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Monday, July 18, 2016

You Don't Know What You're Missing--Two Cool Grassroots Michigan Music Festivals

Music At Night Under The Trees--Because You Can
Michigan is home to countless hundreds of music festivals--from downtown concert series in nearly every small town imaginable, to full blown, nationally recognized productions like Electric Forest, Faster Horses and the Wheatland Music Festival.  However, if you keep you eyes and ears open, you may just stumble on something special: an informal and independent musical gathering, often run on a shoestring budget and for all the right reasons, that delivers all that is best about the festival experience, without all the drama and baggage inevitably associated with large-scale events.  I was fortunate to attend TWO such events over the past fortnight at Folk-In-The-Woods in the Port Huron area and Forestville in Marquette.  While completely different events, they were eerily similar in the quality experience they provided to everyone in attendance.

Magic Happens in These Woods!
Folk-In-The-Woods (see my review of last year's festival here) started as an informal gathering of folk musicians in a private woodlot outside of Port Huron.  As the years past and more musicians started showing up, a small stage and basic amenities sprang up in the woods.  Owner Connie and her husband Sean have managed to keep the local, musician-friendly vibe alive while simultaneously allowing the event to blossom into a full-blown celebration of the Port Huron music scene.  Built on the backs of a small army of enthusiastic volunteers and supported entirely by voluntary donations, "Folk", as it's lovingly referred to by those in attendance, is a weekend full of peace, love and music by, for and about the musicians who supply it.  For a modest (and I mean REALLY modest) donation, you get two full days of music, a no-frills space to pitch your tent or park a small camper, and even a communal dinner each night!  An eclectic and eccentric musical lineup keeps things interesting and entertaining:  Singer/Songwriters abound--from talented young newcomers to seasoned veterans of the folk scene; A real-deal big band shares the stage followed by a hard-rocking blues band--with a set thrown in by a classical guitarist; electric bands from a variety of genres get the crowd going and the jamming (both organized and informal) goes on day and night.  This is definitely one of the coolest things I've ever been involved in.

And These Woods Too!
Deep in the woods in Marquette a truly exceptional music festival is taking it's baby steps and growing into something truly spectacular.  Forestville is the brainchild of Andy Langlois of Blackrocks Brewery (and probably many others) and combines "beer, music and camping under the stars."  A ticketed event, proceeds from Forestville benefit the Noquemanon Trail Network (NTN) and take place at the trailhead.  Like Folk-In-The-Woods, you get a ridiculous amount of cool music for a minimal fee.  Limited, rustic camping is available...with all other attendees required to take a shuttle to the event.  Unique to Forestville is the combination of music festival and craft beer festival (a natural pairing I would think).  Much more electric jam-band centered, Forestville still delivered some great, and varied sets of music and closed with the impossible to describe onstage antics and danceable cover songs of local favorites Frank An Da Beanz.

A Sure Sign You're At A Great Festival
This year's lineup of craft beers included the "host" Blackrocks, local breweries Ore Dock and Cognition, and downstate superstars Founders, Brewery Vivant and the Mitten Brewing CoStarcut Cider was also there with some remarkably refreshing beverages perfect for the hot, sunny temperatures.  With all the sun, music and beer, the hot, fresh food provided by multiple food trucks was perfect.  It was almost impossible to decide what to eat: hot dogs, deli, Barbecue, tacos or wood fired pizza.  Personally, I enjoyed the heirloom tomato pizza from brand-new startup Copper Crust Pizza and--of course--the best darn tacos in the world from Dia De Los Tacos (I can't believe they got better since last year...but they did.  The "Coleen" and "Miss Piggy" were superb)!

Alex Shier--The Real Deal--Right Here--This Guy
Michigan is home to an incredible music scene, and nowhere was this more evident than in the stunning lineup of homegrown musicians at both festivals.  Every single band and performer who played was top notch and I would put them up against any performer, in any setting, anywhere.  However, there were a few memorable, stand-out moments and I thought I'd take the time to share them individually.  I saw Alex Shier play at Folk-In-The-Woods last year and thought he was excellent.  When he stepped onstage this year, for a solo set right between local favorites the Gasoline Gypsies and high-energy, ThrashGrass closers the Native Howl, I thought he was doomed--what an impossible set to play. Boy was I  ever wrong.  He brought the crowd to their feet with his tastefully stripped down use of loop pedal to accompany himself on a free-wheeling set of tasty original and creative covers.  They were singing along enthusiastically with his soulful rendition of Tennessee Whiskey and losing their minds during Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone.  It's obvious to me (and everyone else who was there) that Alex spent the last year in the woodshed and brought his singing and guitar playing chops to a nova bright polish.  Truly one of the great sets I've seen.

Kayla and Chris Day of the Tom Toms
As usual, Don Kanners at Music Movers LLC brought his "A Game" to the table with bands at Folk-In-The-Woods.   Hometown favorites the Gasoline Gypsies put on their usual high-energy show with a new rhythm guitarist (Neal) and a bunch of new songs.  Friday night closed with the Native Howl who are rapidly growing into THE high-energy band around.  They had the entire crowd on their feet dancing in front of--and by the end of the night, on--the stage.  But it was the Saturday night post-dinner set by the Tom Toms that really blew my mind.  Guitarist Chris Day was all over the stage like a puppy with a new toy throwing out one blazing lick after another (and even playing some bottleneck slide with a full bottle of Bell's Two Hearted).  He plays plugged straight into the amp, without a lot of effects pedals and assorted nonsense, and I kind of love that.   Uber-cool bassist Elaina Day threw in some super-clean, yet wildly funky bass lines and drummer Steve Bennett played the absolute crap out of the drum set.   You couldn't help but be caught up in the music!  However, when singer Kayla Day (it's a popular last name in the band...I assume they're all related one way or another?) opened her mouth to sing, the world kind of stopped for me.  She has a magical, powerful and tremendously soulful voice able to deliver the vocals clearly with an urgency and vulnerability that is nearly impossible to describe--and addictively pleasurable to listen to.  She delivers the band's remarkable originals with joy and enthusiasm and pulled off two tremendous covers (Led Zepplin's Whole Lotta Love and the Jackson Five's I Want You Back).  It is rare to equally versed in musicality and performance, but the Tom Toms do that--and they do it well!

Finnish Reggae Sensations Conga Se Menne
Forestville featured it's own stand-out performances.  I had not heard Country/Americana band Trailer Hitch play live and was not disappointed--tight rhythm section, well-rehearsed harmonies and original takes on country covers made them very interesting to listen to.  I would have loved to see them play a later time--slot with a larger crowd--they would have KILLED it.  Even a sudden, out-of-the-blue downpour couldn't kill the vibe when Finnish Reggae Band Conga Se Menne hit the stage.  One would be tempted to think the band was a novelty, with their songs about saunas, shotguns and fishing--and you would be terribly wrong. Behind the too-pale skin, white hair and "tropical sauna rhythms" lies a collection of serious musicians.  They may be 2000 miles from the nearest coral reef and white sand beach, but this band delivers the danceable, fun-soaked, rhythm-driven music of the islands...and they do it as well as any equatorial band alive.   I also really dug the all-brass improvisational band Who Dat Brass.  I didn't actually see Ruby the Tank or Rivulare in person (I was volunteering), but these groovy, woman-fronted, rock/American acts sounded amazing through the trees and delivered some very danceable, very listenable music to the crowd.  They're on my list to go see in person next time I'm in town.

Frank (Evan Simula) and Da Beanz
Following several sets of high-quality jam bands, Frank An Da Beanz took the stage to close out the festival.   It is impossible to classify this band.  The unofficial house band of Blackrocks Brewery is known for many things: their unpredictable and often ill-advised clothing choices on stage; the no-holds-barred stage antics of frontman and bassist Evan Simula; their outrageous mix of surfrock classics with funkadelic takes on rock, blues, soul and funk tunes; blending the ridiculous with the sublime; and the hardest rocking, funkiest and most danceable rhythm around.  You are not allowed to have a bad time while the Beanz play--they are infectiously happy, border on the ridiculous and--oh yeah--five of the most supremely gifted musicians you will ever see--and sometimes you just have to see it:

Frank An Da Beanz:

So, there are lots of great festivals, and some unbelievable music out there just waiting for you to find it.  Go get some!

Photo Galleries from both events are included below.  Please feel free to share/tag/distribute freely with credit given to Semibluegrass.com.  Consider liking SeMiBluegrass on Facebook for more photos, reviews and commentary on Live, Local Music and get out there and enjoy some yourself!

Folk-In-The-Woods 2016 Gallery

Forestville 2016 Gallery