Hungry Hearts: Michigan Rattlers at Sonic Lunch
Raccoons, foxes, and hawks prey upon the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake.
But the Michigan Rattlers are most susceptible to being consumed by broken hearts, Bell's Two-Hearted, and the eternal debate about where your heart truly belongs.
Comprised of Petoskey-raised childhood friends Graham Young (guitar) and Adam Reed (upright bass), along with more recent members Christian Wilder (keyboards) and Anthony Audia (drums), the Los Angeles-based Michigan Rattlers returned to the Sonic Lunch concert series on July 5 and played 13 originals plus a cover of Leonard Cohen's "On the Level."
Young and Reed performed as a duo at Sonic Lunch last year and their close-harmony Americana was immediately striking for its beauty and simplicity. But as a quartet, Michigan Rattlers brought a honky-tonk rock 'n' roll vibe to their acoustic-guitar-based compositions.
It's hard to quantify how much Young and Reed's symbiosis is due to their shared upbringing, but their voices mesh so expertly that they sound born to sing together. Young's powerful voice is resonant with a slight twang, adding the slightest rasp when he really leans into a lyric. Reed sings in a higher range with a clean, pure voice projected just off mic. The effect is akin to the close-harmony singing of classic-country dup The Louvin Brothers, but Young writes tunes closer in spirit to country-adjacent songwriters such as John Hiatt, Steve Earle, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell. Michigan Rattlers are road dogs, too, so Young and Reed are incredibly practiced at always sounding spot-on in concert, which was the case at this year's Sonic Lunch gig.
Among the set's 14 songs were all five from Michigan Rattlers' incredible 2016 self-titled EP. Despite playing "Last Week," "Strain of Cancer," "Brutus Road," "Illinois Sky," and "Sweet Diane" for what was likely the one billionth time, the songs still sounded fresh and crackled with enthusiasm. "Brutus Road" was especially amped, with its already quick tempo injected with a few extra BPM, but Young easily raced through lines such as "The stars ain't like I remember them / out Brutus Road in northwest Michigan / where the sky's a special kinda black / yeah, I wish that I was back there again."
There's always a strong sense of place in Michigan Rattlers songs, whether it's addressing the band's California surroundings ("Only rains a couple of days / and those days are here" Young sings on "Baseball") or looking back to the band's Midwest roots ("As much as we love this town / hell, it's always that way / you're bringing us right back down" he croons on "Illinois Sky," a tune inspired by Young's three-year stint in Chicago.)
Young's storytelling songwriting on "Strain of Cancer" is especially compelling ("Well, my lawyer walked in the room / and he said, 'Sit down, son, I ain't got good news / She's taking your kid away / and now you gotta pay'"), and on "Sweet Diane" he paints an intimate portrait of a man urging a woman to leave town with him even though they don't have anywhere to go ("You ain't gotta call me by name if you don't want to / just open up the door and we'll hit the road").
Save for the Cohen cover from the 2018 digital EP Wasting the Meeting, the rest of the Sonic Lunch set came from songs that will be on Michigan Rattlers' debut album, due at the end of September. The set began with "Just Good Night," the first single from the album, and closed with another new one, which references cold, dark, Michigan winters with the line "the sun's just passing through / like most people do."
Here's to hoping Michigan Rattlers pass through Ann Arbor again and again en route to northern Michigan -- or wherever their hearts take them.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.