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Sunday, April 24, 2016

An Enchanted Evening of Bluegrass (Thunderwüde at Johnny's Speakeasy)

Magic Happens at Johnny's Speakeasy...
I've been trying to do a show review for Southeast Michigan's bluegrass "supergroup" Thunderwüde for over a year.  I've seen them a few times, but somehow never remember to bring my camera.  This weekend however, I simply could not pass up the opportunity to see them play in the very best venue around, Johnny's Speakeasy.  For those of you not familiar with this extraordinary and magical place, just watch this.  I have to admit, I'm a bit hesitant to write about the Speakeasy, in the same way a fisherman doesn't like to mention his favorite fishing spot--too much exposure can ruin the ephemeral nature of these special places. While some blue collar bricklayer, his name lost in history, may have built this room and it's vaulted ceiling, and generations of owners have continued to improve and decorate the space, I am convinced that  the tiniest bit of every soul that makes the journey down the steep stairs to Johnny Williams' basement is drawn into the walls magnifying and supporting the magical JuJu that makes this simply the best place to hear live local music in Southeast Michigan, and quiet probably the whole world.

Thunderwüde working the one-mic
What began as an informal Wednesday night bluegrass jam at the Chelsea Alehouse Brewery has grown into a truly unique bluegrass band, Thunderwüde.  Although they boast some high-profile fans, it is the bands musical chops that really set them aside.  Every member of the band is a professional musician playing in multiple bands and side projects and a true master of their instrument(s).  It is a true testament to the talent of this band that they manage to capture all the drive required of  barn-burner bluegrass fiddle tunes without a banjo!  The band plays a great mix of mostly traditional bluegrass standards, with just enough variety drawn from some well known country, folk, swing and jazz standards.  Where they really shine is on their original material.  I'm a big fan of "High Standards" as played here at The Ark a couple years ago. The band takes turn singing the lead vocals and have mastered the art of three-part harmony so well that most of the time it sounds like a single voice coming off the stage and it's impossible to determine who's singing which part.

Dennie and Fritzemeier kick off the show.
Mandolin master Jason Dennie really shines in the band.  With an effortless right hand he alternates between a driving chop and stinging fill riffs with near reckless abandon.  On guitar he is equally versed at traditional flatpicking and fingerstyle leads.  Dennie's talent lies not in playing fast (though he can keep up with the best of them), but rather with his mastery of the melody line.  Whether of mandolin or guitar, his solo breaks really push the boundaries of traditional bluegrass walks, runs and scales venturing into lots of double- and triple-stop passages and jazz-chord infused countermelodies and syncopated counterrhythms.   I find his playing ultimately refreshing and interesting.  He is very personable on stage with a quick smile and "bluegrass voice" counter-persona on stage covering most of the emcee duties.  He is obviously good friends with everyone in the band (and half the people in the audience as well) sharing jokes and running gags throughout the performance.

Fiddle Master Fritzemeier
The standout of the night had to be Wes Fritzemeier.  Beginning the night on the mandolin, he is every bit as good as Dennie on the instrument, with a subtly different, somewhat bluesier approach to his leads and an easy-going lope to his chop--a perfect foil for Dennie's fingerstyle groove.  He instantly wins over the crowd with his warm smile and lighthearted comments from stage.  His vocals are rich and nuanced with just a bit of dirt and grit thrown in for that authentic "mountain" sound.  A few songs into the show he switched to the fiddle.  Though he's been playing for over 20 years, he admits to having been playing more mandolin than fiddle lately.  You would never know it, as his performance this night was one of the greatest fiddle exhibitions I have witnessed.  He pulls an amazing amount of tone out of his instrument, while displaying great mastery of acoustic dynamic--his fiddle lines wash over you like the pounding surf on the Great Lakes in summer; smooth and deceptively powerful at the same time.  With finger-blurring prowess, he somehow adds fiddle fills in between his own melodies.  His playing is so complex and technically perfect that I sometimes swore it had to be two fiddles on stage playing counterpoint to each other.  This guy is a BEAST!

Dennie and Reifel clowning around
Bassman Tommy Reifel forms the backbone of the Thunderwüde sound.  I first ran into him as a member of the Ben Daniels Band when they played the Marquette Area Blues Fest several years ago and was blown away by his work on the upright bass.   Proficient at the "I-V" bluegrass rhythm line, he sits right on the front edge of the beat, driving the band forward and creating a pocket that's impossible to fall out of.  In fact, at the Speakeasy my friend comment that he'd never heard a band stay on beat for the entire show--never falling out of time once, and a bass player who hit every note on time!  Reifel also has a talent for adding a few unexpected runs and solo lines to his playing which keeps it exciting and engaging throughout the show.  He even thew in a cool bass solo break on a fiddle tune--something that you just don't see.

Merkel and the Guitar
While Dennie, Fritzemeier and Reifel have been playing as a trio lately, the show marked the return of long-time guitarist George Merkel.  With him on guitar, Dennie on mandolin and Wes' fiddle, Thunderwüde really takes off; each of them switching easy from pounding rhythm lines to mind-numbing solo breaks with reckless abandon.  Merkel's shy smile disguises his unbelievable flatpicking talent.  He has one of the steadiest and effortless right hands I've seen and a flexible and FAST left hand which combine to give his breaks and easy flow and smooth delivery.  He has a great voice for country-tinged bluegrass ballads--silky smooth, soul-filled and very easy to listen to.   It's obvious I'm going to have to see Thunderwüde again (and again, and again...) and I really need to get out to the Alehouse on a Wednesday night.

I've included some random photos from the show below.  Feel free to use and distribute freely with credit to Semibluegrass.com.  Want to see more like this?  Please subscribe to the blog, or better yet, follow our facebook page (www.facebook.com/SeMiBluegrass).  Visit the page and tag/share the photos there too.

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