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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


1 comment:

  1. This is such a wonderful review of the evening!! Thank you, John, for your generous words and the fantastic photos from all aspects of the evening! I'm overwhelmed---and so grateful!!


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