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Monday, December 12, 2016

The Power to Transform--EBird & Friends 9th Annual Holiday Show

EBird (Erin Zindle) Sharing an Emotional Moment and a Song
It has been a tremendous year of  SeMiBluegrass music here in South East Michigan;  a year simply overflowing with lovely and talented people, beautiful places and live, local music.  Be it at a bluegrass festival, house concert, music venue or bar show, when musicians gather to share their craft something magical happens; something that can transport you from the mundane to the extraordinary; something with the power to transform both musician and audience alike; something that can speak to the brain, encourage the heart and inspire the soul.  One need only peruse the more than 100 bands profiled in these pages during the year to see evidence of this transformational phenomenon in action.  So it is with great homage and respect to those performers when I state that the Ebird & Friends Holiday Show was---as it always is--not only the culminating event of my SeMiBluegrass year, but also the most incredible, impactful and important show I saw during the year.

Bringing Friends Together to Play and Sing
Musical legend has it that almost ten years ago Erin Zindle (EBird) of seminal South East Michigan Folk Rock/World Music Fusion band the Ragbirds was sitting at Ashley's Gastropub in Ann Arbor sharing with her friends how much she missed gathering at the holiday to sing Christmas songs with her family and the cathartic sense of joy and peace that it brought her.  From this fond reminiscence grew the kernel of a idea that would ultimately grow into the must-see music event of the holiday season.  While Erin is fortunate enough to share the stage with her husband Randall Moore and brother T.J. Zindle in the Ragbirds, she realized that her musical "family" had grown to include many of the local musicians and artists in South East Michigan.  In 2008, Erin gathered this "family" to share their music and sing Christmas songs at the Hartland Music Hall--and a tradition was born.  Nine years later, this annual event has grown to three sold-out nights at The Ark in Ann Arbor, and a magnificent, family-friendly Sunday Matinee performance at the Hartland High School Auditorium.  I have been going to these shows with my family for the past five years and have always found them excellent.  This year,  I was able to attend both the opening night performance at The Ark, and the Sunday show and found this year's show to be among the best.

House Band (Always Better with Horns!)
Unlike a festival or traditional variety show, where multiple acts gather and each get to perform their own material, the EBird Holiday show focuses on bringing together the best and brightest of the local music scene and putting them on stage in front of an incredible house band for a holiday mashup performance.  With a broad and diverse range of performances drawn from nearly every imaginable musical genre, there is literally something something for everyone in this show--which also presents quite a unique challenge for the house band!  The band is built around the funky, world-groove Ragbirds rhythm section of  Moore, TJ Zindle and John Brown, as well as percussion professor "Doctor" Dan Piccolo and Macpodz bassist Brennan Andes.  Add in a funky, jazz-fueled horn section (Ross huff of the Macpoz, Bethanni Greczynski of Rhytha Musik,  and Tim Haldeman on Tenor Sax) and multi-talented stings section of Brad Phillips (the Jeff Daniels Band), Brandon Smith (the Appleseed Collective) and Christina Furtado on Cello.  And holding it all together is the incredible talent of guitarist Mike Boyd and Keyboardist Loren Kranz (the Barbarossa Brothers).   Stage Manager and "Santa" Chris Good and Emcee Extraordinaire Shelly Smith keep the show rolling--no simple feat, especially when trying to wrangle 20+ performers on the Ark stage (which is crowded with a 5-piece band during ordinary shows!). From country to rap, folk to rock, and jazz to 18th Century Holiday music, the EBird House band rises to the challenge, and crushes it every time!

Everything a String Section Should Be!
This year's show opened with a complex and nuanced arrangement of "O Come All Ye Faithful" which showcased the string section in it's somewhat traditional opening, and then somehow transmogrified into the "infectious global groove" the Ragbirds have made famous.  All of the performers joined Erin on stage to sing an African harmony-heavy accompaniment (Ala Paul Simon's Graceland) and gospel counterpoint to give a nod of respect to the religious background of the holiday while simultaneously giving the song a contemporary update and high energy conclusion.  As the last glorious note boomed and echoed through the hall, a brief moment of stunned silence fell over the crowd before they erupted into thunderous applause.  This was followed by the House Band and their unique arrangement of "Carol of the Bells" that played the almost childlike simplicity of the xylophone melody against Ross Huff's complex jazz-tinged horn arrangement.  All-in-all it was a great way for the house band to showcaase their musical chops and set the tone for the rest of the evening.

The Magic of Chris Dupont
Next up was Ann Arbor area singer/songwriter Chris Dupont.  It is easy to find yourself transfixed by his ethereal and soulful vocals, but to do so would be to miss his remarkable finger-style guitar work. Able to mix traditional folk-based sounds with subtle blues-influenced licks, his playing is incredibly rich and textured and truly adds to his sound.  For the show, Dupont chose to update the Jackson Browne classic Rebel Jesus with a heartfelt, almost James Taylor vulnerability in his singing.  He followed this up with a Renaissance era ballad, Brightest and Best of the Sons of Morning; a song he updated and "punked up a little" with the use of a loop pedal rhythm and a remarkably powerful accompaniment by Jessica McComons of The Understory and the irascible Jen Sygit. Chris has the sort of pure voice that melds effortlessly into others, so it was no surprise that he was onstage multiple times during the show lending his voice to the chorus.

No Rest for These Merry Gentlemen
Up next were SeMiBluegrass Thrashgrass favorites, Alex Holycross and Jake Sawicki of the Native Howl.  Readers of this blog will remember that the Native Howl and the Ragbirds first met this summer in a "Ridiculously Cool Concert Event" at CAD Studios.  Impressed by their energy and professionalism, Erin invited Alex and Jake to bring their blend of bluegrass and thrash metal to the holiday show, and they did not disappoint.  Their country/bluegrass cover of Blue Christmas featured the Lindsay Lou of Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys, whose powerful and husky voice played well with the metal-tinged growl of Holycross' voice and Sawicki's bluesy harmonica.  However, it was their thrashmetal rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen that set the crowd on their ear and elicited joyous cheers from the audience. After an A Capella opening, a "Two-Three-Four" growl unleashed a frenetic, hair-flinging, head-bobbing assault on this yule-time classic, culminating in Holycross trading  blistering call-and-response bouzouki licks with Erin's fiddle.  This was definitely a high-energy point of the show and had the crowd on their feet cheering.

The Soulful Jen Sygit Letting It Rip!
A fixture at these shows is always Earthworks Music Collective artist Jen Sygit on backing vocals.  Professional as they come, her powerful voice serves as a massive foundation to build harmonies on.  However, she is so much more than a background singer.  As a member of penultimately SeMiBluegrass groups Lincoln County Process and the  all-female folk/roots band Stella, many readers of this blog are undoubtedly familiar with Sygit's powerful singing and rock-solid guitar work.  She also hosts a rare roots music radio show, Eclecticana, in the Lansing area and is tremendous solo performer as well.  Hard to categorize, her music at the holiday shows usually has a somewhat classic country vibe with driving guitar, poignant lyrics and killer harmonies.  Her selection this year, Home for Christmas, was no exception and was one of my favorite songs of the evening. 

The Timeless Talent of Frank Allison
During my college years in the mid-to late-80s, I fondly remember the music of Frank Allison and his band the Odd Socks.  No longer a bar-closing rocker, Allison has overcome the steady progress of time, and a severe vocal condition to bring his unique brand of holiday cheer to the Holiday show.  With an impish glint in his eye, and special "elf" glasses and hat, he presented two remarkable, original pieces of  Christmas music to the crowd.  Santa's Myth coupled Frank's gravely, yet remarkably warm vocals with a reggae-infused ukulele groove and some rubber-kneed dance moves that had the crowd "ho-ho-ho-ing" along as he sang.  With  costume change ("Shh!  Don't tell Santa.  This is a felony at the North Pole") and switching to slide guitar played dobro-style with Lowell George inspired Craftsman 5/16" socket for a slide, Allison told a somewhat melancholy tale of Santa with Ho Ho Ho and Here We Go.  Allison's performance this year somehow epitomized the joy and togetherness that Christmas means to so many.

Jess McComons Preaching "Love is Everything".
Closing out the first set was Jessican McComons, who somehow managed to transform Ariana Grande's pop hit Love is Everything into an instant Holiday Classic.  Aided in no small part by McComons' unbelievably powerful vocals, the cast of the show joined her on stage and took the crowd to church with a gospel-inspired background vocal.  Building on the pop-music vibe, Grand Rapids rapper Rick Chyme jumped on stage and, unbelievably, brought even more energy to the performance.  Later in the 2nd set, Chyme--fronting a funk-based rap groove featuring TJ Zindle's Wah-Pedal infused guitar work--brought the crowd to their feet answering his "Share That!" with "LOVE!".  Truly an inspirational performance, and a perfect message for this year's show.   A brief intermission followed the first set with an opportunity to meet many of the performers and visit the merchandise table.  As always, I find the perfect gift for the hard-to-shop for person on your list is the gift of local music.

Throwing Down with The Crane Wives
After kicking off the second set with an inspiring medley of Christmas instrumentals by the strings and percussion, Emilee Petersmark and Kate Pillsbury of The Crane Wives took the stage and showcased their unique and memorable approach to harmony singing.  I know that the Crane Wives usually perform as an electric-guitar driven rock band, but after hearing them at the Holiday Show I was blown away by their acoustic sounds and hope they find a way to incorporate that into what they do--it is fantastic!  In a stroke of genius, Erin suggested that Emilee and Kate cover Mr. Little Jeans' Dear Santa and their almost 50s Do-Whop guitar and swirling, dissonant and layered harmonies took a sweet holiday song and transformed it into a hard-edged, rock-n-roll classic.  Most importantly, it is obvious to the observer that these two love singing and making music together, and--like all great artists--that joy and respect for each other shows in their performance.

Lindsay Lou and the Horn Section--"Frosty"
Lindsay Lou kicked off her contribution to the show with a soulful version of  Frosty the Snowman.  Behind her uniquely bluegrassy, thumb and finger pick guitar work, Lindsay's smoky, sultry vocals set the stage for some incredible jazz improvisation by the horn section.  However, it was her cover of Ella Fitzgerald's What Are You doing New Year's Eve that proved to be the most memorable.  Channeling her inner torch-song diva, Lindsay showcased both her incredible vocal range, and  her complete command of dynamics and tone in her singing--starting softly and sweetly and slowly, agonizingly, building to a powerful and emotional climax.  It is easy to close you eyes and image you are listening to a wizened and seasoned vocal veteran, and not a young, self-taught bluegrass singer.  Lindsay is simply a gifted vocalist and I can't wait to see where here musical adventures take her.

Rocking Out with T.J. Zindle
As is traditional every year, there are several ensemble numbers featuring the house band and The Ragbirds that round out the show.  This year, solo performances by Erin and T.J. Zindle served as perfect bookends and counterpoints to the show.  T.J.'s original song Christmas in the Music Shop combined humorous storytelling with punk-rock guitar licks to celebrate the joy and happiness of the season, while Erin's touching and poignant nod to the pain of holidays without loved ones, Christmas In a Box, called on us to cherish those around us and reach out to those who are hurting.   Stage Manger Chris Good (as Santa) led the most SeMiBluegrass number of the evening with an almost pure bluegrass arrangement of Jack White's Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over, that allowed most of the guys to show off their instrumental chops on a song that would be right at home at any bluegrass festival campground jam.

The Joy and Emotion of Singing
It was the final three songs of the evening that most profoundly impacted me--each for a different reason.  The first was The Ragbirds cover of a traditional Christmas Hymn Rise Up Shepherd and Follow, featuring the entire cast on stage singing background.  Following Erin's lead the song continued to grow and swell until the vocals drown out the band, filling the room with  joyous harmonies that made the hair on my arms stand on end.  The power and emotion of the singing could fill the grand cathedrals of Europe.  In these small, intimate venues it washed over the crowd like a tidal wave, cleansing the soul and rejuvenating the spirit of all in attendance.

Arriving way too soon, the last song of the evening was Mary had a Baby, an ensemble piece that both lets the global groove of the band and ensemble singing of the cast shine.  Members of the audience, new and old alike join in and sing along during the chorus.  It is the perfect, celebratory song to end the show.

We all know that 2016 has been a brutal year for musicians.  We have lost so many of our musical icons.  It was therefore somehow perfectly fitting that the musicians chose Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah as their encore.  With the whole cast on stage, Frank Allison kicked off the song with his whispy and melancholy voice.  Chris Dupont took the next verse and added his pure, clean vocals.  Jake Sawicki added a little bluesy soul leading to Alex Holycross' metal-tinged outburst.   As the band continued to build the energy, Emilee and Kate of the Crane Wives contributed a powerful and moving duet during their verse.  Linsay Lou reached deep and took the audience from soft and sultry to proud and powerful leading into the whole cast singing the chorus with all their heart and soul.  With tears streaming down my cheeks and a sob in my throat, I did not want the song to end.  But when it did, I found myself transformed.  Somehow, in these difficult and chaotic times, this performance reminded me of all the good in the world;  that when all else fails, we have each other; and that music--especially live, local music--gives us hope.

Next year will be the 10th annual show.  Put it on your calendar and make it a point to go. It will profoundly impact you.  I promise.

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More Pictures from the Show Below: