this ode to mortality and whisky drinking features a fairly straight forward "One Five" bass line and the bouzouki/banjo melody.  LeMieux does a great job interpreting the bluegrass guitar "Boom Chucka" rhythm.  It would be easy for this song fall into the hokey/simplistic category, but the band uses an unexpected minor chord in the chorus that gives it just the right amount of novelty.  Recently, Alex and Jake made a trip to my place for my monthly "SemiBluegrass" jam and played this for a large crowd of bluegrass jammers ranging from tweinty-somethings to octogenarians.  It was definitely one of the highlights of the night!

"Follow Me" lets the band stretch out their vocal talents with a complex four-part harmony with an unexpected and luscious bass part added to the chorus layered under powerful lead-tenor-baritone pre-chorus.  The song also features Holycross at his best on the bouzouki and Sawicki's iconic sorrowful high-tenor vocals lending the song almost a Renaissance-era vibe (well...if an 80s hair metal band were magically transported to the 1500s).

Not really a track, "Interlude" is a short, 3-part harmony, A Capella number overlaid with a scratchy record effect to give it some age.  A throwaway, but fun.

The longest track on the EP, "Hurricane" is a well structured exploration of the Thrash Grass idea with a variety of instruments, killer vocal harmonies, multiple tempo and mood changes and some interesting and exotic melodies.  I know the boys in the band are not only passionate about music, but devoted students as well, so I expect this is due to some experimentation with scale modes, chord voicing and some World-music influences.  In some ways this reminds me of the classic Rush album "2112" (in the sound, not the content).   It gets better every time I listen to it.

So, should you buy the EP?  Most definitely!  In fact, I downloaded it from Amazon today (for the low, low price of $4.95).  You can also download it from the bands website   Will they send physical CDs to CDBaby?  I hope so, because their "your CD has shipped" email is EPIC!  Or...better yet...go see them live and buy a physical copy from the band.  The album art alone will be worth the price and you get to see all the head-thrashing, girls dancing, music thundering, live-in-the-moment awesomeness that is a Howl show.
Get your copy today!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

High Energy Bluegrass from Sideline @ the Ark

Even A Capella, Sideline Delivers Great Bluegrass!
So far, 2016 is shaping up to be a great "SeMiBluegrass" year and The Ark in Ann Arbor continues to bring some terrific music to southeast Michigan.  Saw a terrific show by the Claire Lynch Band a couple weeks back, and a killer night of Irish/Bluegrass from We Banjo 3 (see the SeMiBluegrass Facebook page for some photos) but I've been dying for some good ole, pedal-to-the-metal, hard-driving bluegrass.  So, when veteran IIIrd Tyme Out banjo picker Steve Dilling brought his new band Sideline to the Ark, it was an easy decision to catch the show (even on a school night).  I had seen them this past summer at the Marshall Bluegrass Festival and was excited to see their brand of high-energy bluegrass in one of the best listening rooms in the world--and boy-howdy did they deliver!

Dilling on the 5-string
I've been a fan of Steve Dilling ever since I saw him play with Russel Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out at the Oakland Community College Bluegrass series several years back.  Sure, he's a rock-solid banjo picker and a great Emcee.  He's also one of the best harmony vocal singers you'll run into.  However, having repeatedly run into him at various festivals, pick-up "cornhole" games and even the Jolly Pumpkin before the show, it is his easygoing demeanor; genuine friendliness and approachability; and quick smile that truly set him apart from the crowd.   Sure, it's time-honored bluegrass tradition to be accessible to the fans, but Steve seems to have made it a personal mission to get to know every fan he meets.   

On this night, Dilling certainly brought his "A" game.  Playing a new "Dilling Model" custom banjo from a luthier with a tongue-paralyzing eastern European name, Steve pulled off some light-speed rolls, bluesy string bends, luscious harmonic tone-laced, face-melting breaks with ease and reckless abandon.  Perhaps re-energized by playing in a band with son-in-law Skip Cherryholmes, Dilling obviously is having the time of his life playing in the band, and it shows in every note he plays.  He even pulled off a pretty memorable song or two on the mandolin as the evening progressed.  Steve Dilling is truly one of the finest performers in bluegrass today.

Skip Cherryholmes on guitar.
If Dilling's banjo work is the motor that drives Sideline, then Cherryholmes' rhythm guitar work is its' high-performance, nitro-fueled supercharger!  From the top of his immaculately gelled hair to the tip of his constantly tapping foot Skip throws himself bodily into every song, committing himself 100% to driving the band forward.   He holds NOTHING back.  When it comes to playing with Sideline, you can see the joy in his smile; in his Pete Townsend-esque jumping around on stage; and every time he yells, barks or screams "Yeah!" on stage.  He's INTO what he's doing.   No slouch when it comes to breaks either, he certainly adds a bluesy/rock-n-roll edge to his flatpicking that makes it just a little bit different (and I'd argue a little bit better) than what you usually hear in a traditional bluegrass band.  Equally at home singing lead of a variety of harmony vocals, as surprising high point of the night was his silky smooth and rich bass singing on an a capella gospel number.

Brian Aldridge on mando and vox
Dilling's long-time friend Brian Aldridge holds down the majority of the lead vocal work and is a fantastic mandolin player.  Not only is his tone amazing, but he is one of the crispest, and cleanest, mandolin pickers I've seen.  It was a true joy to watch him play.  Crisp and clear, but with the power to punch through the wall of drive coming out of the band, Brian's voice is super easy to hear and blends perfectly with the other members of the band.  I could listen to him sing all day!  While he's a terrific mandolin picker, it was his two-song stint on the banjo that really stood out to me.  This boy can really play the 5-string!  Like his mando playing, it was lightning fast, super efficient and had tone for miles!  He also rocked the "impossible to make look good" orange-shirt-under-stage-lighting look.

The future of bluegrass fiddle?--Nathan Aldridge
Truly the stand out performer of the night had to be Brian's younger brother Nathan Aldridge on the fiddle.   This modest young man makes up for his lack of witty stage banter (though his "Yep" answer to everything is somehow hilariously funny on its' own) with some ridiculously good fiddle chops--AND HE'S ONLY FREAKING SIXTEEN YEARS OLD!  Whether it's full, rich long-bowed fills, slap-you-in-the-face bow chops, or finger-blurring melody work, this young man embodies everything that bluegrass fiddle could--and should--sound like.  He pulled off a train-song/fiddle tune barnburner in the spotlight not once, but TWICE during the night.  Are you kidding me?  This kid is a pro!

Jason Moore
Rounding out the band is veteran bass man Jason Moore.  I first saw him play a few years back on the Ark's stage with Mountain Heart.  How can you not love his right-on-the-front-edge-of-the-beat thump that pushes the band forward.  I can't imagine a better musician to complement Skip Cherryholmes rhythm guitar work.  From his onstage quips and the twinkle in the eye, I suspect he's also the instigator of much of the bands off-stage shenanigans.

So, in the mood for some hard-driving, classic bluegrass--but with a decidedly modern edge?  Want to see five master's of their acoustic instrument put them through their paces for your entertainment.    And most assuredly, and most importantly, want to see five guys who obviously love what they do, and actually enjoy sharing the stage together?  If so, then make it a point to go see Sideline at a show near you.  Not sure how to find them?  I think there's even an App for that (no, seriously, search "Sideline Bluegrass" in the Apple App Store of on Google Play).  Whatever it takes, go see this band!

Like what you see here and want more information on exciting, live, local bluegrass and acoustic music in Southeast Michigan?  Follow us on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/SeMiBluegrass/)

More photos from the show below. Please tag, share and use with credit to Semibluegrass.com.  Click image for full-resolution photo!