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Monday, February 19, 2024

The Joy of Live Music: The Steeldrivers in Pontiac, Michigan 2/16/2024

The Steeldrivers and their "Tougher Than Nails Tour"

Brent Truitt and Tammy Rogers
You all know I love nothing better than a live performance of original acoustic music.  If that music is available locally, and from one of my favorite bands, and in a venue set up to maximize the listening experience, all the better.   The Steeldrivers were the first band I started listening to when I discovered bluegrass well into my 40s and have remained one of my favorite bands ever since.   In fact, they are the band I have written about most in these pages over the years.   One of the reasons is definitely because they "color outside the lines" when it comes to bluegrass music.  Another because they always put their heart and soul into every performance.  But mostly, it's because it is so patently obvious that not only are all five members of this band extremely talented, but the genuine love they have for playing music together shines on stage--witnessed by the smiles on all of their faces throughout the show   The performance is often studded with spontaneous "Yeahs" in appreciation of a lick or vocal or phrase from another band member.   I often catch banjo wildman Richard Bailey staring intently at his mandolin-slinging stage partner Brent Truitt before ripping off a crazy, bluesy lick to punctuate one of the band's signature "uneasy listening" tunes--which is usually followed by an equally outrageous sting-bending, telecaster-esque response from Truitt.  Then they both laugh quietly at each other and get back to business. 

Tammy Rogers doing a solo Gospel Number
These types of observations are easy to make in the small, intimate listening rooms I write about, but something you don't usually see in an almost 1000 seat theater.   Fortunately for me, the Flagstar Strand Theater in Pontiac, Michigan is no ordinary music venue.  Built a century ago, this theater brings you back to a time when a night out was a special event--celebrated not only in the performance, but in the architecture and ambiance of the setting.  This double balcony theater has much to offer  fans coming to see a show.  Parking is easy near the theater.   It's easy to access the front doors and ticket office while the staff and security efficiently and effectively move everyone in.  The wide, well-lit aisles and gentle slopes make walking to your seat easy--even for my gnarly knees.  Surprisingly the well-padded seats are adequately wide and spaced far enough apart for comfortable seating throughout the performance.   

The Unmistakable Richard Bailey
The space is built for a high quality listening experience.   You can hear every note and whisper from the stage anywhere in the audience.  And...since I was sitting quite near the stage...the band can also hear the audience singing their heart out to many of the band's classic hits.  In fact, during "If It Hadn't Been For Love" (a song that became a classic when Adelle covered it), the audience was singing along so loudly that it inspired vocalist Matt Dame to invite the crowd to a call-and-response  session where he'd sing the first half of the line, and the crowd would boisterously sing back the end.  Throughout the night, the band was visibly appreciative of the fact that nearly a thousand die-hard bluegrass and Steeldrivers fans (Steelheads) came out to Pontiac Michigan for a mid-February show.   That appreciation was returned in spades by the band who let loose with and inspired, tight, well-rehearsed and thoroughly enjoyable performance.  The band is a master at stage presence with vocalist and fiddle player Tammy Roger taking the physical and spiritual center of the band and handling the emcee duties (with occasional help from bassist Mike Flemming, who's humble and dry delivery is the perfect compliment to Rogers amiable and vibrant personality).   The show this night was one of the best Steeldrivers shows--and one of the very best of ANY show--that I have seen! 

The Ben Daniels Band
The night was a great success on many levels.  Not only was the show sold out, but when I talked to the merchandising guy at the end of the night, he was a bit shell-shocked at crowds generosity--selling out all of the vinyl LPs the band had brought as well as a good chunk of the tee shirts, hats and other Steeldrivers branded items.  The night began with the Ben Daniels Band entertaining the crowd with a mostly original 45-minute set of mostly original music.   For those familiar with the drum-driven, mostly electric performance the band usually puts on, this "acoustic" version of the band (featuring drummer Wesley Fritzemeier on mandolin) was a nice way to warm up for the main event.  They weren't exactly "bluegrass"...but then again...neither are the Steeldrivers.  A highlight of the night was definitely the band's four-part harmony arrangement of the John Prine classic "Paradise" with guitarist George Merkel on lead vocals and the whole crowd singing along.   

I leave you with a challenge.  There is an entire world of original, live, local music out there.   Go get you some!  Feel free to follow SeMiBluegrass on Facebook and Instagram (and whatever social media comes next I guess...)

Mike Flemming

Mike Flemming and Matt Dame thoroughly enjoying the momement!

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