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.
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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, May 29, 2017

The Lawnmower Playlist (Part Deux): New Music for a New Summer

New Tunes and New Grass
As the school year winds down and preparations begin for my action filled summer of "People, Places and Music (with some fishing tossed in)", I find myself adrift in that dreaded morass of maintenance, cleanup and lawn care that consumes far too many beautiful, sunny days.  The last of these--the lawn--is most heinous this year; with abundant, soaking rains and warm, sunny days partnering  to keep my lawn "April Fresh" all the way into June!  As you may recall from last year, the month of May seems to also bring a flood of new, interesting music to help while away the tedious hours of suburban toil and help maintain a modicum of sanity in an otherwise bustling and too-busy world.  This year is no exception, and I thought I would  share a few with the SeMiBluegrass audience to help them over the final hump and into summer.  I tried to put links to where you can purchase their music as well (and support live, local music--the best way to beat the pre-summer blahs!).

Kinda Says It All Right There
While not a local musician, I became aware of the "Rock and Roll King" Robert R. McFarland when he ordered a custom 5-string banjo from Companion Custom Banjos.  No "weekend folkie" Open Back banjo  or "Bro Country Wannabee" six-string Banjotar for this picker, but a 100% bluegrass-style 5-sting resonator.  When Robert saw the mention of his "sun and moon banjo" in that review, he graciously sent me a copy of his superb double-CD Rock and Roll.  Much like his chosen electric genre, the album is anything but subtle, presenting roughly two dozen hard-driving, in-your-face, original rock songs on the two discs named (again, no subtlety) "Rock" and "Roll".  I've actually put quite a few mile on this CD--literally and figuratively--as a coping mechanism for my other Michigan spring pet peeve--construction delays.   This immaculately arranged and recorded collection is perfect when you just want to hit play, tune out  and let the music carry you to your destination.  While every song features McFarland on vocals and lead guitar, there is an incredible diversity of sounds here that make each song unique.  His powerful and soulful voice ranges from a gravelly baritone to a bell-clear tenor and hints at a barely contained explosion of emotion waiting to be released upon the listener.  Instrumentally, he pushes his Gibson SG to the very limit of versatility; dripping with tone and equally complex whether playing clean or  impossibly compressed.  Like many great guitarists, he blends lavish rhythm licks with complex leads to build a wall of sound you'd expect from two (or more) well-rehearsed guitarists.  McFarland does spread his bluegrass wings a couple of time.  My Dog''s Name is Rusty is a straight-forward, cowboy chord bluegrass standard featuring Robert's take on bluegrass flatpicking and some killer Lester Flatt G-runs.  On another song, he blends some killer mandolin rhythm licks in the introduction to a smoking hot blues-rock number--completely unexpected and completely awesome (like this whole album).  Your can find Robert R. McFarland's music HERE and HERE, but order the CD from CD Baby (because of the shipping notification--duh).

Mandatory SemiBluegrass Listening!
Two years ago, at a Jameson-fueled 2AM jam at the Wheatland Music Festival, I met a talented singer/multi-instrumentalist, Nate Roberts, from the west side of the state.  Nate reached out to me to let me know of a stripped-down, heavily bluegrass influenced project he's been working on--The Field Hymnal.  This "indie-grass" band has a unique sound built around Robert's songwriting and virtuoso mandolin picking behind Angelee Berrian's plaintive and sorrowful vocals.  The band fills out the sound with Luke Panning's swirling fiddle melodies and rock solid rhythm of Jared DeMeester on Bass.  Their sound is contemporary and traditional at the same time, and features some incredible harmony singing.  The band is currently running a small Kickstarter campaign to finance printing of their new CD, The Meaning of a Tree.  I highly recommend you give them a listen, both bluegrass aficionados and devotees of modern, local music will find something you love here.

The One and Only "Huggy Bear" and his Dobro
True story: after I'd been playing bluegrass for like six weeks, I had the opportunity to travel to Marquette and play on stage with some friends as the opening act for a small indoor bluegrass festival. It was a completly forgettable performance.  That is not true for the  band that followed--The Flatbellys (of Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys).  It was here I first meet the one-of-a-kind bluegrass/Americana talent that is Mark Lavengood.  In addition to his work with The Flatbellys, Mark has been slowly making his mark on the Michigan (and National!) bluegrass scene with his Mark Lavengood Bluegrass Bonanza project--an oft-evolving collection of pickers and singers dedicated to bringing high-octane bluegrass music to a live venue near you!  While it may be akin to catching a lightning bolt in a bottle (or maybe a mason jar), Mark has captured the soul and essence of this bluegrass adventure in his new CD, We've Come Along.   Featuring the incomparable Jason Dennie on mandolin and a cast of first-rate pickers, the album ranges from fairly traditional bluegrass fare--check out Ole Slew Foot--to unmistakably contemporary idie-folk ballads like Three Day Blow and even a tongue-in cheek cover of a mid-80s classic, Hungry Heart.  First rate entertainment for one and all.  Check our Mark's Kickstarter HERE, or--better yet--come see him play the songs live at his CD Release concert at the Ark in Ann Arbor on June 1st (with special guests, The Native Howl)

Into the Darkness with The Native Howl
Speaking of the The Native Howl, you may remember I've written about them and their take on acoustic/metal/folk music Thrashgrass in the past.   Ten million FaceBook video views later the band is kicking off nationwide summer tour that schizophrenically pairs headlining gigs at The Wisconsin Blueberry Festival with The Stoned Meadow of Doom FestTo prime the summer pump, the band is preparing to release their project Into the Darkness the day before their show at the Ark.  The album promises to be an exploration of the darker, more thrashy side of thrashgrass fueled by lead-man Alex Holycross' near-demonic "metal voice" and doomsday inspired, go-for-broke drumming of Joshua Lemieux.  Paired with Mark Chandler's lightning fast work on the base and guitar/vocal/banjo/harp from Jake Sawicki, this will be an album that is hard to ignore.  The band--masters of social media--have managed to remain fairly tight-lipped about the project, other than an occasional snippet of a lyric, photo shoot or video released to build the suspense.  You should definitely check them out, and buy the album when it comes out.

The Gasoline Gypsies
I actually met The Native Howl as part of the North Winds Tour they did with their friends The Gasoline Gypsies who, coincidentally, also have a new album coming out this July 1.  Driven by the intensly talent songwriting and lead guitar of frontman Caleb Malooley, the Gypsies deliver pure, Detroit-style (they would argue Port Huron Style) modern rock-and-roll with a folk music sensibility.  Bassist Steve Briere and drummer Joe Makowski are arguably the best rhythm section partners in the state right now, and their music has incredible drive and energy in large part from this pair's contribution.   With new rhythm/lead guitarist Neal Love, the new songs that have leaked out have all the energy of their past album, with a new level of intricacy and musicianship.   I was pleased to learn the band has booked a gig at the Forestville Music/Beer Festival in Marquette--a venue tailor made for them.  Music fans in Marquette, watch out, you're in for a treat under the trees.

So, with summer around the corner, get out there, tune in, and turn on some new music.  It's out there.  And it's really, really good! 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Extraordinary and Undescribable: The Haberdasher and the Tom Toms Live at Churchills

Introducing: The Haberdasher!
After a long, grueling workweek, sometimes you just have to get out of the house and blow out the cobwebs with something completely different.  I ran into the Tom Toms atThe New Way Bar last week after a killer show by Samantha Fish at Callahans, and they clued me into their next show at Churchill's in Flint.  Better yet, they let me know that The Haberdasher--the new, hard-to-define side project of a couple of killer Port Huron musician's I've gotten to know--would be opening for them.  Since I love the atmosphere at Churchill's (killer grub, great beer selection at reasonable prices, no cover and professional, friendly staff and impressive service--check them out) I decided there was no better way to close out a crazy week than catching the show, and Boy Howdy! am I glad I did.

Robing "The Amanuensis" Schweihofer
The Haberdasher is hard to explain; the brainchild of several well-traveled Port Huron area musicians, the band is built around a story-line involving an immortal being traveling through history making music and only known as "the Haberdasher".  The band totally immerses themselves in the story, from their eclectic and eccentric costuming (which combines a steampunk ethos with rock star attitude and some inspired choices in hat wear) to their well-structured and cohesive set of totally original music.  Reflecting the mythical Haberdasher's journey, their songs span an infinite variety of rock/punk genres from 80s era MTV pop, to classic 90s punk, JPop and even some heavier metal influences.  Adding to the complexity and nuance of the songs, the band rotates lead and harmony parts to fit the mood of the song, and is not afraid to dabble in foreign languages--on this night, the presented songs in French, Spanish and Japanese in addition to spoken, sung, growled and shouted verses in every imaginable English accent.  Each song features a spoken introduction (often accompanied by a somewhat cacophonous, melodyless musical line plucked, tapped and/or beaten out of guitar and bass, and often routed through a variety of delay, distortion and phasing pedals to create a flowing background. 


As you can see in the brief video clip above (sorry about the background noise and people walking in front of the camera--bar crowd), the Haberdasher is mindbogglingly entertaining due in large part to the professionalism of the band members and their assumed identities.  Front and center is bassist Ryan "The Orator" McInnis.  With a voice that ranges from a deep, gravelly growl to a smooth baritone, and even an classic Irish brogue he lay the vocal foundation to most of the songs, and then builds on it with some killer bass chops that couple perfectly with his rhythm section partners/
"The Orator", "The Horologist" and "The Oculist"
 I also know guitarist Robin "The Amanuensis" Schweihofer from his stint with the Gasoline Gypsies (and more recently, from he and McInnis' sometimes lewd and ribald take on Irish drinking songs done under the pseudonym The Robin and the Rhino--another band totally worth checking out).  He is among the best rhythm guitar players I know, launching himself physically, musically and emotionally 100% into every note he plays.  Unable to contain his enthusiasm, he dances, prances and swaggers around on stage as he play and provides nearly unlimited drive and energy to the performance.  He's also an accomplished lead player, trading riffs back and forth with lead guitarist Daniel "The Oculist" Peake--who's tone-dripping work on a well-loved Les Paul serves as perfect counterpoint to Schwei's Stratocaster licks.  Holding everything together with an all-consuming pocket groove is drummer Steven "The Horologist" Krautz, who's lightning-quick hands, and incredibly light touch give every note a sharp attack, as clean as the CRACK of breaking glass and always right on the front edge of the beat.  As a fairly new band, I was blown away that they were prepared to present not only a 45-minute set of purely original music; but that they were obviously well-rehearsed, cared enough to develop their characters and even brought a 9-song live EP for sale (Professionally produced and recorded live at Schwonk Soundstead in Port Huron--and already on it's 10th trip through my CD player as it really captures the spirit of the band!)  Go see The Haberdasher, you will not be disappointed.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Tom Toms
You would think that--after having my mind absolutely blown by the Haberdasher--that I'd be ready to call it a week and head home for some must deserved sleep--and you couldn't be be more wrong.  The headliner for the night was local Flint band The Tom Toms.  Mind blowing in their own way, I have been a fan of the band since they absolutely stole the show at Folk In The Woods last summer.  The band delivers some pure Southeastern Michigan rock led by the killer talent of guitarist Chris Day, his wife Kayla (lead vocals), sister Elaina Day (bass) and new addition Micha Mac on drums.  I am always blown away by Chris' work on his Les Paul--plugged directly into the amp (as it should be).  He is able to coax incredibly nuanced sounds and tone from his instrument with seemingly effortless ease.  Early in the evening, Chris kicked off an inspired cover of the Jackson Five's monster hit I Want You Back, perfectly capturing the Motown Funk and Soul of the song while somehow making it his own.  If Chris provides the band's soul, Kayla is it's heart; putting everything she has into every word, every move and every facial expression on stage.  She has mastered the art of balancing unbridled enthusiasm with an honest vulnerability on stage that gives incredibly authentic power to her words.  She is a pleasure to watch sing. A highlight of the evening was her playing a couple slide riff's on Chris' guitar using a half-full pint glass of beer--and she didn't spill a drop!

The Girls in this band can BRING IT!
Every time I see Elaina Day play the bass, I think that Robert Palmer blew it when he shot the famous video for Addicted to Love which featured some barbie-doll model types dancing and prancing on stage while simulating playing along with the band.  The truth is none of these women could hold a candle to the natural beauty, killer musical talent and pure, authentic joy Elaina brings to to every performance.  Micha May--a recent, and perfect, addition to the band's sound--sits behind the kit like a classic jazz drummer; confident and talented as she effortlessly provides clean, clear and complex beats to compliment the band's sound.  Want a taste of the Tom Tom's sound?  Check out the video from there latest album, Runaway, HERE.  Or better yet, go HERE and listen to some samples and/or  buy yourself a copy.  This is a killer album of orignial rock music highlighting the depth and breadth of what Detroit and Flint rock could--and should--sound like.  Lots to like here.  I'm currently losing the battle to get the quirky Trust Octopus out of my head from the live performance last night--it's a real earwig.  The Tom Toms, The Haberdasher and Churchill's...three great reasons to get out of the house!  Go check them all out.

Various assorted pics from the night LINKED HERE.  Like what you see?  Follow SeMiBluegrass on facebook for more band, album, show, venue and product reviews about the live, local music scene in Southeast Mighigan.  Pictures are publicly avaialable.  Please tag, share and distribute freely with credit and linkback to SeMiBluegrass