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/

Thursday, April 6, 2017

New Music and New Venue! Mipso wsg Tyler Childers @ Otus Supply

Owls.  Reclaimed Materials.  Art.  Otus Supply.
As I have often lamented on these pages, venues that support live, local, acoustic music are few and far between.  Otus Supply, open since the dawn of the new year in the heart of Fashionable Ferndale, has been bucking the trend, offering not only first class "farm to table" fare and made from scratch cocktails, but an incredibly diverse and thoughtful array of musical acts.  It is rare for venues now days to have a dedicated music space, yet Otus Supply is no traditional restaurant, and the venue's Parliment Room (the name is both a tie-in to the restaurant's owl theme and a not-so-subtle nod to George Clinton's funky contribution to the Detroit music scene) has recently hosted a non-stop parade of both nationally touring bands and the best in local acts. Armed with a free ticket courtesy of the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Association and an invitation from Otus' Manager/Promoter Joe Choma, I finally managed to slip away to enjoy a night of hardcore Americana from North Carolina band Mipso and their special guest, Kentucky's own Tyler Childers.

Storyteller and Guitar Picker Tyler childers
While the Parliment Room is a "standing room only" venue, there were a dozen or so low-backed bar stools and a handful of high-top table sprinkled through the space.  I was fortunate to arrive early and snag a stool a the bar where I could both see and hear the music, and had easy access to the services of the hardworking, professional and very attentive bar staff.  Childers kicked off the night with a solo-acoustic set of  dirty blue collar original songs and some tasteful covers draw from outlaw and alt-country sources.  His cover of Roy Acuff's Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain  had the bearded hipster-heavy crowd and twenty-something bar staff singing along and hanging on every word (I wonder how many of them have even heard the original?) .  His guitar playing blends finger blurring Carter-style rhythm riffs with soulful, bluesy fill licks thrown in when you least expect them.  His voice is on the raggedy edge of control lending it an instant credibility an vulnerability that blends perfectly with  the lyrics of his songs.  His original material is well written, interesting and perfectly conveys the dirt-poor Appalachia of his childhood.  Childers had an easy-going and relaxed banter on stage and instantly made a connection with his audience, sharing the stories behind his original songs which were often just as emotional and impactful as the songs themselves.  When he finished a song and shared with the crowd: "No girl deserves plastic roses on Valentine's Day", there wasn't a person in the crowd who didn't agree--or know why.  It is not hard to hear the influence of Woody Guthrie and other great American storyteller/songwriters in Tyler Childer' songs.  You owe it to yourself to go hear what he has to offer.

Mipso Getting It Done!
Headlining the evening was Chapel Hill's indie-Americana group, Mipso.  While this was definitely a modern folk rock/Americana band, you could definitely hear the bluegrass and Old-Tyme Appalachian roots to their music.  The band is built around a traditional, acoustic instrument mix familiar to most SeMiBluegrass fans--fiddle, mandolin, guitar, upright bass--with the occasional electric guitar/bass part thrown in.  A lot of the lead work was shouldered by fiddler Libby Rodenbough who has a distinctive, haunting and richly syncopated approach to melody.  It really fit the plaintive and melancholy feel of many of their songs.  That is not to say that guitarist Joseph Terrell and mandolinist Jacob Sharp were slouches on their instruments, both pitching in complex and engaging solo work as the night progressed.  New to the band was a drummer (I missed his name), who managed to encompass the "drive" of a banjo player without muddying up the sound of the band--a rare skill these days.  Bassist Wood Robinson contributed a rock-solid rhythm throughout the night, as well as some killer harmony vocals--as well of the "Tee Shirt of the Night" from the Bluegrass Situation.  

Harmony Vocals the Way They SHOULD Be.
It was definitely those vocal harmonies that set Mipso apart.  Their original material was easily  approachable to the indie-rock crowd, but--at the same time--seamlessly integrated the plaintive, haunting and wistful tradition of mountain music that fans of traditional music could instantly identify with.  Many of their songs featured one of the band members on lead while the rest contributed harmony parts on the refrain and/or assorted vocal "fills" to flesh out the sound and give the song some soul.  Slow, soulful songs that built to a climax shared the stage equally with  with up-tempo rockers and even a quirky Davie Bowie cover.  I found their set very enjoyable to watch, yet even more enjoyable when I closed my eyes and listed to the intricacies of what they do.  While their more modern material was engaging and entertaining, when the band pulled out the condenser mic and gathered around for a "one mic gospel" number, the night really hit it's stride.  Leaning together to both hear each other and take visual clues, the bands' voices combined seamlessly into wave of music that washed out over the crowd mesmerizing and enchanting them.  Truly one of the more spectacular vocal performances I've seen.  So, when the night drew to its' far-too-early close, I was both impressed and pleased that the band returned for an encore, invited the crowd to gather at the front of the stage, and closed out the night with a non-amplified,  A' Capella version of Jimmy Martin's classic Drink Up and Go Home.  A perfect ending to a perfect night.

Miscellaneous pictures from the evening below.  Feel free to like/share/tag freely with credit to SeMiBluegrass.  Like what you see?  Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Doing Things The Right Way--Companion Custom Banjos

High Quality, Custom Work--and Right In Our Own Back Yard
I started writing the blog soon after I discovered bluegrass music and because I was absolutely convinced that there must be hundreds of other people in southeast Michigan with the same interest and passion as myself. Lo and behold, almost five years, 75 posts and 33,000 page views later I have met thousands of music fans, musicians, venue operators, festival promoters, instrument builders and all-around fine folks--most of whom I am priveledged to call my fiends.   Nonetheless, I am still humbled when I stumble upon something as special as the Companion Custom Banjo Company.  Working out of their backyard workshop, owners Chris and Stephanie Sorenson are hand-building high-quality, fully customizable 5-string resonator banjos for pickers and shops throughout the Midwest.  More importantly, they are doing it the right way, with the attention to detail and focus on friendly service that you expect to find in parking lot jam sessions and anywhere else bluegrass pickers get together.  Whether you are an aspiring beginner or seasoned, touring pro picker, Chris and Stephanie treat you like a member of the family, and pour their heart and soul into every build.

Chris and Stephanie and the Companion Workshop
Chris has been playing bluegrass on banjo and assorted instruments since he was seven years old, and brings his lifetime of experience to his builds.  He told me that he started out doing banjo repairs, eventually built his own banjo, and then made one for someone else--and a craftsman was born.  On the day I visited the shop, I watched him walk a teenager through all the steps involved in building a banjo and helping her through all the options open to her as she designed the banjo of her dreams.  His enthusiasm was impossible to ignore, and his knowledge of the "how and why" of each choice comprensive and thorough.  Both he and Stephanie really took the time to explain each choice, without letting his personal opinions or biases interfere with what the customer wanted--a skill often lacking in business today.  In preparation for the visit they had laid out dozens of components to show his client examples of every option and give them an idea of what the final build would look like.  The Sorenson's also maintain a comprehensive online-presence including a Facebook Page, Website and YouTube channel where customers and enthusiasts can see and hear everything they do.

Custom Wood from Companion Banjos
A companion custom banjo begins with selecting a wood or metal tone-ring to pair with a hand-built resonator from Mainer Jim Cox (though the Sorenson's recently acquired a resonator press and are beginning to build their own). Chris also hand picks select lumber from which he hand-cuts and shapes his necks and fingerboards  The shop is a woodworker's and machinist's dream with all the standard and custom tools to allow Chris to build most of these components on-site.  From their small shop, Companion can offer complete in-house builds--with the exception of strings, tuners and miscellaneous small parts. The specialty of the shop is definitely apparent in their custom inlays.  They can reproduce nearly any custom fingerboard, or design something special for the customer.  Their "signature" name block allows the new owner to add their name, the name of the banjo or anything else (up to 10 letters) in block or script fonts.  If Chris ever wanted to experiment with a 4-string tenor tuned GDae, I would be first in line to test one out!

Custom Inlays
Co owner Stephanie is also a long time musician playing fiddle and rhythm guitar. It  is patently obvious that she rolls up her sleeves and assists in all aspects of the design, production and marketing of the banjos.  Her background in graphic design is apparent in the custom inlay work she designs on the computer and manufactures on the CNC mill in the shop.  Chris told me that--while the mill is a great time-saver--Stephanie used to hand cut all of the inlays with a pearl say--a meticulous and time consuming task that takes a steady hand and commitment to perfection.  On the day I visited, she took turns explaining things with Chris and showing off some of the specialized machinery and tools it takes to build a banjo.  I have so say, as an "enginerd" at heart, the shop itself was just as impressive as the banjos and their builders.

As you could probably deduce from the passion of the owners, the shop itself is quintessentially cool.  It is meticulously clean (as you would expect from anyone doing spray-finish work) but there are cool gadgets, gizmos and interesting objects hiding everywhere--hand-cut neck templates, a set of well-worn banjo picks, assorted banjo (and other instrument) parts and even an old guitar and banjo over the workbench.  In the corner was a pile of scrap wood--but even that was super cool, with a variety of colors, grain types, and even some interesting cut-outs from previous builds. 

The banjos coming out of this shop are spectacular to look at and a visit to their website will confirm they sound justa as good as they look. So, if you're in the market for a full-custom, 5-string resonator banjo at a ridiculously reasonable price, give them a holler and start the build of your dreams!