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/

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Album Review: We Banjo 3 "Haven"- Joyful New Music Just In Time For Summer

It will come as no surprise that one of my favorite "semibluegrass" bands is We Banjo 3.  I try to catch them (front row) at The Ark in Ann Arbor every time the play.  I had the pleasure of seeing them live in a "festival" setting at ROMP this year in Owensboro, Kentucky.  Their set there electrified the crowd and may have been, in the midst of an all-star lineup, the best set of the weekend.  It was certainly the most high-energy and crowd-engaging performance that I've seen during this incredible summer of live music.  Like all the best bands do, the brothers (Howley and Scahill -- 2 sets) in the band, spent a ton of time after the show shaking hands and hanging out with their fans.  After talking to them for a bit they let me know they were setting up more tour dates including a visit to Southeast Michigan the winter (late February of early March).  I mentioned that my SeMiBluegrass and Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Associations friends would likely make up a huge part of their crowd  and they immediately volunteered to send me an advance copy of their new Album Haven, set to drop on July 27th.  It arrived last week and I've pretty much played nothing since.  Like the band, it is hard to pigeonhole, but offers high quality, timeless, well-crafted and endlessly engaging listening.  Here's some of my listening notes to date.

We Banjo 3 on stage at ROMP 2018
The album starts with the title track Haven; a light, bouncy tune with a sweet melody featuring the killer mandolin licks and fills of Martin Howley.  I hate to call it a love song, but rather a celebration of the meaning of relationships and companionship..."let me be your Haven, let me be your love...".  The song is richly complemented by the subtle addition of an upright bass. For those that have seen the band live, you will recognize that they usually add the "bass" part with the top-string of David Howley's "DADGad" rhythm guitar and the subtle contribution of Fergal Skahill on the Porchboard Stompbox. There's even some tasty horn section licks on this song (and a couple others).    Light in the Sky, an upbeat, driving song about a girl keeps the energy going and features some of the best vocal harmonies on the album with a clean, clear tone that keeps the song's mood light and airy.   Don't Let Me Down pulls off the "sad song with a happy theme" trick masterfully and features what I can only describe as "Irish Mountain Music" banjo accompaniment. 

David Howley
Like all of their self-described "Celtgrass" albums, Haven celebrates the instrumental prowess of the band with four pure instrumental tunes.  Sugar House is a classically structured fiddle tune that allows David Howley to depart from his usual killer rhythm licks and fully explore the melody on the guitar.  The banjo on this tune is either played 3-finger, "Scruggs Style", or--more likely--played in some weird crosspicking/plectrum style with such skill that it is indistinguishable.  Annabelle's Cannon sounds exactly like an Irish band playing bluegrass  music (or is it a bluegrass band playing Irish music?).  Marry Me Monday shows off Fergal's utter mastery of melody, tone and phrasing.  The final instrumental tune, Dawn Breaks is masterpiece of arrangement, with a lilting and uplifting melody that allows each band member to shine, and--with the addition of a Bodhran half way through (Fergal?) the song--already uptempo and high energy--kicks in the afterburner and rips through the final passages to a thunderous ending.  A great, fun ride!

Edna and Martin Having A Little Fun
As mentioned above, the remaining songs on the album reflect on the nature of relationships.  All feature David Howley's clear, powerful voice, 3- and 4- part harmonies and killer instrumental fills.  My favorite right now is War of Love--a "falling in love" duet that features an incredible vocal performance by Sierra Hull, whose voice complements Davids so thoroughly that they sound like a single voice.  A close second is Sunflower a stripped down, hook-driven almost Pop ballad that is somehow impossible to get out of your mind.  Speaking of hooks--lyrical and instrumental--Pack It Up will get in your head and rattle around for DAYS.  Really a "catchy" tune in all the best ways.  Overall, Haven is a well crafted, cohesive and eminently enjoyable journey, perfect for summer listening--it even made mowing my stupid lawn semi-enjoyable!  If you only buy one "semibluegrass" album this summer...make it this one.  And go see these guys live--couldn't even start to describe how enjoyable that is if I had a million more words....

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Huron High School Class of 1988 30th Reunion @ The Big House

No live music here.  Just pics from the Ann Arbor Huron Class of 1988 Class Reunion (30th) at the University of Michigan Stadium.  Please feel free to download/share images.  Click on Image to see full size image before downloading!)

The Posse

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Craft Beer and Live Music Under the Trees - Forestville 2018

Andy Langlois (R) Gettin' Down on the "Bear Cave Stage"
When Andy Langlois and David Manson, Co-Owners of Blackrocks Brewery in Marquette, throws a "little party in the woods", watch out...you are in for a special treat.  The Forestville Music and Beer Festival (a fundraiser for the Noquemanon Trail Network) has become an annual tradition and is evolving into a unique and special event. The NTN's mission is to develop and maintain an interconnected, year-round, non-motorized land and water trail network in the central Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  It is apparent that they are not happy with "good enough" as they provide literally hundreds of miles of top-quality, multi-use trails for hiking, Nordic skiing and mountain biking.  In fact, their single track mountain bike trails are open year-round and have contributed to Marquette's reputation as the "snow bike capital of the world".  This music festival, aside from all the fun, is a major fundraiser for the network with 100% of the profits going towards the creation and maintenance of the trail network.

Snowbiking on the NTN (Photo: Noquemanon Trail FB Page)
Located just northwest of Marquette, the festival takes it's name from the Forestville Trailhead, which provides a sunny, grassy area for the stage, as well as plentiful shade in the adjacent woods allowing for comfortable, though primitive camping (tents only, no clear sites, no power, etc.).  There is limited RV and camper parking available in the parking lot (again, no hook ups).  Due to the remote location  (and use of the parking lot for camper parking), access to the festival for non-campers is via frequent shuttle bus runs (also a stroke of brilliance for a beer-centric festival--no worries about guest over-sampling the wares and then getting into a car to drive!).  Many festival goers also arrive on mountain bikes (since this is the trailhead of one of the premier mountain biking trail networks in the country!).

Beer, Friends, Music, Trees (Photo: Forestville FB Page)
The festival's sometimes tag line "eight breweries, a dozen bands, thousands of trees and millions of stars" pretty perfectly sums up what to expect at the festival...though it omits "and hundreds of new and old friends".  Craft beer and music are inextricably intertwined--especially in the booming Michigan scene--and no where is that more apparent than this festival.  Hosted by Blackrocks Brewery, you will also find a rotating assortment of Michigan Craft Brewers showing off their latest product (and often a special brew just for the festival).  This year, Shorts Brewing (Starcut Ciders) Company, Cognition Brewing CompanyThe Mitten BreweryOre Dock Brewing Company, and Bell's Brewery were all in attendance and brought their "A" game with some delicious offerings.  The festival strikes a reasonable balance between "party" and "responsible" drinking with a generous 10oz pour for only $2.00 (or 12oz with a souvenir, hand-painted, enameled mug hand-crafted in Poland).  Coupled with the reasonable weekend price (roughly $50 for music, beer and camping) this may be the best festival/entertainment value of the summer.

Lindala, Johnson, Cohen of Flat Broke Blues Band
And Oh!  The Music!  Featuring some incredible local and regional artist, Forestville boasts an eccentric and eclectic mix of music guaranteed to entertain and get the crowd up dancing and singing along!  Weekend campers are treated to a special Friday night "bonus" set each year, accompanied by some special beer offerings from each of the brewers.  This year, long-time Marquette staples the Flat Broke Blues Band brought their mix of Chicago Blues and Soul to the stage to kick off the festivities.  Powered by the lush vocals and swampy harp licks of lead singer Lorrie Hayes and prodigious blues licks of guitarist Mike Letts, and backed by the killer rhythms of Walt Lindala (guitar), Mark Johnson (bass) and Jim Cohen (drums), the FB3 crew got the crowd up and moving and set the bar high for the rest of the festival.

Some of "Da Beanz"
Friday night closed out with a long, sweaty and ultimately danceable set from blues-funk fusion and party rock band Frank An Da Beanz (as close to a house band as Blackrocks has).  Clad in outfits (semi) appropriate for the sauna-like humidity and temperatures (shorty-shorts, kids rompers and classic rock tees...) the band took the stage behind frontman/bassist Evan Simula, threw the set list out the window and launched into nearly two hours of high-energy, fun-filled and funky jams.  At first I was disappointed at the mere one hundred or so people crowding to the front of the stage...until I took a little walk around.  There were another couple hundred people dancing and grooving under the merchandise/beer tents...and a similar number rocking out in the front-stage camping area.  I found another couple hundred people enjoying the music from their parking-lot RV Campsites and in the backstage tent "village".  As a testament to Jim Suppanich and Sombrero Sound Company's, skill, the sound was excellent over the entire grounds--I was able to hear each instrument, each note and each voice distinctly and clearly--a feat made even more unbelievable by the fact that you could hold a conversation comfortably at the sound tent, 100 feet from the stage and right between his two massive, twenty+ foot speaker stacks!

The "Second Stage"
Saturday featured  a half dozen bands each on the main (electric) and "bear cave" (acoustic) stages.  The "bear cave" stage was in the cool shade of the woods, and perched atop a quaint over/under pass trail crossing utilizing an eight foot metal pipe/tunnel.  It put the performer(s) up in the tree leaves and allowed a very small PA system to carry the sound throughout the festival.  A variety of singer/songwriters and local folkies entertained the crowed from this vantage point including: Diana Reeves; Kay, Joe and Andy (featuring Andy Langlois); Stina Jay; Elsa Jensen; Stan Berry; and the Bear Cave Jam (an open jam featuring various musicians and festival goers--great fun!).  I love the "two stage" concept.  In addition to filling the time between main-stage acts (and allowing for set-up and sound check), it allowed fans a chance to escape the sun, hit the (abundant) porta-johns, sample a beer on their way past, and even get a bite to eat from the (excellent) food vendors--including the always popular Superior Mobile Coney and Copper Crust Pizza and newcomers Superior Culture (awesome, organic, quality brewed kombucha), Velodrome Coffee Company and the brand new Burger Bus (best looking burger of the summer!)

Looper and Sven of The Organgrinders
The soaring, parabolic sail-influenced main stage, with sound by Sombrero Sound and an impressive light display featured a jam-band heavy rotation of high energy acts.  Kicking off the day was the best pure jam band of the weekend, Not Quite Canada.  Featuring funky bass lines and rhythms complemented by some heavy guitar lick,  smokin' synthesizer works and over-the-top saxophone leads, the band kept the crowd buzzing and sweating for over an hour.  Their original tune "Smoky in the Sauna" brought a smile to everyone's face with it's infectious groove and lighthearted lyrics. Chasin' Steel has been entertaining the Marquette faithful for seventeen years with their unique take on "bluegrass with a rock-n-roll attitude" and did not disappoint with their high-energy, driving set list.  Regional jam bands After Ours and Public Access followed with high-octane, effects driven and complex jams to keep the energy high.  Speaking of "high octane", the Organgrinders followed with their usual funky, cool, groovy, and eminently entertaining set of swampy, gritty blues and "TEAM DRINKS"!   They continue to be the best party band around, killer musicians and some of the nicest people you will meet!  The Scott Pellegrom Trio closed out the night with an incredible set of mostly instrumental, jazz-influenced rockers.

Andy's "Blackrocks" Taylor. 
As has become a tradition at Forestville, after the final bus departed with the day-ticket crowd, the campground crew congregated by the information tent as Andy set up a small PA and called to the crowd "here's your chance...if you're a musician and always wanted to play at Forestville...I've got a microphone, a couple guitars and a mandolin...step right up!".  And so began an epic jam session lasting well into the night and featuring a mix of original music and covers ranging from pop to reggae, progressive rock to classic funk, country to rap.  The talent the oozes out of the Marquette crowd continues to amaze me.  Certainly one of the coolest features of the jam was Andy's personal Taylor guitar.  Having hung on the wall of the brewery for the past ten year, and played by college kids, amateur and professional musicians, and assorted alcohol fueled troubadours, this guitar--well worn, beer-soaked and battle scarred--has managed to soak up some serious musical mojo, sounding like a million dollars in the hands of every musician who plays her.  I will write a full post about this guitar some day, as it's definitely something special.

So, for another year, I must bid farewell to my beloved "home away from home", Marquette, Michigan and a truly spectacular "party in the woods", Forestville.  Until we meet again!

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Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Biggest Little Festival Around - Norwalk (OH) Music Festival 2018

Rip Roarin' Fun at Norwalk (Rocky Top!)
Fans of the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass scene have no doubt run across fan-favorite band Harbourtown and their bass player, Kurt Hickman.  He's a great singer, terrific bass player (both bluegrass, and some classic jazz/swing stuff with his other band, Breakline).  He's also a tremendous supporter of the Fiddlin' Dixie and Lil' Friends program and the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association--and not-so-secretly a big kid at heart.  What you may NOT know, is that for the past six years, Kurt has taken on the role of festival promoter and host of the Norwalk Ohio Music Festival.  This small, but growing festival, in easy driving distance from Southeast Michigan, has a lot to offer no matter how you like you bluegrass.  Tons of local, regional and national acts (a nice mix of traditional and somewhat more progressive styles).  Also, some country and pop based acts that really bring a fresh, new energy to the crowd.  There's tons of activities, a very well appointed fairgrounds (abundant power, water and even sewer hookups and great, clean bathroom!), incredibly delicious and affordable (and clean!) food vendors.  All-in-all an excellent cross section of offerings, hand picked to provide nothing but excellence to attendees.

Hickman (R) taking care of things all day long!
This year's festivities kicked off with a fireworks display right over the fairgrounds.  Great fun, but I do NOT recommend trying to arrive the night of July 4th (it seemed like half the county was trying to walk/drive to the fairgrounds and it made it a pretty harrowing 2mph trip towing a trailer!).  Once set up and darkness fully took over, I wandered around and was pleased to find several high-quality jams in the campground, including one under the lights in a pavillion--a nice touch you don't find everywhere.  The musicianship was first class, and so was the large crowd gathered to listen.  Like most bluegrass jams, also very open and welcoming to pickers--new and experienced alike.  In between numbers, I took the time to say hello to a seemingly endless stream of old friends and "festival family" giving Norwalk much more of a family reunion feel than the usual music festival atmosphere.

Out of Mind Bluegrass Tuning Up for their Show
How's the music, you ask?  In a word, terrific!  Each day featured a killer lineup with a little something for all to enjoy.  Thursday kicked off with local band Anthony & the Ramblers with a remarkably entertaining set of bluegrass standards. Following them was Hickman and his groovy bandmates Mike and Jerri Hipp (Breakline) who entertained the crowd with their acoustic takes on classic jazz and swing numbers.  Local Ohio legendary band Ottawa County followed with an inspired set of classics.  Closing out the night was the hardest working young bluegrass band around, Out Of Mind Bluegrass from Columbus Ohio. This band does everything right.  Super high energy, hard-driving traditional bluegrass; matching outfits on stage and professional to a "T"; super-tight harmony vocals and killer instrumental prowess from every member of the band.  You can tell immediately that they have a great time on stage and enjoy playing together, and that transfers easily to energize both band and crowd.  You really need to go see them play live!

Heidi from Acoustic Edge
Friday saw a break in the oppressive temperatures and humidity and really exemplified what a local/regional lineup can be at a festival.  Five incredibly talented and superbly entertaining bands took the stage and kept the crowds growing and dancing all day and well into the night.  Newly formed local band Crabgrass , built around brothers  Kevin and Andy Crabtree gave a bluesy, rif-soaked and harmony drenched performance with some "deep cuts" and unusual covers to keep things interesting.  Uber-professional band New Outlook turned in an impressive performance of highly-technical bluegrass and featured a young (granddaughter?) singing her little heart out to Blue Moon Of Kentucky.  Country/Bluegrass act Caleb Daugherty wooed the crowd with his baritone voice and hot licks (and a killer band behind him!).  Local cover-band Acoustic Edge featured a <gasp> DRUMMER, and did more than a handful of Steeldrivers songs, all while drawing a large, enthusiastic local crowd and keeping them all entertained.

Chris Smith of Caney Creek Entertains the Crowd
Saturday proved to be an eccentric and eclectic mix of top-notch performances.  Breakline kicked things off with another set of cool, swingin' jazz numbers followed by the Stanley Brothers inspired band Caney Creek who brought some of the finest pickin' and tightest harmony vocals of the weekend to the stage.   This was followed up with long-time Kentucky bluegrass veteran Kevin Prater and his band who, while 100% traditional, managed to turn in super-high energy, super-entertaining set featuring frenetic and talented fiddle player Adam Burrows who wore his excitement and joy on his sleeve for everyone to see and enjoy.  IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year Volume 5 made an appearance and entertained the crowd with some "A-list" picking and singing.  After a suppertime return set by Out of Mind Bluegrass (somehow even better than their Thursday set), County Artist Terry Lee Goffee capped the night with a tribute to the "man in black" himself, Johnny Cash.  I'm usually not much for tribute/cover bands, but he did it right...the outfit, the voice, the band, everything--terribly cool and completely entertaining.

"The People, The Places, The Music".  Norwalk Music festival hits on all these.  Make it a point to get there next year and enjoy the setting, the vendors, the crowd, the music and the pickin'!  You won't be disappointed.  Hope to see you there!  Like what you see/read here?  Follow us on Facebook for more great "semibluegrass" content.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

A Rollicking Good Time at ROMP (Owensboro, KY)

A Little Fun with We Banjo 3 at ROMP
What a festival season it's been so far--small and large; traditional and progressive; focused and free-wheeling--something for every live, local music fan!  Recently, I had the opportunity to cross a major festival off my "bucket list" and attend ROMP ("River of Music Party") outside of Owensboro, Kentucky.  Hosted by the International Bluegrass Music Museum and Hall of Fame at Yellow Creek Park, this event drew a capacity crowd of 30,000 bluegrass and old-time music fans together for four days of incredible music and fellowship.  Of particular note was the festival's embracing of the "roots and branches" of bluegrass with acts acts that ran the gamut from very traditional (Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Alison Krauss) to newgrass/progressive acts (The Sam Bush Band, Pert Near Sandstone and Love Canon all gave incredibly entertaining and in-no-way-traditional performances to the roaring approval of enormous crowds).

Love Canon on the Late Night Stage
With daytime temperatures in the mid-to-high nineties, and oppressive humidity levels, some of the most enjoyable performances came at night in the late night stage, across a psychedelically illuninated bridge at the Pioneer Village stage (really the back porch of a log cabin...a truly unique setting allowing the fans to get up close to the bands, while still providing excellent sight lines and sounds for remarkably large crowds--all on their feet dancing and singing along nightly).  We arrived Wednesday night in time to see Hank, Pattie & the Current tearing it up with some old-time Americana and impressive mandolin/fiddle playing.  I'm pretty sure they were breaking in a new bass player, and she was KILLING it--not only adding some grooving bass lines, but dancing and singing along with every song.  Thursday featured two great, young bands the Fireside Collective and Pert Near Sandstone.  Kudo's to these two bands for reading the crowd correctly, throwing all the slower stuff out of their set list and barging ahead, full-throttle with a long string of hard driving, high-energy and eminently danceable tunes that got the crowd going and kept them on that high note until the wee hours of the morning.  I hate to admit I missed Friday's set with the Jeff Austin Band (and member of the Travellin' McCoury's sitting in!).  Closing out the festival Saturday with an unbelievably quirky and fun set of bluegrass/90s music covers was the incomparable Love Canon.

Leftover Salmon on the Main Stage
That is not to say that the main stage didn't feature some incredible music as well.  Thursday showcased some of the mainstay's of traditional bluegrass and allowed them to stretch their legs and show where they could take things.  Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver contributed a set of their timeless classics, and then went on to host the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.  Ricky Skaggs came out with Kentucky Thunder and some of his bluegrass hits, but quickly shifted to glittery red Fender Telecaster and rocked out to some of his big county hits--complete with electric bass and pedal steel guitar.  It wasn't only the guitars that were electrified...so was the crowd.  Seminal jam-grass band Leftover Salmon closed out Thursday.  While more than capable of entertaining with more traditional bluegrass-style tunes, this band really hits their stride when they venture out into world-rhythm laced, Grateful Dead derived and spaced out jams built around their original material.  It's best not to think too much and just enjoy the show!

Giddens Kicking Off a Monster Set
A couple of women really stole the spotlights this year with ex Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens blasting through a nearly 2-hour long set of old-timey, roots-revival music featuring her powerful and soulful voice and a blistering array of instrumentation from herself and her band-mates.  Truly one of the most inspiring performances of the summer.  The enormity of her performance was capped only by her connection to the fans.  She spent well over an hour meeting and posing for pictures with fans afterwards.  And...as various "selfies" would later prove, finding time to "jam" with some young fans as well.  The undisputed queen of bluegrass, Ms. Alison Krauss brought her homey and instantly recognizable repertoire to a sell-out crowd Saturday night.  Her quintessentially pure vocals matched perfectly with the harmony vocals of the band and the accompaniment of master instrumentalist Ron Block.  How does one follow a legend?  The promoters--in a stroke of pure genius--opted for Kentucky homeboy Sam Bush and his band to close out the night.   Not a person left after Krauss and all were treated to a high-energy, harmony-laced, driving onslaught of progressive and traditional grass tunes.  The crowd was still on their feet as the midnight curfew came and went.  The band even pushed the rules a little and gave a short, memorable encore performance before sending the crowd off to dance the night away with Love Canon at the late night stage.

Billy Strings
Even with these powerhouse bluegrass acts, there were still some memorable moments at ROMP.  The Travellin' McCourys gave a tremendous late-night performance on Friday night.  It's sometimes weird, and always encouraging to see a field full of "twenty-and-youngers" dancing their butts off to a bluegrass band.  The smile on brothers Rob and Ronnie McCoury say it all--they enjoy it just as much as the fans do!  Billy Strings brought his usual mix high-octane, nitro-powered bluegrass to the stage with a killer mix of Bluegrass Album band, Doc Watson and Billy Strings orignials.  He's at his best when he just lets go and jams out...and the crowd got a LOT of that during his scorching set (both musically and climatically).  Probably my favorite set of the week, and arguably the most engaging and entertaining was the get-on-your-feet CeltGrass performance of Ireland's We Banjo 3.  With a seemingly familiar instrumental lineup (how do they play those banjos?) and a stompbox "drop" fit for any dubstep performance, the band drew fans to the front of the stage like iron filings to a magnet and their energy and enthusiasm rippled through the crowd setting the stage for a great night of music.  When they come around your neck of the woods, go see them...you owe it to yourself.

Pickers at the Museum
There was so much else to see and do at ROMP.  We took a wonderful tour of Owensboro's newest brewery, O. Z. Tyler and got to sample the wares.  While we were in town, we had a great lunch and toured the International Bluegrass Museum and Hall of Fame--well worth the trip.  There were a number of really cool vendors there (my favorite recycled feed and cement bags from southeast asia into gig bags was an ex-marine, who visits southeast asia where he procures used feed and cement bags, and pays local labor a living wage to produce unique and high-quality purses, messanger and gig bags).  The food vendors were all super clean, perfectly professional and offered a variety of fresh, wholesome foods at ridiculously affordable prices.  And the people.  They were great.  Friendly, welcoming, and in a great mood.  Volunteers and festival-goers alike--all the type of people I crave being around!  Defintely a "bucket list" event to attend, but now I have to seriously consider going back EVERY year, as it meets all of my criteria: The People, The Place, The Music.  Hope to see you there!

Monday, June 11, 2018

Why TheSteeldrivers Are Still My Favorite Band

The Steeldrivers (photo credit: steeldrivers.com)
To celebrate my 54th Birthday this past week, I took a group of friends to see my favorite band--The Steeldrivers--play a show at Bell's Brewery Eccentric Cafe Beer Garden.  As I've written numerous times before, The Steeldrivers were one of the main reason's I got into bluegrass music and their first eponymous album was the very first bluegrass album I ever bought.  That album of entirely original music by the band members; richly steeped in the traditions of bluegrass--acoustic instrumentation, haunting vocal harmonies and songs able to tell real stories...the good and the bad in us all...through thoughtful, though not-always-comfortable, lyrics set me on a musical path that has taken me to some amazing places and introduced me to some incredible people.  As I valiantly tried to wear out that black painted CD in my car's radio, the music of The Steeldrivers left a lasting mark on my musical soul and helped me define the "Semibluegrass" sound I have been searching out ever since.

The Steeldrivers On Stage at Bell's Eccentric Cafe Beer Garden
How do you describe The Steeldrivers sound--an experience I once heard bass man Mike Fleming refer to as "A Night of Uneasy Listening"?  It is first-and-foremost entirely original, both from the standpoint of every Steeldrivers song being written by a member of the band, and because each of these songs is instantly recognizable as a Steeldrivers song upon first listen.   While based on traditional bluegrass instrumentation, structure and chord progressions, a Steeldrivers melody plays loosely and freely within these rules, drawing on the not only the old-time mountain sounds, but also the folk, blues and soul traditions to create captivating, soul-drenched grooves capable of carrying the emotional drama of songs about love, loss, liquor and longing.  It is this down-to-earth connection with the everyman that makes these songs instantly relatable the broad cross section of humanity that make up The Steeldrivers fan base.

A View of the Stage Before The Show
The show this night took place in a truly unique setting.  The Beer Garden at Bell's Eccentric Cafe is something that must be seen in person to be appreciated.  A fenced in grassy area adjacent to Bell's Brewery, the Beer Garden has a small, roofed wooden stage, a world-class sound system, and an LED lighting system worthy of any 70s era arena rock band.  Tammy Rogers ended the night by saying "this is one hell of a back yard you've got here!".  Indeed, that back yard feaures plenty of flat, grassy areas to stand boasting great views of the stage, with lots of shady spots, and interesting corners to hang out in.  Access to the Brewery, bar and restrooms was convenient and nearby, with a second bar--featuring Bell's award-winning brews--near the stage.  There was also an excellent BBQ table set ups next to the bar--serving  right up until the end of the show.  One of our party got a pulled pork sandwich--an excellent value and huge portion for the price--and pronounced it just the thing to pad the stomach before another of Bell's excellent brews.   Access is direct through the parking lot.  There was little to no wait for ticket bearers with plenty of staff available at the gate.  A thorough, yet courteous, check of bags on the way in--coupled with numerous and visible security throughout the venue--went a long way to a creating a sense of safety and security and allowing the fans to relax without fear of something happening to ruin the evening.  It is rare to find such professional and courteous staff at live music events now days, and greatly appreciated by us music fans for sure.

Nothing Better than Live, Local Music!
Music is always at it's best when performed live, and there is nothing I like better than to see it performed by a band where every person on stage obviously enjoys playing with their bandmates.  When the passion and enjoyment of the music is evident on their faces, it instantly connects them with their audience and allows each to feed off the emotion of the other.  Nowhere is this more evident than in this most currently lineup of The Steeldrivers.  From Mandolinist Brent Truitt's spontaneous "Yeah!" after a particularly nasty (in the good way) fiddle fill from Tammy Rogers; to the look of amazement on Vocalist Kelvin Damrell's face when he is able to channel his inner Chris Stapleton on a first-album classic; through the crazy grin on Banjoist Richard Bailey's face as he unleashes another string-warping, blues tinged break; and ending up with Bassist Mike Henderson--dark glasses on, eyes closed, head back, smiling--grooving to his bandmates as he plays.  Somehow, the band's final output becomes more than the sum of it's individual parts, and transports the audience to a higher plane of melody, rhythm, drive and storytelling.

One critical piece of The Steeldrivers experience has to be the contributions of Tammy Rogers.  A prolific and talented songwriter in her own right, her unique, agressive and throaty fiddle playing is a cornerstone of the band's sound, as is her incredibly powerful and richly colored harmony vocals.  Both her and Flemming have very unique approaches to their harmony singing and they tend to break the Root-Third-Fifth arrangement more often than they stick to it, giving their voices an often dark, always soulful edge leaving the listener feeling at the same time satiated, and awkwardly disturbed.  She shares the emcee duties with her bandmates and her quick wit and sense of humor are easy to see.  Always classy, yet relatable, you get the feeling that she would be just at home at a fancy dinner at a five star restaurant, or swilling down a cold PBR in a dark, loud Nashville bar listening to honky tonk music. 

Another key part of The Steeldrivers sound is the crazy, string-bending antics of boyhood chums Richard Bailey on the five-string and Brent Truitt on the mandolin.  Throwing down lick after lick more customarily heard on a Nashville telecaster than in a bluegrass show, these two continue to break ground when it comes to bluegrass breaks and fills, pulling from the worlds of electric blues, rock and country to punctuate the lyrics and melodies of the songs.  You can see them on stage trading grins and licks trying to one-up each other with another feat of bent-string gymnastics.  Sure, string-bending and the "blue note" are a big part of the banjo library, but Bailey continues to innovate and really has established a unique sound.   His smile and goofy grin bring a little levity to the set (especially when he crouches down to say something through his instrument mic). 

When talking about innovation and string bending, the same can surely be said of Brent Truitt.  Lately, he has been playing a custom Gibson F5 mandolin that has been given the "Gold Top" treatment.  A fine-looking instrument worthy of any rock star, Brent claims (and I agree) that he plays that mandolin for the way it sounds, not the way it looks!  That mandolin is LOUD, both on it's throaty, woody chop, and on it's crystal-clear, single note leads.  Brent has his own unique style of playing mandolin--the way he varies his chop, adds double stops and rakes to his fills and even the way he uses the spaces between the notes.  However, the most notable thing about his playing is obviously the way he bends the strings into bluesy phrases--often a full step (or more).  This feat is hard enough with the doubled string courses of the mandolin, but Truitt manages this using very heavy strings to boot (I think he said they start at 11.5 gauge!).  When asked how he does this, he modestly admits "well, I've played a lot of telecaster over the years".  Truitt invited me to the this show.    He still remembers the first show I saw and reviewed way back in 2013 and saw me from across the yard after the show calling me over to say hey and catch up a little. As we talked, I watched him talk to all the fans that came up, genuinely interested in what they were saying and giving them all the time and attention they deserved.   And the same can be said for all The Steeldrivers; they genuinely like and appreciate their fans.

New Frontman Kelvin Damrell
I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention "new guy" Kelvin Damrell on guitar and lead vocals.  With the departure of former frontmen Chris Stapleton and Gary Nichols, the band went looking for someone to take their place.  Ex-contestant on The Voice Adam Wakefield filled in admirably while they looked.  Apparently, Tammy Rogers' daughter found Kelvin on YouTube doing a Chris Stapleton cover and the band asked him to audition.  He is able to cover Stapleton's signature sound to a "tee", and just as easily can sound like Nichols.  However, he ALSO sounds like Kelvin Damrell--and that's a good thing, as his voice is incredibly nuanced and flexible, able to dig down in the dark, bluesy mud as well as soar to the heights of crystal clear melodies.  He is also a fantastic rhythm guitarist with a somewhat unique-yet-driving approach. Unlike his predecessors, he is more apt to take a solo break during a song, and this is where he really stands out.   Blending Rice-style flatpicking with some great, melodic double- and triple-stop licks, blues riffs and even some Spanish? guitar licks, he has a unique sound that somehow pairs perfectly with The Steeldrivers songs.  I look forward to seeing what he does with the band and how their sound and stage show evolves with him at the reigns.

Just Some Dorky Dude.  And Truitt.
So why are The Steeldrivers my favorite band?  Because they have such a unique sound?  Because they sing songs about real life and real struggles?  Because they're all insanely talented songwriters, producers and musicians?  Or because they're just good "people"?  You be the judge.  Go see them on their upcoming tour and tell them "John the SemiBluegrass Guy" says "Hi!".

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show at Delfest 2018 -- DelYEAH!

Michigan's Own Greensky Bluegrass WSG Del McCoury!
This past Memorial Day weekend I was given the opportunity to accompany Jerry Eicher and the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show to cover the 11th annual DelFest.  We were there as the guests of the festival's PR team to experience this unique gathering and to do a live broadcast of Jerry's radio show.   Quite honestly, I'm still reeling from the experience!  It's hard to describe all the cool "People, Places and Music" we had the pleasure of interacting with over the holiday weekend.  With a legendary, powerhouse lineup of bluegrass bands led by the one-and-only Del McCoury, there was plenty to love for fans of traditional bluegrass.  More importantly, this festival's embracing of a wide variety of innovative, progressive and derivative music was pure nirvana for us "semibluegrass" and Americana fans as well!  How this enormous (and enormously important) event has stayed off my radar for so long is inexcusable--a mistake I will not repeat.  Will I be back in the future?  "Del Yeah!"

DelFest Main Stage - Photo Credit Brady Cooling
Since 2007, Del McCoury and his family have been throwing a little picking party for their family, friends and twenty thousand or so of their fans.  DelFest is held each year over the Memorial Day weekend on the banks of the Potomac River at the beautiful  and scenic Allegheny County fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland.  With a broad, flat meadow hosting the main stage, and a pair of smaller stages (one outdoor, one indoor) there is plenty of room to spread out and see a variety of music.  Mountains and a shear granite cliff form a backdrop (and a place for a large, projected silhouette of Del's head in the evening!). There is a large grandstand overlooking the main festival ground/stage with seating and SHADE for those in need.  The stages were large and well appointed with professional lighting and excellent sound.  The light show for each night's closing act was unbelievable for an outdoor venue--reminiscent of a stadium touring rock show--and somehow really contributing to the celebratory atmosphere.

Jerry recording some live sound from Serene Green
On Thursday evening, I had the honor of co-hosting the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show with Jerry Eicher from the press tent in the backstage area.  The show originates from Northern Ohio and can be heard live on WQTE, 95.3FM in Adrian Michigan every Saturday from 10pm to midnight.  The show is syndicated on a variety of bluegrass networks thoughout the country and  also streams live on World Wide Bluegrass Thursday from 7pm to 9pm.  Jerry's show features an eclectic collection of national  and local bluegrass acts ranging from purely traditional to decidedly progressive (he calls it "americanagrass").   With a cell phone internet connection, Jerry is able to broadcast "live" from the field and has begun doing his show live from various festivals.  His "Live from the RV" segments are a big hit with the fans.

Jerry with Lisa and Rob McCoury
With some eleventh hour heroics from Trent "the IT guy" at DelFest, the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show went live backstage during the performances of former Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens and the Funky, Bluesy band the California Honeydrops.  The show kicked off with an interview of Rob and Lisa McCoury about the DelFest Academy.  This unique event takes place the Sunday though Wednesday leading up to the festival and allows participants an opportunity to hone their pickin' skills with some of the best in the business.  The academy is hosted by the Travelin' McCourys (Rob and Ron McCoury, Cody Kilby, Jason Carter and Alan Bartram) with additional guest instructors--this year they included Frank Sollivan, Mike Munford, Ronnie Bowman, Chris Luquette and Jay Starling).  Not only do students receive group and individual instruction from some of the best in the business, but they also get a chance to participate in the Academy's version of karaoke, where the student gets to perform a song with the instructors acting as the back-up band!  Students also are randomly grouped in a"band scramble" and compete for the coveted prize of a performance on the main stage to open the festival on Thursday!

Heaven McCoury "Hot Wired"
During the show, we were also able to interview a variety of performers on site.  Del's grandson, Heaven, talked about his 10-piece funk/R&B band the Broomestix, and his  historic performance (the first time an electric guitar has ever appeared on a Del record) on the Shawn Camp cover "Hotwired" from "Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass".  Festival EmCee and former Grateful Dead mandolinist Joe Craven popped in and talked about the history of DelFest.  Matt Rieger and Andy Dunnigan from Montana's Lil' Smokies band stopped by to talk about their sound, with guitarist Rieger repping the mitten with a very cool Otus Supply tee!   After a scorching set of hard-driving, funkified, blues-laced and horn driven R&B soul, frontman Lech Wierzynski of the California Honeydrops closed out the show with a discussion of the festival and what makes it so special.  After packing the show up, Jerry and I caught the killer performance of jamgrass masters the Infamous Stringdusters on the main stage before calling it an "early" evening (at midnight!)

Anders Beck at Friday Press Conference
Over the next three days, Jerry and I were honored to be invited to the daily press conferences hosted by the PR team from the Press House.  These daily events featured a variety of the artists and allowed a brief glimpse of the Festival from the performers' point of view.  Friday's conference featured the bands Mandolin Orange, Greensky Bluegrass and Birds of Chicago.  The question of the day revolved around what made DelFest unique and special.  The answer was pretty unanimously "Del...Duh!".  Perhaps summing it up best was resophonic guitarist Anders Beck from Greensky Bluegrass who--talking about his journey from traditional bluegrass to where the band is now--said "Del comes to our shows.  He LIKES our music.  It's not what HE would play, but he likes it."

Saturday Press Conference at DelFest
Saturday's large panel included representatives of old-time band Rising Appalachia, folkgrassy band Twisted Pine, super-picker Jay Stickley, Heaven McCoury of The Broomesix and mandolinist Casey Campbell of the Bryan Sutton Band.  Perhaps the most meaningful morsel from their spirited discussion came from the women in Rising Appalachia who spoke passionately about the need for music preservationists as well as musical innovators and rule breakers and how a healthy music scene not only tolerates both, but needs both--in balance and harmony.  Due to heavy rains in the forecast, Jerry and I had to pull out early, but did tune in the Sunday evening presser from the RV to hear Del and Ron McCoury, Billy Strings and Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show.  Both Strings and Secor talked about learning new things every day and the McCoury's willingness to help struggling bands...both musically, and even catering to their basic needs.  Secor talked about finding "potted meat and crackers" in their car after a show while on tour with the Del McCoury Band--a gift from Jean McCoury.  He joked that he saw her in the wings during Strings' set and could tell "she was thinking that he needed to eat some more".

Joe Craven and the Sometimers Kick Off Thursday
With four jam packed days of music, it's hard to know where to begin talking about the music.  I can pretty safely say that nearly every performance I saw--had it been at any other festival--would have been the HIGHLIGHT of that festival.  Each and every band certainly brings their "A Game" to DelFest.  Between the once-in-a-lifetime events, guest appearances and special events, DelFest was a non-stop treat for fans of bluegrass and Americana music of nearly all genres and persuasions.  Joe Craven and the Sometimers kicked off Thursday's "Cock a Doodle Do" set with some killer covers of Grateful Dead standards from their new album "Garcia Songbook".  Featuring a killer guitarist, funky bassman and groovy drummer, the Sometimers also added a special guest for this show.   Appearing on stage with the band for the first time ever on harmony vocals was Joe's daughter Hattie who confessed she had to tell her dad she had been "experimenting with the Grateful Dead".  Craven's arrangements of these classic tunes pulled heavily from world rhythms and melodies and were eminently enjoyable and danceable under the hot Maryland sun.

Del and the Greensky Boys Having a Great Time!
While there were many such guest appearances at DelFest, there were a couple that really stood out.  After the first hour or so from Greensky Bluegrass on Friday night--a set drawn heavily from their electrified, effects driven, jamgrass sound, the band took a moment to reflect on their roots as a traditional bluegrass band from Kalamazoo Michigan and some of the songs they used to sing.  A single mic setup was brought out as the band stepped up with none other than Del McCoury himself for a rousing rendition of "Country Boy Rock and Roll".  Not only did they nail the harmonies but handled the switch to pure acoustic jamming with easy, combining rock-solid rhythms and lightning-fingered breaks.  Del even threw in his signature raised guitar G-run that had the boys in the band grinning and laughing while they sang. Earlier that evening, Heaven McCoury joined his Dad, Uncle and Grandpa on stage as the band played "Hot Wired".   My favorite part of the song is near the end, when Heaven participates in a call-and-response set of breaks with each member of the band in turn, holding his own and keeping up while adding his own signature sound to the Del McCoury band sound.  A musical coming-of-age and band rite-of-passageat the same time--and he KILLED it!

"1952 Vincent Black Lightning"
British singer/songwriter Richard Thompson put on a tremendous show Friday, interspersing his witty stage comments with some incredible guitar picking to really bring his original songs to life.  He even did one of his "band" numbers, with the crowd divided up to provide various harmony and horn parts.  He seemed genuinely surprised when the crowd sang the words to one of his songs back to him, almost drowning the sound from the PA!  When Del McCoury took the stage later that night after a brief rain delay, he invited Richard on stage to do his song "1952 Vincent Black Lightning"..a Thompson song made famous in the US by none other than the Del McCoury Band!  As the song kicked off the rains came pouring back down.  I didn't care.  This was the first time that these two had ever done the song together on stage.  Even with the key changed from Bb to C for Del, Thompson managed to add a killer guitar break, and sang a couple of verses with Del.  A truly historic and memorable event.

Sam Bush
Saturday featured a crazy-good lineup of bands.  One of my personal favorites had to be the Sam Bush Band.  Part traditional bluegrass band, part rock-and-roll icon, this 90 minute set ran the gamut.  One can not help but be entertained by Bush's puppy-dog enthusiasm and visible joy on stage.  His songs are poignant and memorable, and his voice lends itself to the multiple styles of music he plays.  I love that he switches to different instruments to get the sound he needs.  In addition to his F5 mandolin, his set featured a bluesy and dark sounding National Resonator mandolin and a fender electric mandolin.  Bush also whipped out a fiddle and showed he's no slouch on that instrument either.  He closed his set with a hard-rocking duet featuring the timely titled "Stop The Violence" with Stephen Mougin on Electric Guitar and Scot Vestal doing a great job emulating a B3 Organ on a solid body electric guitar synthesizer mashup thingamabob.

A Who's Who of Bluegrass Greats
There were so many incredible bands on the bill for DelFest.  Obviously the Del McCoury Band and the Travelin' McCourys are headliners in their own right.  Throw in the David Grisman Trio, the Bryan Sutton Band, Sierra Hull, The Jerry Douglas Band, The Sam Bush Band, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder and you have the true royalty of modern bluegrass all in one place.  Add headline bands The Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass and Old Crow Medicine Show to the mix and you're starting to have something really special.  Late night shows featured some up-and coming superstars including Billy Strings, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, and Fruition.  And wait, there's more.  I saw some killer sets from a bunch of bands including the Grateful Dead covers of The Grass is Dead--clad in some authentic Dead-era tie dyes from The Tie Dye Yogi (a super cool cat we met and hung out with for a bit.  Even picked a couple tunes with him).  Heard some cool "semibluegrass" stuff from The Brothers Comatose, Twisted Pine and Rising Appalachia.

A Once-In-A-Lifetime Gathering of the Greats
The signature event of the weekend might just have been the Saturday incarnation of the Del McCoury Band's set featuring a lineup they called the Bluegrass Congress.  After Richard Thompson got the crowd fired up with his appearance, the "Congress" was convened with the addition of David Grissman, Ricky Skaggs and David "Dawg" Grissman joining Ron McCoury on Mandolin.  Also joining in on the fun were Stuart Duncan on Fiddle, Bryan Sutton on Guitar and Jerry Douglas on the dobro.  They took turns trying to one up each other on a series of bluegrass standards--each memorable in it's own way.  However, it was Dawg's campy version of "I'm My Own Grandpa" that set the band to grinning and laughing while mixing in some killer breaks with one member of this super-band trying to one-up the next.  Great fun was had by band and audience alike.

It's About the People, First
There are a few things that really stick in my mind that made this event memorable.  The food vendors were amazing.  Had a watermelon and feta salad from "The Grilled Cheese Incident" that blew me away and a cup of fair-trade, organic coffee that was, quite honestly, the best cup of coffee I ever had.  The staff and army of volunteers that make DelFest happen are friendly, helpful and hard working--the perfect reflection of the community around them.  Picked a few tunes with the Academy guys under the "tin roof"...great guys, great pickers, great fun.  Same true for all the others I jammed with.  All in all, can't think of a better place to go to find not only the best in live, local music, but "the people, the places and the music (in that order)" that defines us a "semibluegrass" fans.  Do you need to go to DelFest next year?  "Del Yeah" you do!

A few pics follow.  Feel free to use/share with credit to Semibluegrass.com.  Like what you see?  Follow us on Facebook!

Jerry Interviewing Lead Singer of  Serene green

Batik Artists (and African Drum Jammer!)

Our Backstage Radio Setup

Alexia the"Ambiance Coordinator"

Jerry and Ron McCoury

Bruce MacMillan (Joe Craven and the Sometimers)


Andy Hall

Jerry and Heaven McCoury

Jerry and Joe Craven

Lil Smokies

Joe Craven

Hattie Craven

Sam Grisman and Casey Campbell

Allison Russell

Birds of Chicago

Anders Beck sits in with the Bryan Sutton Band


Ricky Skaggs and Del

Del McCoury

Steve Pruett - The Grass is Dead

Jared Womack - The Grass is Dead

Anders Beck

Hattie sitting in with the Brothers Comatose

Greensky One-Mic Jam

Greensky Lights

Paul Hoffman - Greensky

Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson

Sierra Hull

Bryan Sutton and Billy Strings

Scott Vestal

Stephen Mougin - Sam Bush Band

Sam Bush Band

Sutton and Douglas

Del Yeah Sam Bush!

Del McCoury