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/

Monday, June 27, 2016

Ridiculously Cool--The Native Howl and The Ragbirds at CAD Studios.

The People.  Music People.  The Best People.
As I have said repeatedly, when it comes to live, local music in South East Michigan it is all about the people, the places and the music (and always in that order).   So, while I have worked very hard in this blog to bring some incredible live music experiences to my readers, I am continually awed by the places I have been introduced to and humbled by the new friends I have made in my musical journeys.  No where was this more evident that last night, in a converted heating and cooling workshop where two of the very finest "Semibluegrass" bands around met for the first time in front of a tiny, select audience of family, fans and friends to create a uniquely meaningful and transcendent musical experience.

This Guy!
This "Intimate Evening of Music" was the brainchild of master-promoter and kindred spirit Don Kanners.  In semi-retirement from his past, less-fun-but-more-profitable career, Don has  totally immersed himself in the live, local, southeast Michigan music scene with his management, promotions and booking company, Music Movers LLC.  There is something special about each of the four up-and-coming bands Kanners has assembled.  The Native Howl, the Gasoline Gypsies, the Tom Toms and Off the Ledge are all likeable, listenable and eminently talented...and Don finds ways to put them in the public eye every day.  Don keeps the bands busy with the expected bar gigs, showcase shows and festival appearances, but he also works tirelessly to expand the bands' reach into other venues--appearances on TV news shows, radio appearances and special, one-of-a-kind events.  His boundless enthusiasm for live music is exceeded only by his professionalism, creativity and dedication to clients.  The world would be a whole lot better place if there were more of him around.

"Intimate" doesn't even start to describe it...
Five or six years ago, Don, a self-professed "classic rocker", was none-the-less gobsmacked by Ann Arbor's quintessentially hip and impossible to define global groove band The Ragbirds and came up with the hare-brained idea of booking them to play a "private" show for a small crowd.  Enter Native Howl frontman Alex Holycross'  Clean As Dirt (CAD) Studios (Click the link for a cool article from MuseTracks--something else terribly cool you should know about!)  This mystic musical retreat was created to honor Alex's father from the bones of his defunct heating and cooling business.  More than just a state-of-the art recording studio, CAD is a place where musician's gather to share ideas and try things out in a judgement free zone; where differences fade and friends become family through shared interests; where the pursuit of dreams means more than resumes or college degrees; and where--with just a little nudge--magic still lives in our world.   It was into this ephemeral setting that Don invited the Ragbirds who admitted "we had no idea what to expect"--and later thanked the Native Howl and Don for "inviting us into your family".

The Native Howl's "ThrashGrass Rhythm Section"
And what a family this was.  There were, I believe, only 32 tickets sold to this event on an invite-only basis.  Friends and fans alike, this was truly a musical family--relaxing and socializing over beer, wine and fantastic appetizers (courtesy, I think, of Alex's mother) before the show, and then settling in for an intense listening experience (oddly reminiscent of Johnny's Speakeasy in that regard).  The night opened with the Native Howl in a stripped down, "Thrash Grass" configuration-- with Drummer Joshua LeMieux unexpectedly picking up the guitar instead of his usual drum kit--a huge gamble that obviously took a LOT of hard work on this young man's part--and he pulled it off flawlessly!  They've still got a way to go to be "bluegrass", but it was pure "Semibluegrass" for sure!

Family Means a Lot to the Ragbirds As Well.
Through the genius of Don Kanners, neither band had ever heard the other play and had no idea what to expect.  As a testament to the talent in both bands, I watched them grooving on each others'  music throughout both sets.  The Native Howl played some of their signature "ThrashGrass", but also dug deep for some older, melodic tunes and less familiar material.  On their part, the Ragbirds also stripped their stage show down to present some spectacular new material from their new album "The Threshold and the Hearth" and some classic rhythm-addicted Ragbirds jams.  What can I say about the Ragbirds that I haven't said here or here before.  The band just embodies so much of what attracts me to local, roots music and the people who play it.    Fronting the band is Erin Zindle, a powerful songwriter, fearless and unabashedly willing to bare her soul, and put her feelings--both light and dark--on display to connect the crowd to a deeper truth.  Family plays an important role in the band as well...not only in the stories of love, loss and relationships their songs tell, but right out in front, with Erin fronting a band that contains her brother TJ on guitar and husband Randall Moore on percussion.  You get the sense that John Brown on drums and Dan Jones on bass are no strangers to the dinner table at the Zindle/Moore house either.   A true stand-out of the night was  Brown's work on the Cajon.  With lightning fast hands and a subtle touch, he was able to bring that box alive--booming, sizzling and snapping like the full-blown drum kit he normally plays.  It was an absolute clinic in how drums should be played in an acoustic setting--perfection.

In a moment of pure spontaneous genius, Erin sat in with the Howl for a tune, and they returned the favor having Alex sit in on the Stealers Wheel classic "Stuck in the Middle with You".  It was inspiring to watch them figure each other out and then throw themselves completely into something unfamiliar, yet somehow as comfortable as a favorite tee shirt (probably a tie-dyed tee shirt with this group).   All in all, an amazing night of music and fellowship--both on stage and in the audience..  I was so enthralled and enraptured by what was going down that  I completely forgot to take notes.  Luckily, Gasoline Gypsy and Native Howl Super Fan Jack Hunger posted a great description of the show on his Facebook page.  With his permission, I've copied some of it below; as he managed to capture  the spirit of the evening better than I ever could have.

"The Howl set began, by taking percussionist Joshua LeMieux out of his normal double drumming role and had him tickling six strings. Accentuating more Grass than Thrash for this intimate set, the move was private and personal, and a romantic testimony to LeMieux's passion and dedication to his art. Not his instrument of choice, Josh worked to make tonight work, and that work, certainly paid off in spades.

The highlight of the Native Howl set was a rarely played in public duet of Holycross and Jake Sawicki, called The Vast Divide, a soul searching look at struggling with loss. The entire audience was moved to tears. It was raw, emotional and real. It only could have happened on this night, in this room. An 'oh wow," hush followed that song, as we all gathered our hearts. Jake broke the silence with, "we're gonna do something a little happier now," and an audience giggle, and a Mark Chandler bass solo later, heads were bobbing, and hands were clapping again. It was like the grandest of roller coaster rides.

Erin Zindle, the 5 foot nothing (but with a gigantic presence) bundle of fiddling energy that fronts the Ragbirds said it best, "We booked this house party-studio thing, not knowing what to expect. Sometimes special happens. Alex talked earlier about family. Thank you for inviting us into your family."

And The Ragbirds delivered.  Like The Howl, the original music of The Ragbirds defies traditional definitions. Obvious bluegrass roots, are fed with clever and folksy lyrics, that tell tales of overcoming challenges, and negotiating life and love. Theirs is music of hope. Ms. Zindle's voice is angelic, her violin can be both a fiddle and a classical orchestra instrument. She moved about the small stage like a sprite, sprinkling happiness around the room. Intricate rhythms from a team of percussionists and rock solid guitar work from Erin's brother, TJ invoked wisps of a subtle Grateful Dead influence

The brilliant meeting of The Native Howl, and The Ragbirds, two bands who had yet to be together before this night, was arranged by Don Kanners of Music Movers, LLC, who promotes The Howl, and had become a fan of The Ragbirds, after hearing the Ann Arbor family five-some a few years back. "It was a match that just made sense to me," Kanners noted. "their styles are definitely different, but I knew they'd mesh."

Perhaps, the only thing that could have eclipsed that magic that was the music on this night, would be the size of the biggest smile ever seen on a human face as Alex sat in on an encore song with the Ragbirds. They covered "Stuck in the Middle with You."

Alex, all of us certainly are proud of you. And what was the magic that you made in that room, proves somebody else was looking down, and beaming about his boy, as well.

So, if it ever comes up, and someone asks this guy, where were you when you had your greatest live music experience? I'd say, Leonard, Michigan. With The Native Howl, and The Ragbirds. You just can't top that!"                

                         ~Jack Hunger

 Random Photos from the evening below.   Feel free to tag, post and share, with credit to SemiBluegrass.com.  Subscribe to this blog for more exciting show reviews, or follow us on facebook.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

An Evening Among Friends--The Judy Banker CD Release at Johnny's Speakeasy

Judy Doing What She Does Best!
I've written numerous times about the worst-kept secrets in South East Michigan: Johnny's Speakeasy and Singer/Songwriter Judy Banker.    Last weekend, I was honored to be invited to the Speakeasy for the official release of Judy's superb new album, Devil's Never Cry.  After a long day of bluegrass jamming and manning the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association's "Instrument Petting Zoo" at the Ryan Bellows Bluegrass Bazaar in Flint, I showed up sunburned, road weary and dead tired.  I needed not  worry...from the very first note in that magical space Iw as instantly awake, alert and aware of everything going on around me.  As usual, the crowd at Johnny's was full of friendly folks with a shared interest in the best acoustic music in the world.  Though there was definitely a high-end BYOB vibe that night, no one was there to get plastered (though Judy did bring a LOT of champagne, and graciously shared it with anyone who asked).  We were there (and yes...in Johnny's basement, you are ALWAYS part of a "we")  to listen, and to celebrate the music that flowed from all the performers.  This alone is worth the ridiculously modest ticket price to enter this magical musicland.

The One and Only Johnny Williams
The night started with a great surprise, as Johnny Williams himself took the stage to share some of his own original music.  His humorous Alcohol of Fame could be my new favorite song.  I totally need to learn the lyrics/chords to that one and break it out around the campfire at EVERY festival I attend this summer!  However, it was on a touching song for/about his mother, Anna Marie, where the band really had a chance to shine and transformed Johnny's words into something really quite spectacular.  John Sperendi broke out the bow on his upright bass and laid down an ethereal and flowing musical skeleton on which to to hang the story.  Dave Keeney put some melodic meat on the bones with his supple, surf-rock vibrato enhanced electric guitar riffs.  Tony Pace demonstrated why he has become the master of accompanying vocalists on his dobro...hanging back and providing rhythm and nuance to the melody, until it came time to add in a slide, or fill, or quick piece of melody. By choosing his notes carefully, like musical punctuation marks, he provided the nuance and texture that held the song together.  I know this was an informal band, but they were as tight and polished as any during this set; the perfect accompaniment to Johnny's singing and storytelling.  And when they joined together in harmony--simply perfection.   Far from just a simple venue owner and gracious host, Johnny proved to be a talented songwriter and performer by any measure.

Judy and the Band
Not to be outdone, Judy took the stage next with her own killer band  for two short sets of original material off both her new album, Devils Never Cry, and her previous album, Without You. There were some old, familiar faces in the band.  Judy writes and sings songs perfect for accompaniment on the dobro, and Tony Pace returned to fill that role as well as giving a couple songs a rougher, bluesier edge with superb work on the lab steel and electric guitar.  He even played an old, toy guitar converted into a makeshift dobro and tuned way down to open D for a bluesy feel on the Gillian Welch classic Tear My Stillhouse Down.  David Roof, who produced both of Judy's CDs, joined in on bass and provided some incredible harmony vocals.  I have mentioned before that Judy's voice, great on it's own, is transformed by singing harmony.  No where was this more evident than when she sang two-part harmonies with Dave--together their voices were somehow greater than the sum of the parts.
Under Johnny's Watchful Eye--Magic Happens.
A couple of new faces (at least to me) filled out the band on this evening.  Well traveled drummer Stuart Tucker sat in on his classic, small-format drum kit.  A tiny kick drum, snare, single tom...wood framed and rimmed had an amazing tone, perfect for an acoustic performance in an intimate setting.  Coupled with small ride and crash cymbal, this was the perfect less-is-more approach to these songs.  Fiddle player Emily Slomovits was totally unknown to me.  She had a quirky, jerky approach to fiddle that somehow translated to beautiful, dynamic and nuanced melody lines and one a crisp, woody rhythmic chop.  I made the mistake or interpreting this control as timidity for about five minutes into the set, where she entered into a spontaneous, improvised "call and response" dual with Tony Pace with the smile on her face and twinkle in her eye telegraphing who was the winner in this battle of musical masters. 

Singing Along With Jay Stielstra--Perfect Ending
With the kind of band she deserves behind her, Judy's performance this night was touching, poignant and emotional; perfect for the songs from her new album.  She wore her emotions all over her face for all to see and it was difficult to determine which she enjoyed more--singing her own songs, or the overwhelmingly positive response from the audience.  I loved all the songs this night, but a few stuck out.  Coming Around, with it's catchy melodic and vocal hook and killer dobro line was an instant  SeMiBluegrass classic.  Feet of Clay (Slippin' Away) with it's bittersweet theme and rollicking melody line was just different enough to be special.  The Thing About Us somehow managed to capture all the strength and vulnerability in Judy's voice that makes is special, and eminently listenable.  During the cover of Stillhouse, the band let it all hang out and wrung every last speck of attention and admiration from the crowd.  Judy ended the night by coaxing Jay Stielstra on stage to lead a song.  Jay said her felt "like an intruder" for taking the spotlight from Judy.  However, through her songs, and threw her actions, I know that nothing means more in world to her than sharing music with the people in her life--friends, family and fans.  This was borne out as Jay launched into his classic sing-along I'm Singing! and the entire crowd joined in, drowning out Judy, Jay and the band.  It if for these quintessentially ephemeral moments of musical bliss that I continue to chase down live, local music in Michigan.  There is simply nothing better.

I've included some additional photo's from the event below.  Please feel free to share and use freely with credit to SemiBluegrass.com.  Better yet, subscribe to the blog and get more great reviews and commentary like this!  Or follow us on facebook (www.facebook.com/SeMiBluegrass).

Johnny and the Band

Singing His Heart Out

Yep.  That Place.

The Best

Judy Getting Her Groove On

Tony Pace

Emily Slomovits

Stuart Tucker In the Groove

What a "String Section"

"Rhythm and Groove"

If walls could talk....

More cool stuff....

And the music flows through us all...


Where Magic Happens

Set List

Tools of the Master

The People You Meet...

...And Enjoy PBR with!

...And a Toy Guitar to Boot!

Multi-Talented, Multi-Instrumentalist

One "Artsy" Shot