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, May 22, 2016

The Lawnmower Playlist: New Local Music from Judy Banker, Escaping Pavement and Border Patrol

"Implements of Grass Destruction"
I'd mentioned a couple of posts ago that nothing helps me shake off a long Michigan winter better than some new local music.  Like magic, three new albums showed up in my inbox and have pretty much taken over my daily listening.  There is some incredible songwriting and musical talent in Southeast Michigan (but you knew that, didn't you?).  Though all totally different, these artists are perfect example of "Semibluegrass" and worth the listen. With a bluebird skies today, and temperatures climbing into the pleasant seventies, I dropped all three albums  into a playlist on my phone , hopped on the trusty Cub Cadet and gave them a serious listen as I battled the green monster that is my lawn.  For those of you who know me, you are aware that I hate mowing the lawn...enough that last year I penned this infamous Haiku to sum up my feelings:
Fresh blades of spring grass
Each mocking me as they grow
Green middle fingers
Thankfully,today I had a phone full of great new music to take my mind of the green demons and soothe my soul as I knocked the yard back into shape today.   Take a look below for my impressions of these albums.  More importantly, if you like what you read, drop a few bucks and purchase them yourself (you won't be disappointed).  Better yet, all three of these acts play locally a LOT, so go catch them live, say "hello", thank them for all they do and buy a copy of the album direct from the band (you may not know that they will actually make more money this way then you purchasing it electronically).

Judy's Spectacular Album "Devils Never Cry"
I first met Judy Banker as the guitarist and singing partner for legendary Michigan songwriter Jay Stielstra. A consummate sideperson and vocal partner, as well as a tireless promoter, Judy has reached out to fans new and old to help keep Jay's magical songs alive, vibrant and relevant to a whole new generation of listeners.  I also have not met many people as devoted to the local, live music scene as Judy is.  You see her everywhere, in person, at shows and online.  She is part of the very heartbeat and soul of music in South East Michigan.  I was thrilled to hear that Judy had not only been working on her own music, but was recording it with a killer band, and ready to release a solo album. And what an album this is!

That's a Lot of Artistic Talent Right There
From the first note of the first song, it is evident that--while not a bluegrass album--there are several things that will attract the SeMiBluegrass audience to this album.  The first is the killer performances of the musicians on this album.  Tony Pace, who you may be familiar with from his time with the southeast Michigan's seminal folk/bluegrass band Wayward Roots, puts in an amazing performance on the dobro.  The bluegrass inspired licks on "Coming Around" and the dark, bluesy (Open D Tuned?) riffs on Judy's cover of Gillian Welch's classic "Tear My Stillhouse Down" really stand out.  As does his stellar electric guitar work on a couple tracks--something you may not have heard from him before.  Greta Mae Barnard really defines Judy's sound with her soulful and melodic fiddle playing.  Her tone is rich and full, and she pulls off some incredibly complex accompaniment, while managing to stay in the background instead of stealing the show--a rare skill indeed.  Her harmony vocals are sweet, touching and always perfectly on pitch.  What do you say about David Roof?  His bass playing is spot on, as are his killer vocal harmonies (especially sharing the lead with Judy as a duet on several of the numbers).  The entire album was also recorded at David's Rooftop Recordings in Grand Blanc, one of the premier venues for recording acoustic music in the region!

Jay Stielstra and Judy from a few years back
With a band like this it would be easy to overlook Judy's superb guitar work.  Like many singer/songwriters, she has the ability to weave subtle rhythms and simple fills into a complex tapestry that helps fill out the bands' sound and breaths life into the songs.  He vocal abilities are also complex and nuanced.  When singing the lead, Judy's voice can be naked and vulnerable, telling a story, but also carrying the emotion behind the words.  When she hit the chorus and starts harmonizing with the band, something else takes over.  Something wonderful and indescribable.  Her voice grows in power, blending with her partners, and lifting them to new heights.  The lyrics flow over you and resonate deep within your mind and soul, carrying you on a journey to the places deep within yourself that only honest music can unlock.  This is an album of love songs.  Unlike many albums in this genre, where love, life and loss are reduced to lyrical, melodic and emotional hooks, Judy brings a mature perspective to these songs; an honesty and willingness to talk about the truth of modern relationships; unfettered access to the intense hurts and boundless joys she has experienced in her life.  She does not hide from these things, but wears them proudly; battle scars of a life well lived, and well loved.  This lyrical and performance truth is what drew me to bluegrass, acoustic, folk and Americana music in the first place.  And there are few better than Judy Banker and bringing them to the SeMiBluegrass audience.  Go see her play (and buy this album!).  Judy has an album release show coming up and I can't wait to see these songs come to life on the live stage!

Take a Journey with the "Night Owl"
Sometimes, there is amazing music right in your own back yard, and you don't even know about it.  Such was the case with Escaping Pavement.  Straddling many SeMiBluegrass genres, this vocal/instrumental duo has garnered not only local, but regional and national attention with their hard-driving, vocal-driven approach to acoustic music as exemplified by their superb new album, "The Night Owl".  There's a LOT of bluegrass in this duo...from the fiddle-tune laced mandolin licks of Aaron Markovitz or the driving, pounding rhythm guitar work of Emily Burns--she even rips off a killer flatpick solo at the end of "Leave the Light On" that is one Lester Flatt G-Run short of bluegrass perfection!  But this band has so much more to offer.  Sandwiched in between the first and last songs on the album (which are acoustic/electric guitar-driven American numbers) are eight mandolin/guitar pieces that will blow you mind.  Perhaps it is the imagery brought forward by the album title, but this is the type of music I could see myself listening to on a warm summer evening; well after the bars shut down; on a long, lonely ride through the city with the top down and the radio on high; immersed in the music as I ponder the past and careen forward into the unknown future.  The partners share not only the songwriting, but the lead vocals and instrumental breaks on this album.  Lyrically, these are heartfelt and well constructed songs, but what makes them special is Markovitz' complex mandolin melodies layered over Burns' rhythm guitar.  Aaron is able to play incredibly complex passages with killer tone, and an easy-going and smooth style that builds throughout the songs.  There's a lot of bluegrass fiddle tune in there, and it wouldn't surprise me if he played in a traditional bluegrass band at some point.  Emily likewise can be smooth and subtle, but punctuates her playing with aggressive, percussive accents and jarring fills.  She also has a real gift for making a statement with a single blue note in the middle of a passage, instantly adding suspense to the passage and breaking the trance-like melody.  Like the best jazz musicians she has complete mastery of when NOT to play a note as well.  There are a lot of killer tunes on this album, and I like them all.  However, the country roadhouse number "Leave the Light On"--while an outlier with it's electric and slide guitar riffs--is the kind of song that will get in your brain, get you toes tapping and stick with you all day long.

A Great Summer Album
I've written about Border Patrol in the past.  Their EP, Toxic Thought Machine, was released in the spring, and is fast becoming my favorite new album.  As I spend the summer traveling throughout the region on my quest for live, local music, I will undoubtedly be singing the chorus to the album's title track, as it somehow perfectly captures the SeMiBluegrass experience.

"I will drive through the artificial light
Through our battered bits of cities
And our rusted, scenic sites
Where I can find a place with neon by the door
Seat next to the bar top
And a heavy-handed pour"

Lead singer, songwrite and guitarist Dave Toennies has assembled a killer album of dark, but real songs about the experiences and challenges facing our younger generation--done in an upbeat an happy manner is classic post-war string band style.  Somehow, it works.  Perhaps it's the quirky but engaging banjo stylings of Windsor native Cody Howard (and his killer harmony work).  Or maybe it's the oh-so-authentic contributions of Ryan Haggarty on the doghouse bass (of course).  But truly, the not-so-traditional inclusion of Walter Senko on piano really defines the bands sound and adds some interesting depth and complexity to the numbers.  The title song is great, but the tongue-in-cheek humor in "Daze" (a song about getting a job, to afford health insurance, so you can afford to off yourself?) and "Gravedigger" (a lament about avoiding love at all costs) really stand out.  "Good Luck Charm" captures the pain of the casualties of our endless string of meaningless overseas wars.  There's a lot of good stuff here on this album.  Do yourself a favor, buy it today and give it a listen.    (Album art used with permission of the artists, all other photos copyright SeMiBluegrass.com)

Monday, May 16, 2016

Some Refreshingly New Music from Border Patrol (Live at the Elizabeth Theater)

Border Patrol Singing in Perfect Harmony
Each spring as the weather warms up and the school year starts to wind down, I find myself  yearning for something new, something refreshing and something interesting to picque my musical curiosity.  After more than 60 articles on Semibluegrass.com and 20,000 unique page views, my connection to the very best live, local, acoustic acts in South East Michigan continues to expand.  It was through this blog that local vocalist/guitarist  Dave Toennies reached out to me about his new folk rock band Border Patrol and a gig they had lined up in support of their new CD "Toxic Though Machine"  at the Elizabeth Theater above the Park Bar in Downtown Detroit.  I listened to a track from the album and was immediately hooked.  It's definitely "SeMiBluegras" (because that rolls of the tongue much better than "Blueacocusticanna Folkrootgrass" that more accurately descibes my taste in music!).

Co Headliners "The Diving Bell" from Chicago
Located near the historic Filmore, the Elizabeth Theatre is a funky, cool upstairs space.  Ample attended parking is available, so you don't need to worry about your car down here.  As a bit of a commentary on the state of music, the parking ($10) cost double the cover charge ($5) this evening...and that was for three bands!  A small stage and dancefloor sit in front of a terraced audience area complete with waist-high rails for setting down a drink (or a camera lens).  The concert area opens on one side to a well-supplied circular bar.  The other side is curtained off to form a small artists' "green room".  A professional sound system and skilled sound guy really brought the music to life.  This truly is a great listening room, with warm tones and crystal clear audio. 

Thirty Men
The decor is spartan, but the hanging strings of glass lights and mixed bag of Navajo and Persian rugs decorating the the ceiling give it an artsy hip feel.  Judging from some incredible aroma's wafting up the stairwell, the food downstairs at the Park Bar promised to be excellent as well.  The opening act this day fit perfectly with the vibe of the room.  The misleadingly named "Thirty Men" was actually a duo featuring singer/songwriter Emily Rose on guitar and her friend Eileen (I think) on musical saw.  Their short set of original songs interspersed with some Nirvana covers featured killer harmonies with both ladies taking turns singing lead.  Rose's fingerstyle guitar work is complex and clean.  Somehow, the saw, played with a cello bow creates eerily haunting and warbling tones that perfectly accentuate the rather dark, minor chord feel of these songs.  I swear, at points during the set, I thought she was playing a theramin.  A set of idie-rock from Chicago band The Diving Bell  was up next.  I was more familiar with them as a acoustic Americana act (Like This) fronted by Steve and Clare Hendershot.  On this evening, they brought and edgier, aplified sound featuring multiple electric guitars and even an electric 5-string banjo.  Standout song of the evening was a steam-punky setpiece from and upcoming recording session they have planned complete with a story narative accompanying the song.  I'd love to here to whole thing start to finish--just a bit different approach to the "concept album" than you usually see.

Dave Toennies
Border Patrol took to the stage after a quick set change and lit the crowd up with their high-energy set of original tunes.   Toennies' songs are an honest look at the day-to-day life of twenty-somethings' and their search for their place in our rapidly evolving world.  With a clear, high tenor, he delivers upbeat songs is mostly happy keys with subtle minor turns to add some angst the lyrics.  His delivery definitely has an old-timey feel to it, but mixed a splash or hardcore punk.  Sung with passion and power, the rawness of the verses is swept up with thick, rich 3- and 4- part harmonies in the choruses.   I hear some Stray Cats in their voices, and some Devil Makes Three in their music.  Definitely some late-80s Squeeze in there as well. 

Instrumentally, the band has a lot to offer.   Starting with Toennies' easy-going lope in his guitar playing, the rest of the members of the band each contribute a layer of complexity, melody and rhythm to the Border Patrol sound.  Windsor native Cody Howard's banjo adds the perfect folk-feel to the songs.  Occupying a space somewhere between melodic and clawhammer, his style ranges from civil-war era twangy to modern-day melodies with ease, setting the mood for each song.  Howard's vocal harmonies are powerful and complex, really complementing his singing partner's voice.  Bassist Ryan Haggarty plays the upright, which is perfect for the band's sound and provides all the drive they need.  His harmony singing was spot on as well.  What makes the band unique is the addition of Walter Senko on keyboard.  Ranging form an electric organ sound on upbeat tunes to a classical piano sound on older, slower tunes, his solos provide all the emotion and soul a band could ask for.  Drummer Noah Kamisky fills out the band.  While he had a small kit with him, he plays mostly light snare, with just a bit of ride cymbal and kick drum.  It's funny how few drummers understand this "less is more" approach to backing primarily acoustic bands.  When it works (and boy does it work here!) it really adds a layer of complexity to these types of songs.

So three great acts in a great venue.  What's not to love.  In the mood for something refreshingly new?  Get yourself a copy of Border Patrol's "Toxic Thought Machine", kick back, and take a journey.  Feel free to use images and text in this review with credit to Semibluegrass.com.  Follow us for more great, live, local music in Southeast Michigan.  Or find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instrgram.