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.
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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!

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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. 

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