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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)

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