The first German Park picnic of 2016 is coming up on June 25. German Park is one of Ann Arbor’s longest running, yet in some ways still lesser known, summer traditions. For over 75 years, the German Park Recreation Club has been throwing summer picnics on the last Saturdays of June, July and August. They started in 1938, when a group of German immigrants pooled their money together to purchase the land for the park off of Pontiac Trail. Many attendees have been going every summer for their entire lives! Native Germans or those who have been to Germany, often comment on the authenticity of the atmosphere, cuisine and performances at German Park. Whether you claim German heritage or not, these picnics are a wildly fun and festive display of German culture.
It’s best to arrive at German Park early, as the lines to get in grow steadily over the course of the evening. The doors officially open at 4 pm, and after passing through the front gate and paying the $5 admission fee (kids 12 and under are free), the die-hard picnic-goers rush to claim the prime spots at the community dining tables. It’s a universally acknowledged rule that if a table has a tablecloth thrown over it, it’s spoken for. You'll see people clutching tablecloths, blankets, or bedsheets, eager to snag a spot close to the music or in the shade. There’s plenty of room, though, people are friendly and accommodating, and the traditional German music can be heard throughout the park so there really are no “bad” seats in the house.
Food and drink tickets are sold for $1 each at locations around the park, and it’s wise to stock up on them. German Park still serves the same home-cooked, authentic German fare that was served at their first picnic in 1938 and the kitchen or “Deutsche Küche,” is open all evening. From bratwurst and knackwurst (a spicier version of bratwurst) to sauerkraut, spatzen, giant soft pretzels, and apple strudel, the very smell of the food at the picnics is enough to make your mouth water.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a true German festival without beer, and beer there is. It’s served in white plastic buckets; another German Park tradition is to buy enough beer to make a bucket tower on your table. The German Park Recreation Club actually imports wine and beer from Germany for the event, so German beers Spaten, Spaten Optimator and Franziskaner are available, along with a selection of domestic brews.
The music and dancing are another highlight of the picnics. Wearing traditional German outfits, the German Park Trachtengruppe dancers perform twice at every picnic, at 6 and 8:30 pm, wowing the crowds with complex dances despite the restrictions of their elaborately embroidered lederhosen and dirndls. In between performances, bands play German music and picnic-goers are welcomed onto the large dance floor.
For more information about the event, including directions, parking, and the designated driver program, visit the German Park website.
Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library and is proud to be one-eighth German!
The 2016 German Park picnics will take place on June 25, July 30, and August 27. Admission is $5 for adults and free for persons serving in the military and for children 12 and under. The event runs from 4-11 pm.
Gregory Porter has ascended to become one of the premier male jazz singers of his, or any, generation. While his talent is unquestionable, it is the purity of his voice and the diversity he employs that makes him a standout performer and presence in contemporary popular music.
Over four CDs and a constant touring schedule, Porter has risen to the top in quick order. While his style incorporates the best of traditional jazz sound reminiscent of a young Billy Eckstine, he also takes cues from early influence of Nat “King” Cole on the more sophisticated side. He combines the bluesy hints of Joe Williams and Jimmy Witherspoon, with a dash of Stevie Wonder, while adding the soulful elegance Gregory Hines, an artist known more for his dancing or acting than his undervalued singing. Porter is also fond of the duet configuration.
Today’s kingpin Kurt Elling has had a dominant fifteen year run atop polls and album sales. Jose James is adored by many, Freddy Cole is everlasting, while Kevin Mahogany's consistency has led to his longevity. But Gregory Porter’s rise to stardom has trumped them all.
Porter's 2010 debut, Water, was a breakthrough on many artistic levels and demonstrated his exceptional talent. His follow-up Be Good, proved Porter was consistent while avoiding clichés, and led him to his current label, the legendary Blue Note Records. Two more CDs have cemented his place as a big fish in a small pond of male jazz vocalists. 2013’s Liquid Spirit and his new effort, Take Me To The Alley, have proven the most important element of a great artist – standing the test of time as a musician with a universal appeal.
Porter’s producer since day one, Kamau Kenyatta, has a distinct local connection. Those who attended the early period Montreux/Detroit Jazz Festivals may remember Kenyatta, then a prominent regular performer at the event, playing soprano saxophone and piano in the footsteps of his mentor, the late Teddy Harris, Jr. Kenyatta left Detroit for Florida, and then San Diego where he has carried on a role as a professional educator. It was in California that Porter connected with Kenyatta and was exposed to a hip hop and electronic dance music community that is yet another facet of his persona.
Porter is on a hot streak as he comes to Ann Arbor this week, with multiple wins as Best Male Jazz Singer in the Down Beat Magazine Critics and Readers Poll, as well as a Grammy Award for Liquid Spirit. That CD, in an era of declining sales, sold a remarkable one million copies, in addition to becoming the most streamed jazz album ever at 20 million hits. Take Me To The Alley has been the #1 Jazz Album on Apple Music in dozens of countries across six continents.
Recently Porter has stated how he is finding himself, with no need to adapt and try to be a singer that compromises to overtly commercial considerations. His recent hit “Don’t Lose Your Steam” reflects this realization, recognizing his role of an extension of his parents as preachers, leading to his staunch individualism, refusal to sing a majority of standards, and confidence as a self-reliant artist – no mean feat. He’s also moved his family from New York City back to Bakersfield, further emphasizing the deep respect of his roots.
Porter's promise as an artist was evident in his early work, and as his career has matured, he is fulfilling that promise in spades.
Michael G. Nastos is a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is on the Board of Directors for the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.
Gregory Porter performs Wednesday, June 22 at 8 pm at the Power Center for the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. For more information go to a2sf.org, call the Ticket Office at (734) 764-2538 or toll-free in Michigan at (800) 221-1229 or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
I first learned of Hayes Carll from the Bob & Tom radio show about 10 years ago as I drove to work in the morning, singing such goofy favorites as "She Left Me for Jesus" and a wonderful cover of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s "Drunken Poet’s Dream". Then I kept listening. There was more than satire and twisted lyrics here.
Hayes started making records in 2002 after earning his chops in and around Austin, Houston and Galveston, Texas. He quickly developed a reputation for sharp-witted lyrics that could make you laugh and cry all in the same song. Hayes channels other Texas troubadours Lyle Lovett, the aforementioned RWH, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and others, but possesses a fierce yet unassuming style of his own that becomes instantly familiar and comforting.
Of his first new album in five years, Lovers and Leavers, Hayes says, “It isn’t funny or raucous. There are very few hoots and almost no hollers. But it is joyous, and it makes me smile. No, it’s not my Blood on the Tracks, nor is it any kind of opus. It’s my fifth record—a reflection of a specific time and place. It is quiet, like I wanted it to be. Like I wanted to be."
Here’s your chance to discover – or to be reunited with – one of Americana’s most gifted and poignant songwriters, Hayes Carll, appearing at The Ark in downtown Ann Arbor this Saturday, June 18 at 8:00 pm. Emily Gimble, granddaughter of legendary Texas Playboys fiddler Johnny Gimble, opens for Mr. Carll.
Don Alles is a marketing consultant, journalist, house concert host and musical wannabe, living in and loving his adopted home, Ann Arbor.
Tickets are still available but the Ark’s 400-seat Ford Listening Room is filling up fast. Grab your tickets online or take your chances at the door.
After a five-year hiatus, local folk singer-songwriter Chris Bathgate is back in the national spotlight with his new EP Old Factory. The Grand Rapids-based artist was first catapulted beyond the Midwest’s music scene with his 2011 album Salt Year, but the pressures of touring led to a five-year hiatus.
Bathgate’s latest batch of songs finds him sounding refreshed and reenergized. Old Factory is more upbeat than his often melancholic earlier records, and he says he’s already hard at work on two new full-lengths—a full length solo record, and the debut LP for his collaborative project SKULLLS.
This Thursday Bathgate will bring a full band to Top of the Park (which he calls “one my favorite performance opportunities”) for a free show. I caught up with Bathgate to talk about returning from his hiatus, the influence of nature on Old Factory, and the new direction his music seems to be taking.
Q: You’ve expressed some regret for how you handled the national attention Salt Year attracted. NPR exclusively debuted a track from Old Factory, so obviously a lot of people are paying attention to you again. Did you anticipate being in this position again?
A: I didn't expect NPR to promote this when it came out. Stephen Thompson, the gentleman who I guess premiered that announcement, has been a supporter for years. It's kind of strange. He's this kind of elusive figure in my life. I won't do anything for two years, and then I'll put something out and NPR will call. It's kind of nice. I think a lot of that national exposure is credited to him maybe being on top of it.
I think it's pretty easy to forget about artists, especially when they don't do anything for two or three years, or at least they aren't in the public eye for two years. That was a pleasant surprise. It wasn't something I was shooting for, I was just excited to have music coming out. The vision had been solidified for so long, so it was nice to finally get to share those songs.
Q: Do you ever feel pressured to keep up with those expectations: to release music at a faster pace?
A: I think trying to keep up momentum is a goal, but I've never really let it bring me down. I don't know if my process allows for that kind of visibility, of putting something out every 8 to 12 months. It takes me a long time to do anything with music, and I think that's better. You can only release a record once, you know? It's better for me to take my time and make sure everything's up to snuff and everything comes out the way I want it to. The art's always been my number one priority. Maybe my process and the way the music industry works don't line up, but that's just fine with me.
Q: You had a long time to sit with the material on Old Factory before you finished the record. How do you feel about the final product?
A: I'm still making minuscule edits. When I went back I already knew exactly what I wanted to change about what I'd worked on. I re-tracked some strings and some drums. I had a long time to think about those things. If the hiatus did anything for that record, it made me see where I needed to shore some things up on my end, at least compositionally and sonically. It gave me the space to fall out of love enough with the songs to find out what core parts needed to change.
Q: Nature had a big influence on this record. Can you talk about how that manifests itself—lyrically or sonically—in these songs?
A: I guess the most obvious connection is the song Acorns and its percussion section. The inspiration for that song comes from being on my back porch while there were acorns thumping on the roof on the deck. So that's an actual sound in nature, and I think something I had been thinking about as well, conceptually. Not to sound obtuse, but it's an interesting thing to me, the seasonal downfall of acorns. It's like word painting. The percussion on that song is directly attributed to that. I didn't write it: an oak tree in my back yard did.
I was thinking about humans in nature. When do we feel a part of it? When do we feel excluded from it? When do we feel greater than it, and what really connects us? All of those things were rolling around pretty heavily in my mind when I was making that record.
Q: Old Factory sounds more urgent and uptempo than your previous records. What do you think accounts for that?
A: Before Salt Year it was pretty rare for me to play with a full band. The majority of my material is kind of lilting and slow, and somber, even. I think working with better and better studios, being more interested in percussion and drums—there's definitely a lot of rhythmic stuff happening on Old Factory—I think that's just the direction my interest has gone.
Coming out of an 8-track home bedroom folk mindset, I feel like I had never been able to get high-fidelity recordings of drums. They've been the most complicated to track coming from when I was first starting out, and as I've gotten into better and better studios I have the ability to lay down two full drum kits and have it sound really good and be able to use a lot of expensive overheads and stuff like that. I think the rhythm comes from my color palette as a composer, that I haven't been able to use those colors in that way up until recently. That expansion pack—the ability to record high-fidelity drums—comes from that. I think it's maybe me over-exercising that new ability.
Q: What can we expect from your show at Top of the Park?
You're going to hear some of the arrangements from the record slightly tweaked, with a full band with a full horn section, which I don't play every show with, but Top of the Park is one of my favorites. That's something that hasn't happened in a while. We'll have three horns as well as pedal steel. Some of my songs are really just about the arrangement, and we're going to have the capacity to flex those muscles at Top of the Park.
Steven Sonoras is a writer living in Ypsilanti.
Chris Bathgate will play the Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s Top of the Park at 8:15 pm on Thursday, June 16. He and his band will perform on the Rackham Stage, located at 915 E Washington St. Admission is free, and venue and parking information can be found at a2sf.org.
The self-described “musical vacation” that is Grand Rapids’ The Outer Vibe will bring its neverending party to Top of The Park’s Rackham Stage for a free show this Saturday. The eclectic indie rock band — which comprises lead vocalist/guitarist Sean Zuidgeest, singer/guitarist Nick Hosford, singer/bassist Andrew Dornoff, singer/guitarist Nick Hosford, singer/trumpet player/keyboardist Lisa Kacos, and singer/drummer Noah Snyder — fuses radio friendly pop hooks with blistering surf guitar riffs, brassy orchestration, and lyrics that exude pure positivity.
The band has won friends and fans young and old alike on its most recent national tour, thanks in part to its generation-spanning influences ranging from Dick Dale and Paul Simon to Alabama Shakes and Foster the People.Trumpeter Lisa Kacos, speaking to me on the phone as the band headed out for a short East Coast tour, said even audiences unfamiliar with the group tend to get swept up in their infectious good vibes.
“Sometimes if it's our first time in a new place, I think a lot of people just kind of sit there and feel you out for a few songs, but I think I can say pretty faithfully that 100 percent of the time we have the audience up and dancing and having a great time.”
The group is currently on the road to promote a new live album, recorded this April in their hometown at the end of a three month trek across the country in support of their 2015 full-length, Full Circle. The Outer Vibe is one of the Mitt’s must-see live bands, and they promise to get the entire crowd on their feet this Saturday.
I caught up with Kacos to talk about the band’s recent travels and what fans can expect from the band going forward.
Q: Michiganders joke that it’s winter half the year here, but The Outer Vibe sounds like an endless beach party. Where does that positivity come from?
A: We write music that makes us feel how we want to feel. It's funny, a lot of people think we're from California. We've been told that quite a bit on tour. Our drummer likes to tell people that our music is a slice of paradise. We like to feel good, we like to be happy. Whether we're convincing ourselves of that because it's December in Michigan or not, we like to feel good and we want other people to feel good when they listen to our music.
Q: The Outer Vibe has earned a lot of attention for its dynamic performances. How do you sustain that level of energy night after night, for months at a time?
A: A lot of coffee [laughs]! No, it's just what we do for a living. We love music, we love putting on a live show, and we love meeting new people and new audiences all across the country, and seeing old fans too. It's a really exciting lifestyle, and it's always different, it's always changing. There's always something to look forward to.
Q: Has being on the road so much influenced your material in any way?
A: We are absolutely influenced by our travels, all of our experiences together. It's all about your relationships with the people you meet and living life to the fullest, we feel. We've made all kinds of great friends across the country, and it's very inspiring. I think that plays a big role in our writing.
Q: You have a live record coming out this summer, recorded at The Intersection in Grand Rapids at the end of your most recent national tour. What made that night so special that you decided to release it as an album?
A: We called it a homecoming concert, because we'd been on tour for three months covering the bulk of the United States, pretty much from Michigan straight down to Florida, and pretty much everything West. We saw the Pacific and the Atlantic, and we were right by the Canadian border and right by the border of Mexico. We covered a lot of ground, and we were gone a long time.
We decided to have a big homecoming concert in Grand Rapids because we missed our friends and family and we wanted to party with West Michigan. We just made it a really big thing. There were a lot of people there, and we were feeling really good about our live set. We'd played sixty concerts, so we figured it would be a good time to make a recording.
Q: The producer you worked with on Full Circle, Brad Dollar, has worked with some really big names in the past. What kind of influence did he have on the sound of the record?
A: Brad is great. We were on the same page, and he loves capturing a live, organic sound like we were after for a record. He's super enthusiastic. He was really good at reminding us how important it is to be ourselves, dig deep within, and write music that we love. I think that's going to stick with us as we work in the future.
Full Circle was a great album for our band. That was the first one with Noah, our drummer, so that was kind of a fresh start for us. We had a whole bunch of new music and we were deciding who wanted to be at that time. That album's a pretty good representation of our sound, so we're taking some of those sounds and using that as a jumping off point.
Q: What's next for the band?
A: We're writing all the time. We're also going to be touring a lot this summer. We kind of do both at once. We are looking to make an E.P. We're always working on our sound. We're always trying to be creative and push ourselves to create more great songs.
I think what we've been talking about doing is more of the things that really make our band The Outer Vibe, really utilizing the things that make us special. Like Nick's' guitar style is pretty particular to Nick. He's a classically trained guy with a master's degree in guitar performance, and he's pretty skilled, so we want to make sure he gets to play his guitar in a way that's unique to him. And my trumpet's a little bit different than most bands that have trumpet. And our rhythm section, the drums and bass, are just working the groove and making people feel good and dance. And I think Shaun’s voice is pretty recognizable. We're taking everything we like about our group and honing that in.
Steven Sonoras is a writer living in Ypsilanti.
The Outer Vibe will play the Rackham Stage at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival at 10:45 pm on Friday, June 10. The Rackham Stage is located at Top of the Park at 915 E Washington St. Admission is free, and venue and parking information can be found at a2sf.org.
The awesomely expansive 2016 Allied Media Conference will be held in Detroit this year and aims to “bring together a vibrant and diverse community of people using media to incite change: filmmakers, radio producers, technologists, youth organizers, writers, entrepreneurs, musicians, dancers, and artists.” The content of the conference is diverse too, including workshops, shows, and dance parties.
I interviewed Morgan Willis, Program Director of the AMC, about what we can expect from this year’s conference.
Q: You talk about AMC as a collaboratively-designed conference. Can you give a sense of the number and scope of collaborators who have worked on this year's event?
A: The Allied Media Conference is created each year through the passionate contributions of hundreds of coordinators, presenters, and volunteers. The AMC organizing process has been developed from an iterative cycle of feedback and learning between AMC participants and organizers. Through trial and error, survey and response, the organizing process is a continuous work in progress.
This year we have 60+ volunteer coordinators of the 28 different tracks, practice spaces, and network gatherings at the conference. We also have approximately 10 full time and part time staff members that work on the conference, as well as an advisory board of nine intergenerational, long-time AMC participants. We share the conference organizing process through our zines “How We Organize the AMC” and the “AMC Presenter Guidelines.”
Q: Who do you hope to see at AMC?
A: The AMC is a conference that is excited to center participants who live at the margins of conventional conference spaces: immigrants, youth, elders, black and brown folks, queer folks, parents, and others, while remaining open to our vast network of participants across all identities and spectrums. We hope to see first time AMCers, returning participants, Detroiters and media-makers from all over the continent.
Q: How does being situated in Detroit influence the conference?
A: This year will be the AMC’s 10th anniversary of being held in Detroit! Detroit is important as a source of innovative, collaborative, low-resource solutions. Detroit gives the conference a sense of place, just as each of the conference participants bring their own sense of place with them to the conference. Detroiters are also a significant percentage of our coordinators, participants, presenters and attendees.
Our offsite tours and field trips allow participants to see a variety of grassroots media-based organizing initiatives and experience different parts of the city that they may not know about or have access to. One of the most popular tours that is back this year is “From Growing Our Economy to Growing Our Souls” which explores Detroit history and emerging visionary organizing, led by Rich Feldman of the Boggs Center. Other tours will explore urban farming, “green” infrastructure, the Motown United Sound Recording Studio, and more unique places and initiatives in Detroit.
Q: Any tips for navigating the conference for newbies? How about return visitors?
A: As the AMC continues to grow, we hope to ensure that it is a welcoming space for first timers while also cultivating the intimacy and network building that many returning AMCers value so much. This year we will be offering “homeroom” sessions for first timers, hosted by returning AMCers who will help orient first timers to the AMC and offer best practices for navigating through the conference. We will also be sharing a list of “10 Things to Know as an AMC First Timer” on our website (alliedmedia.org/amc) so stay tuned!
One thing we always emphasize to both newbies and returning visitors is to plan your schedule in advance. We just released the online schedule and we highly recommend that attendees read through the 250+ sessions to get a feeling for what you’re most interested in before you arrive. This will also help you identify people and organizations you’d like to connect with so you can grow your network and build long lasting relationships.
Q: What are you personally looking forward to in this year's conference?
A: The Opening Ceremony is always a highlight! This year, through a partnership with the Detroit Institute of Arts museum, we will host the Opening Ceremony inside the beautiful Detroit Film Theater, which has double the capacity of our previous venue. The event is produced by Tunde Olaniran and will bring together performers, activists, and live music as a celebration of the powerful wave of creative movement-building happening across the country.
I’m also especially excited to see the evolution of workshops from last year into tracks (series of multiple workshops) this year, like the “Black Death Mixtape” session, which has expanded into the “Black Survival Mixtape” track. And I love the return of tracks and network gatherings focused on important topics such as climate resilience and disability justice.
We will also be hosting several community dinners this year, which are a way for attendees to meet and connect over affordable, delicious, and locally sourced food. I’m especially looking forward to the Saturday night community dinner, “Bil Afiya: A Community Feast” at Cass Corridor Commons!
Anna Prushinskaya is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
20-year-old Holland-based singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Olivia Mainville is busier than most musicians ten years her senior. In the past two years she played with the folk-rock band Watching for Foxes, collaborated with The Appleseed Collective and The Ragbirds, toured as a solo artist supporting Connecticut’s Caravan of Thieves, released a debut EP that was mixed in Nashville, volunteered as a programmer for Grand Rapids’ WYCE-FM, and started her own band, Olivia Mainville and The Aquatic Troupe.
Given the restless blur of Mainville’s career to date, it’s appropriate that her new band’s debut album — “Maybe the Saddest Thing,” which was recorded in April 2015 and released last December — resists categorization. Mainville cites Sufjan Stevens, Katzenjammer and Django Reinhardt as key influences, and her latest record also features splashes of folk, baroque pop, alternative rock and ragtime. With so many flavors in the mix, Mainville has had to coin a new term to summarize her band’s specific genre (or lack thereof): “gypsy swing folk.”
Mainville and her band will bring their rollicking live show to the Blind Pig this Saturday and Cultivate Coffee and TapHouse in Ypsilanti on Sunday. I caught up with Mainville to talk about going solo, managing her own band, and playing most of the instruments on her latest record.
Q: You played in various other bands before playing your own songs live and eventually forming the Aquatic Troupe. When did you decide to take the leap to start focusing on your own original material?
A: I joined a couple of other bands, but it never filled up the time like I wanted it to. We didn't have that many shows with the bands I was in. I wasn't really like totally into the music. It was one of those things where you're joining it because you can, and because they want you. It's not necessarily because you're super passionate about it. Obviously everybody's going to be a lot more passionate about their own craft, or at least most people. So in this case I was more passionate about my own craft, and I decided to pursue it on a new level.
Q: What was the first instrument you learned to play?
A: I started playing music in the fifth grade. I picked up the viola in orchestra. Basically I did it because I wanted to look really cool. I wanted to be one of those cool kids holding a viola case [laughs]. None of the other elementary school kids got to do that, unless you were in orchestra. I was in orchestra for four or five years, and I switched to the upright bass in high school. And then eventually I picked up the mandolin, which is actually in the same key as a violin, so it wasn't too different. And then I traded my upright bass for a violin. Then I picked up a guitar.
Q: How do you describe the kind of music you play with your band?
A: I describe it as "confused” [laughs]. We're actually starting to get more of a defined genre, although it doesn't present itself too well in the music right now. We're more a swing, jazz, ragtime and surf party band, now more than ever. But we also have our old songs, which are maybe more indie rock oriented. We're definitely leaning more towards the whole swing vibe now.
Q: There are so many different styles of music on your most recent album. Is that all you, or do you open your songs up to influences from the other band members?
A: 90 percent of the record was my bandmate Andy [Fettig] and I. He did all the trumpet, flugelhorn, and I think he did some saxophone on there. And then we had Bleu, my trombone player, and at that time he wasn't really too much in the band so he only laid down a couple tracks. Other than that I did all the strings, the accordions, the guitars, and the vocals.
Q: That's surprising, because the record has such a full, immediate sound, like a full band in a room locked into a groove. Can you tell me more about the process of making the record, where you recorded it, and how long it took to put it all together?
A: Before we started to record, I had kind of a different band. We had one different member, and we were only playing as a three-piece. We got together, chose the songs we were going to play, and we got together 10 days before we went into the studio and we rehearsed the all songs every day, added parts, and figured out all the other stuff so we could have a successful recording session without wasting any time.
We recorded it over the course of four days, but we had some problems with our drummer so we had to kick him out of the band. We re-did a lot of the drum tracks. We actually got it done last year in April, but we kept going back, which postponed it until about December. We kept adding things to it, and we kept finding things we didn't like and wanted to make different. We kept going back into the studio.
Q: Gerry Leonard, David Bowie's former musical director and lead guitarist, plays on the record. How did that come together?
A: I watched him a long time ago with Suzanne Vega, and I had talked to him a couple times as well and he was a really nice guy. I emailed him and I asked him if he would record on a track of ours. We decided that we wanted to make it an 11-track album, so I recorded the song "I Need Time" specifically for Gerry Leonard. I needed to write a song that worked with his style, and it was a great success. We actually just sent him the stem cells. He took it, recorded it, and it came back perfect.
Q: What else are you juggling in addition to your musical career? Do you have a day job? Are you in school?
A: I do a lot of yard work [laughs]. I also take lessons. I'm taking guitar lessons right now, and I'm about to take vocal lessons, because you can never stop learning. I'm also the booking agent for my band, so I book all the gigs. We're not run under any management, so all the money stuff and whatnot is all up to me. I book, I order the merch, I pay for the recording sessions, all that other stuff.
Q: That's impressive. Was there anybody who helped you along and showed you the ropes for how to do all of this yourself?
A: When I was 17 I got invited to go on a little tour with a band called The Accidentals. I played as their merch girl and roadie, so I helped them pack up, I help them load in, I sold their merch, and all that. I learned from them for a while and then I got invited to live with them for a summer and play a bunch of shows and stuff. Their manager Amber showed me the ropes and told me how to pretty much run a business. Everything was pretty strict and serious, which is what it should be, and I learned a lot. It definitely played into how I run things now.
Q: Are there any plans to take your band outside of Michigan or the Midwest in the near future?
A: Just a month ago we went out on an East Coast tour. We went to Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and a lot of other places. We're going to Wisconsin this summer, and we have two tours in September. We have a Southern tour, and we have a West Coast tour. We'll be hitting up Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, and we're going to try New Orleans. And then we're going to to the West Coast, so we're going to hit up Colorado, Iowa, all those places.
Q: What's it like performing outside of the safety net of your home state, away from your friends and family and the local musical community? Is that intimidating?
A: If I think about it too much it seems a little intimidating. It's always different. You never have the same crowd for any show. It's always interesting. You definitely play some not-so-great shows when you're out on tour, but we've also played some pretty nice ones where we had a really good response from people. But you get those ones where you get three or four people show up [laughs]. Every band has to go with that, unless you're super famous.
Q: What do you see in the future for your band? Do you have any kind of plan for where you want to take your sound, or how you might approach your next batch of songs?
A: We're definitely more for a rowdy crowd. In the future I would love to play to a lot bigger crowds, jazzy themed bars, stuff like that.
We're actually writing new songs now. We have four new tunes we're working on recording. We already have two down. We want to come out with another 10 song album, hopefully before December. We want to work with a guy named Adam [Schreiber] from Jack & the Bear. He does a very cool style of recording, very old sounding. It kind of works with the new genre we're going with. We already have one of our songs recorded. We're waiting for it to get mastered, and we'll release it out to the public.
Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
Olivia Mainville & the Aquatic Troupe play the Blind Pig on Saturday May 14, supported by Sedgewick, Jason Dennie, and Nadim Azzman. Doors are at 9 p.m. The Blind Pig is located at 208 N. First St. The show is 18 and up, and tickets are $8 in advance and $10 at the door.
The band will also open for Sedgewick at Cultivate Coffee and TapHouse on Sunday, May 15. Cultivate is located at 307 N. River in Ypsilanti. There is no cover, and the show will run from 5-8 p.m.
Last Wednesday, singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo took to The Ark's stage, joined by his longtime cellist Brian Standefer and keyboardist/harmony singer Sean Giddings as the Alejandro Escovedo Trio. The trio’s performance was part of an ongoing tour to promote the vinyl reissues of his first two albums, 1992’s Gravity and 1994’s Thirteen Years, which were released on Record Store Day last month.
Escovedo likes sharing stories with his audience during his shows, and this show was no exception. He gave a shout-out to his early producer, Chuck Prophet, who he met while working at Waterloo Records and who shepherded him into the Austin music scene. He also shared the story of his young wife’s suicide many years ago, leaving him behind with two young children.
Then he opened the show with a plucky rendition of "Five Hearts Breaking." The cello brought a heartbeat-like sound to the music as a fine alternative to percussion. Next, they performed with rocking fervor Tom Waits’ "Bottom of the World." Jamming to the dark lyrics of "Sally was a Cop;" the singer said it “goes out to Trump”, to which the audience cheered. The poignant ballad, "Rosalie," Escovedo sang about the longing of two lovers separated by thousands of miles. This is a story Escovedo often shares; the two young almost-lovers meet while Rosalie is visiting her aunt in California and the young man so taken by her that he writes her letters everyday for years until they are able to be together again.
Next, they performed "Chelsea Hotel ’78" conjuring punky sounds and images from the Real Animal album released in 2008. The singer mentioned his earlier band, Rank and File which he aptly described as a George Jones & Clash mash-up.
At one point the singer said he was going to make “some Detroit-style noise” and started on some familiar notes to The Stooges’ “Wanna Be Your Dog”...but it was just a tease. Upon playing Sister Lost Soul, Escovedo spoke of the recent losses of David Bowie, Merle Haggard, and Prince. Sheila Escovedo, aka Sheila E., is the performer’s niece, so the loss of Prince was a personal family one.
Escovedo performed 11 songs total with one encore: the rocking "Castanets." To top it all off, he told the backstory of that tune, divulging who it was that he "likes better when she walks away." The night was full of rocking music and great stories and, despite a fairly mellow audience, both Escovedo and his special guest Lucette couldn’t say enough great things about the gem that is the Ark in Ann Arbor.
Beth Manuel is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library and one of her favorite Alejandro songs is Velvet Guitar.
Internationally acclaimed jazz guitarist, composer, and arranger Randy Napoleon will appear at the Kerrytown Concert House on May 15 to play from his new CD Soon, released recently by the Detroit Music Factory. Napoleon, a professor of jazz at Michigan State University, will appear with Rodney Whitaker on bass and Keith Hall on drums.
Washington Post critic Mike Joyce has praised Napoleon’s “exceptionally nimble finger-style [guitar] technique,” and Detroit Free Press critic Mark Stryker cites his “gently, purring tone that makes you lean in close to hear its range of color and articulation.”
A graduate of the U-M School of Music, Theatre and Dance, Napoleon is well-known on the New York jazz scene and has performed and recorded with Freddy Cole, Michael Bublé, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, and Benny Green.
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
The Randy Napoleon Trio appears at the Kerrytown Concert House, 415 North Fourth Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI, on Sunday, May 15, 2016 at 4 pm. Call 734-769-2999 for more information, or visit the Kerrytown Concert House website to make reservations.
The easy sound byte about the Ragbirds’ new album, The Threshold and the Hearth, is that it’s the Ann Arbor folk band’s first release since band cofounders Erin Zindle and Randall Moore had their first child. One might expect more than a couple dewy-eyed reflections on new parenthood, if not an album full of them, but the Ragbirds seem to have their eyes set on bigger things. Structured as a loose concept album about the ups and downs of a fictional couple’s relationship, The Threshold and the Hearth is certainly informed by a newfound sense of wisdom and maturity, but it’s not obsessed with the personal particulars of Zindle and Moore’s very recently changed lives.
In fact, if you’re going to read anything too personal into the album, Zindle kicks things off by asserting her status as an inveterate musician, unchanged by the years. “I was born in a lemon grove with a fiddle / Not a stitch of clothes,” she sings in opening track “Lemon Grove,” naturally backed by a jaunty and immediately catchy plucked fiddle riff. The track builds beautifully, eventually incorporating a rollicking drumbeat, harmonies, and a fiddle solo. For those who know the band, the tune is classic Ragbirds: upbeat folk, in the sense that it features some acoustic, traditionally Appalachian instrumentation and because the music industry requires an easy genre tag for the sound. But otherwise it’s the wholly unique product of Zindle’s world-spanning blend of musical influences and her pop sensibility for a great hook.
Zindle stretches that sound even more as The Threshold and the Hearth goes on. “Cosmos,” with its charming lyric setting up the album’s central relationship between “a cosmologist and a cosmetologist drinking cosmos at the club,” has a funky little guitar and bass riff. “The Curse of Finger Pointing” makes lovely use of kalimba and some African-inspired percussion for a sound straight out of the Paul Simon playbook. And on “Strange Weather” Zindle quietly pours her heart out over a minor-key piano ballad.
This mélange of sounds highlights Zindle’s adaptability and adventurousness as a songwriter, and her lyrics display similar range. Over their decade in action, the Ragbirds have made their name on being mostly a feel-good kind of band, but Zindle contextualizes that positivity more on The Threshold and the Hearth. In “Good Time To Be Born,” Zindle crafts a nicely detailed interaction between a cynical man and a harried young woman in line at a grocery store checkout lane. With empathy for both her characters, she admits “There is always peace, there is always war” while asserting that “Today is a good time to be born / Today is a good time to begin.” And on “Sometimes Honestly” she sings, “I believe in optimism / Secretly I still expect the worst.”
The album’s most downbeat cut, the beautiful “Strange Weather,” chronicles the low point in the record’s central relationship. But even amongst doom-laden imagery, Zindle conjures hope. “If I build a fire to melt the frost / If you stop the winds before they gust / We can save our love before it’s lost / Before we become just rubble and dust,” she sings. The tune ends on an unexpected major chord. While she may be positive-minded, Zindle’s certainly not wearing rose-colored glasses. Her songwriting here reflects a thoughtful adult perspective on love and life that uses hope as a weapon to cut through the rough stuff.
Beyond the band’s songcraft, musicianship on The Threshold and the Hearth is excellent as well. Zindle’s dusky voice is expressive and engaging as ever, although it’s impossible to ignore the equivalent personality she puts across through her fiddle work. Zindle’s brother T.J. is also a standout here, lending warm, occasionally jazz-inflected guitar licks to songs like “Tough Love” and “On Your Side.” Bassist Dan Jones subtly lends weight to a few of the fiddle riffs, harmonizing with Zindle, and Jon Brown and Moore fill out the sound with a versatile complement of percussion.
The Threshold and the Hearth garnered a newfound national distribution push from the Ragbirds’ signing with Rock Ridge Music, and the band enlisted the producing talents of Grammy-nominated R.E.M. and Ryan Adams collaborator Jamie Candiloro for the record. Those decisions seem to have paid off well for the band, as The Threshold and the Hearth debuted at No. 20 on Billboard’s folk chart. And rightfully so. It’s a pleasure to see this band growing up and just getting better, stronger, and smarter with age.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He also believes in optimism, but secretly expects the worst.
The Threshold and the Hearth is now available in physical form at the Ragbirds’ online store and in digital form on major streaming services.