While interviewing Ann Arbor Summer Festival director Amy Nesbitt a few weeks ago, this Pulp correspondent was a bit surprised that Nesbitt designated the Romanian brass band Fanfare Ciocărlia the number-one can't-miss event of this year's festival. In a lineup that included not only major stars like Bruce Hornsby and Bebel Gilberto, but also local powerhouses like Third Coast Kings and George Bedard, who were these Romanian guys exactly?
As it turns out, Fanfare Ciocărlia is known as one of the world's greatest modern purveyors of Balkan brass music, and the ensemble more than lived up to its hype in a blistering performance Thursday night. Seven of the band's 12 members took the stage alongside Canadian guitarist Adrian Raso (with whom Fanfare Ciocărlia collaborated on its most recent album) and Raso's own traditional three-piece rock band. Things got off to a slightly rocky start, as the entire 11-piece ensemble stood around onstage with positively dour expressions during a lengthy sound check.
But as soon as the sound crew finished setting up for the small musical army onstage, the ensemble wasted no time ripping into its first number. Uptempo, minor-key, and thoroughly danceable, the opening tune set the template for much of the repertoire Fanfare Ciocărlia tore through Thursday night–and the band scarcely even allowed the audience to applaud before leaping into its second number.
When the band finally paused for a moment's breath, Raso told the audience that the band would be journeying "deep into the Balkans" in a program entitled "Devil's Tale." But he promised tastes of other cultures as well, and Fanfare Ciocărlia delivered throughout a 70-minute set. The brass instruments left the stage at one point while Raso and his group performed a lively Italian tarantella. Later, the full band performed a Django Reinhardt-inspired gypsy jazz tune entitled "Eric the Baker" (named after a bakery in Raso's hometown of Guelph, Ontario). The most surprising diversion came when the band played "Devil's Tale," a stomping American country-inflected tune, which Raso dedicated to Elvis Presley's recently deceased guitarist Scotty Moore.
Raso led the audience through the night with gentle, humorous banter and astonishingly versatile guitar work, executing breathtaking solos on classical and electric guitars while leapfrogging from musical style to musical style. Fanfare Ciocărlia distinguished themselves beautifully throughout, playing with energy and a knowing collaborative instinct born of their 20 years on the road together. The band blasted through dizzyingly uptempo horn riffs song after song, often ending tunes with a long, slightly dissonant, unresolved chord as they grinned widely to each other. Saxophonist Oprică Ivancea, a noted performer in his own right outside of Fanfare Ciocărlia, was a standout in the band both for technical prowess and physical presence, leaning back dramatically for one breathtaking solo late in the show. Trumpeter Costică Trifan was also an engaging figure onstage, singing several tunes and frequently inciting the audience to dance and sing along.
Throughout the show, one got a sense that Fanfare Ciocărlia very literally fed off its audience's energy. Although the band started things off with a bang, the energy onstage only increased over the course of the performance, in tandem with the energy on the dance floor. The bustling crowd was often just as entertaining to watch as the performers onstage. Strangers of all ages repeatedly formed line dances of up to 15 people. One couple tangoed almost incessantly, intensely eyeing each other with a blend of goofy humor and genuine adoration. Fanfare Ciocărlia put on an incredible show for Ann Arbor, and its audience responded in kind.
It would be deeply unfair to end this review without also noting the contributions of Fanfare Ciocărlia's unofficial opener Thursday night: Ann Arbor's own Balkan brass band, Rhyta Musik. Frontwoman and Trombonist Bethanni Grecynski warmly interacted with the audience, explaining the historical background behind each song and singing into a bullhorn, while local man-of-many-bands Ross Huff provided particularly distinguished trumpet work. Rhyta Musik got the dance floor well warmed up for Fanfare Ciocărlia and proved that Ann Arbor can hold its own even against the Romanian kings of Balkan brass. Thursday's night of multicultural energy was indeed a standout for Summer Fest 2016, a night so beautiful as to prompt a pang of sadness that our community's go-to summer event has already nearly run its course for another year.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in Pulp, the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He would like to join a line dance with strangers, but remains too much of a scaredy cat for the time being.
When I was a kid, my dad and I watched every single episode of the Twilight Zone. My favorite episode was one called "A Stop at Willoughby." It was a simple tale of a harried ad man (because everyone was an ad man in the 1960s) who dreamed of a town called Willoughby that would be a retreat from his stressful, three-martini-lunch world. Instead, Willoughby would have a small downtown, a fishing pond, and space for an outdoor band concert.
"Wow," thought the young suburban girl who had never contemplated downtowns, fishing ponds, or outdoor band concerts. "I would love to live in a place like that!"
When I got to Ann Arbor, I found the downtown and the river almost immediately; however, seeing as how I came to town in winter, discovering the outdoor band took a little more time. Lucky for us all, the Ann Arbor Civic Band has been providing us with an outdoor summer concert series at West Park for over 80 years.
Conductor Bill Gourley leads the volunteer band members for five or six concerts every summer. There is a slight variation on the themes of the concerts, but there is always a children’s concert with a march of the teddy bears and a salute to the military around the Fourth of July. The 501(c)(3) organization is funded by membership dues, sponsorships, and donations.
This year, residents can wander down to West Park on Wednesday nights at 8 pm and enjoy a concert featuring music from movies such as Star Trek or Batman, a tribute to swing music, Broadway show tunes, and the beloved Children’s Concert (bring your bear!).
Being outside at the park and listening to live music is enchanting. People sit on blankets, chairs, or on the grass. Kids run around, dogs lie at the feet of their owners, and the music echoes off the band shell as fireflies light the paths. The fresh smell of the green grass under your feet tickles your nose. The sun might be in your eyes as it sets, but only for a minute. Then everything is lit in the glow of a perfect summer evening.
These are the nights I think of in mid-February, when everything seems to be dead or hibernating, when the trees are bare, when the snow has turned brown and mushy. When it seems like summer will never get here, and it has always been cold, I think of these magical nights and I am happy to live in my own version of Willoughby.
Patti Smith is a special education teacher who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and cats. She is the author of two books about Ann Arbor, the most recent is a history of the People’s Food Co-op. She wishes she had even an ounce of musical talent so that she could join the Civic Band! Visit her at www.PattiFSmith.com or @TeacherPatti on Twitter.
The Ann Arbor Civic Band performances continue at 8 pm, Wednesdays, July 6, 13, 20, and 27, at the West Park Band Shell in West Park, 7th Street.
Bruce Hornsby is still making beautiful noise. If you liked The Way It Is back in the 1980s, you’ll be amazed by what he’s done since then. His latest touring iteration as the group of jam/pop/jazz/grass/rock fusionists, Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers, and their just-released album Rehab Reunion, have me vibrating with anticipation for their appearance Thursday night at the Power Center on the University of Michigan campus.
In the 30 years since Hornsby owned the airwaves and was named Best New Artist at the 1986 Grammy Awards, the other “BRUUUCE!” has enriched and reinvented his music in a series of layers that can be studied like rock strata, each layer deepening the impact and artistry of his career.
The strata from bottom up:
• Take a rock-solid improvisational piano technique honed at Berklee College of Music, steeped in surprising jazz phrasing and syncopation.
• Throw in a banjo, perhaps Bela Fleck. Bring bluegrass themes to the fore, and then aft as pop/jazz bounds forward.
• Add some horns. Organ. Extra percussion. Mandolin. More banjo!
• Call up Jerry Garcia and sit in at keyboard for the Grateful Dead. Only 100 shows or so.
• Call up Ricky Skaggs and turn your most iconic top-40 songs into funky bluegrass improvisational explosions.
• Collaborate with the likes of Bob Weir, Don Henley, Sting, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Pat Metheny, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Trey Anastasio, Mickey Hart, Bob Dylan, Railroad Earth, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Bonnie Raitt to expand the repertoire. (Many sub-layers here!)
• Continue to tour and record off and on for the last 15 years as Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers while continuing to perform and record as another half-dozen personae.
Rehab Reunion is the band's fifth audio release (after their DVD debut Here Come the Noisemakers) and their first release in five years. The music business has turned upside down with the digital revolution, and artists now earn most of their keep on the road. That doesn’t obviate the recordings, which are mostly marvelous, (Hornsby has a habit of walking the improvisational wire without a net) but the real money is on tour.
I used to say that Bruce Hornsby got me through some dark musical times of the mid-80s and early 90s (along with Tom Petty, Huey Lewis and Don Henley), but in truth, Bruce’s multitude of musical styles and collaborations has carried me through every decade since.
Join us Thursday night to discover what stratum Bruce will draw from… likely, all of them.
Don Alles is a marketing consultant, journalist, house concert host and musical wannabee, living in and loving his adopted home, Ann Arbor.
Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers will perform Thursday, June 30 at 8pm at the Power Center. Tickets are $20 (students), $35, $40, $45, $50, $55. Visit http://a2sf.org/buy-tickets" or call (734) 764-2538.
All three floors of the Ann Arbor Art Center pulsed with energy Friday night for this summer's inaugural Pop-In event. While the center's programming is generally eclectic on the whole, the free Pop-In series presents a particularly diverse assortment of art and entertainment in a single night, suitable for all ages but particularly aimed at young adults. This Friday's event, curated by Charlie Reischl, was billed as a "digital takeover" of the art center with a variety of offerings related to electronic arts. While some attractions adhered to that theme more than others, the evening was nonetheless consistently stimulating and entertaining in unexpected ways.
Upon entering the art center, DJ Scout set the mood on the first floor with some laid-back electronic grooves. Ascending to the second floor, attendees were welcomed by members of Kickshaw Theatre, who were recruiting "test subjects" for a short theater piece entitled Technology, In the Flesh. The 15-minute play repeated numerous times throughout the night, as Dr. Tina Burglorgler (Alysia Kolascz) and her assistant Quatthew (Aral Gribble) led audiences through a series of comical "experiments" exploring the differences between our reactions to analog and digital stimuli. In the most entertaining bit, Burglorgler showed the audience several slapstick YouTube videos and then replicated them on Quatthew in some cannily executed bits of stage violence. The differences in audience reaction were striking, as attendees remained mostly straight-faced during the videos but laughed or gasped openly as Burglorgler slammed Quatthew's head into a table and whacked him in the crotch with a baseball bat. The show oversold its point a bit–real-life experiences are consistently more stimulating than digital ones. But it was an amusing, creative second effort from the extremely promising new Kickshaw company, which produced the extraordinary The Electric Baby earlier this year.
Moving up to the third floor, attendees had a wide variety of attractions to explore. Attendees could have a hands-on experience with new technology by experimenting with a sampling of instruments from AADL's music tools collection or with a Wacom digital drawing tablet (under the able guidance of cartoonist Jerzy Drozd). Wandering into an adjacent darkened room, visitors could also take in a variety of unique musical performances, like the improv duo and art project Efflux. Efflux percussionist Jon Taylor and keyboardist Simon Alexander-Adam riffed wildly on their respective instruments while a custom-built program responded to their music in real time with abstract digital images projected on several small cube-shaped screens. Between the duo's inventive improvisation and the hypnotic digital imagery, Efflux presented a surprisingly spellbinding experience.
The highlight of the evening, however, was a concluding musical performance by members of the unconventional international rap performance collective known as the Black Opera. Ann Arbor rapper Jamall Bufford and Detroit rapper Magestik Legend kicked things off with what they described as an "opening set" for the Black Opera, energetically encouraging audience participation throughout. The two departed the stage but then returned, clad in oversized masks, to perform as the Black Opera themselves. The duo blasted through an impassioned set of songs with topics ranging from police violence to overuse of social media to the Flint water crisis. Bufford and Legend changed costumes for each song, ranging from dashikis to ski masks, with striking music videos projected behind them. At the conclusion of their performance, the duo announced that they and their entire audience were now part of the Black Opera. While the audience seemed equally divided between those who were previously aware of the Black Opera and those who were initially puzzled by what they were seeing, by the show's end Bufford and Legend had thoroughly accomplished their goal: drawing the crowd into a kind of critical, but positive, musical social movement.
Pop-In will continue this summer with events on July 22 and August 5. The July event will feature an inversion of this past Friday's theme, with an emphasis on analog music, tools, and art. The August installment will split the difference, focusing on the intersection of technology and creativity in a partnership with the new conference Intermitten. If Friday's Pop-In is any indication, attendees of the two coming events are in for an eye-opening, thought-provoking, and thoroughly entertaining experience.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in Pulp, the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He would prefer that you neither slam his head into a table nor whack him in the crotch with a baseball bat, even if it would be funnier than watching a YouTube video.
Pop-In will continue this summer with events on July 22 and August 5.
"This is the best I've ever felt playing in Michigan," Josh Epstein beamed toward the end of JR JR's set at this Thursday's Sonic Lunch concert in front of Liberty Plaza. Epstein's comment came off far more heartfelt than your average stage banter, not least because he and his band have had plenty of Michigan shows to compare to. Before JR JR built a national fanbase and hit the Billboard charts, they were plain old Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. from Royal Oak. Epstein's statement also seemed to reflect the resolution of a more personal struggle, as he noted during the concert that he'd started taking anxiety medication since his last Sonic Lunch appearance. Whatever the case may have been, the upbeat indie-pop band accordingly delivered one of the best sets they've played in Michigan, with high energy flowing from onstage and off.
However, the show got off to an oddly lackluster start. JR JR was preceded by an opening solo set from Joe Hawley, best known as the red-tie-clad singer and guitarist of the popular and now defunct Ann Arbor band Tally Hall. Hawley cut a quirky appearance onstage, wearing round mirror sunglasses and bare feet–a reference, he said, to an early gig that Tally Hall played barefoot. The references to his former band didn't stop there, as Hawley meandered through several acoustic Tally Hall covers including "The Bidding," "Hymn for a Scarecrow" and "Variations On a Cloud." Repeatedly noting the "emotional" experience of returning to play in Ann Arbor, Hawley seemed scatterbrained, listlessly letting a few songs trail off midway through. As he fumbled to juggle a kazoo and a bullhorn with his guitar, even fans who'd shown up in Tally Hall T-shirts seemed perplexed.
Although an entire block of Liberty from Division to Fifth was closed for the show, the crowd mostly stayed on Liberty's southern sidewalk to watch Hawley's set. But that changed as soon as Hawley walked off, with the audience flooding into the street to stand at the edge of the stage on the northern side of Liberty. JR JR wasted no time taking the stage to deliver an immediate contrast in tone. Although three of JR JR's members (Epstein, co-frontman Daniel Zott and Bryan Pope) are often behind keyboards, the band's physical energy cannot be contained. Epstein, Zott and Pope writhe to the rhythm when they're on the keys and leap around the stage with almost total abandon when they switch over to guitars. Although drummer Mike Higgins is tied to his stool, he too projects an energy that suggests he'd pick up his kit and dance if he only could.
The band, who have been playing large theaters and major music festivals nationwide for some time now, seemed to enjoy the more intimate, loosey-goosey relationship Sonic Lunch allowed them with their audience. Epstein called up a volunteer from the crowd to hold a cigarette for him to smoke in between lines of the newer cut "James Dean," sarcastically explaining that doing so might help him in his vain quest to be cool.
The show hit its high point with an exuberant rendition of the irresistible "If You Didn't See Me (Then You Weren't On the Dancefloor)." Zott stood right on the edge of the stage to deliver the lead vocal, inciting the audience to dance and finally leaping into the crowd. Zott busted moves on the street with several thoroughly amused concertgoers before climbing back onstage to finish the tune.
The set offered a broad retrospective of JR JR's brief but busy career. The band kicked things off with a spirited rendition of "War Zone," from their 2013 sophomore LP The Speed of Things, and then jumped back to their 2010 EP Horse Power for longtime favorite "Simple Girl." The band's 2015 self-titled LP, the first to bear the new JR JR moniker, was also well represented with tracks including "Gone," "Caroline" and "Break My Fall." JR JR also reached way back for two popular early covers that have largely been retired in more recent years: the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" and Rodriguez's "I Think of You."
The show marked JR JR's first area performance since their appearance at Sterling Heights' Chill On the Hill festival last September. Epstein, who now lives in Los Angeles, also noted that this was the first time he'd spent a full month in Michigan in over a year. His current extended return is thanks to recording sessions for yet more new music, which the band suggested would be available before the year is out. Whenever JR JR wind up premiering the new tunes live on their home turf, we can only hope they'll be in as good a mood and deliver as much energy as they did at Sonic Lunch on June 23rd. That's going to be a tall order.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in Pulp, the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. If you didn't see him at Sonic Lunch, you weren't on the dance floor.
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.