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.
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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!