Trumpeter Dave Douglas prepared to play his mom’s funeral by arranging the hand-picked hymns and Bible verses she wrote down on a scrap of paper and gave to him.
“I didn’t do too much to them,” Douglas said, whose jazz can edge toward the avant-garde at times. “I thought these are pretty straight-ahead renditions of these hymns.”
Douglas’ Brass Ecstasy band -- with the New Orleans-type front line of trumpet, French horn, trombone, and tuba, plus drums -- was the group he picked to play his mother’s chosen hymns at the funeral, with the sung verses handled by the church’s congregation.
“We got to the service and we go through the first chorus,” Douglas said, “and I turned around to hand it to the congregation and they’re all just looking at me like, ‘Whaaat?’ It was way over their heads. We had to totally adapt and have the [church’s] organ player come help out.”
He laughs about the event now, but that was a tumultuous period for Douglas.
When we think of storytellers, we think of "olden times," before electricity, even before paper. The oral tradition is like an ancient audiobook -- but pre-dating actual books.
But Steve Daut and the Ann Arbor Storytellers' Guild beg to differ. For the past 25 years, this group has met monthly -- most recently at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tearoom -- to engage in the still au courant art of reciting verbal tales that run the gamut, from funny to high falutin'.
"For instance, at the last Crazy Wisdom event we had three personal stories, one traditional Russian folk tale, and one literary story from Mark Twain," Daut said. "Three of the stories were very funny, one was thought-provoking, and the other was just a warm and human tale. If you come to a regular Guild meeting, you can just listen or try your hand at telling, and everyone will be very supportive with tips and suggestions if you request it."
But as a solo artist, Porter plays her own compositions, which are thoroughly contemporary because of the creative arrangments.
The U-M grad composes the songs and arrangements with notation software, so even though her classically steeped art-pop sounds loose and jammed with details, it doesn't happen through randomness. The woozy blend of strings, piano, wind chimes, marimba, vibraphone, harp, woodwinds, and more are carefully plotted out with specific players in mind.
Porter's first album, 2012's The Child Wrote a Poem, is written like a 15-chapter book set to music. Her latest, 2016's The Summer Sinks, is a song cycle about hurt and redemption, and the music is even more fragmented and quirky than the sounds on her debut. But Porter's flexible voice, which can sound as delicate as a bird outside your window or as ferocious as a crow cawing on your shoulder, shapes the songs through elastic Joni Mitchell-like melodies and her smart, raw lyrics keep your ears attuned to the tune.
With a bachelor in music composition and a minor in creative writing, Porter combines the two disciplines with excellent results. But she's also a visual artist, hand drawing her brand new video, "II," the second promo clip in support of The Summer Sinks.
Now splitting time between her native California and Ann Arbor, Porter talked to us about her solo work, compositional process, the "II" video, and what's on tap for Ensoleil.
The Ann Arbor District Library's Westgate branch is filled with new things. After all, it just reopened in September 2016 after a massive expansion and remodel.
But even newer than the computers, coffee shop, and shiny shiny bathrooms are three large paintings by Ann Arbor native Ben Cowan. The video above gives you a guided tour of Cowan's paintings. We also interviewed the artist about growing up in Ann Arbor, his influences, and how he came to create the works from his Neighborhood Views series, which have ended up finding permanent homes in the library.
History is a mystery, even when you have direct access to media coverage of an event.
The first Ann Arbor Folk Festival was held June 13, 1976, headlined by John Prine and Leon Redbone. The show was hosted by the Power Center and, as always, it was to benefit The Ark, which was just 11 years old at that point and still in its original location, a house at 1421 Hill St.
Doug Fulton’s June 14, 1976, Ann Arbor News review of that first fest really only covers the early part of the evening -- newspaper print deadlines, you know -- and Prine and Redbone are mentioned with no commentary.
But Fulton did write a sentence that would reappear -- in slightly altered forms -- through much of The Ark’s existence: “The occasion was a benefit for the Ark, one of the few remaining 'coffee-houses' in the country still specializing in folk music of all kinds, and lately in financial trouble.”
In fact, The Ark could have just changed its name to Financial Trouble since the venue was constantly in jeopardy through the mid-'80s until this 1986 article declared otherwise: "The Ark No Longer Needs The Festival To Stay Afloat".
Since that first festival, and two moves later, The Ark is one of the most respected and well-oiled folk- and roots-music concert venues in the country, though the nonprofit still counts on the Ann Arbor Folk Festival for part of its operating revenue. This year’s edition, held January 27 and 28 at Hill Auditorium, has one of the festival’s biggest lineups yet, featuring headliners Kacey Musgraves and Jenny Lewis on Friday and the Indigo Girls, Margo Price, and Kiefer Sutherland (yes, him) on Saturday. (If you're somehow still undecided about going, The Ark has also compiled playlists for night one and night two of the fest.
But if the festival started in 1976, why is this weekend’s celebration its 40th, instead of the 42nd?
Fred Thomas is like a library. The Ann Arbor-raised musician has lent his talents to approximately one billion recordings, from his own to his friends' and the many bands who have hired him to produce their records.
When the Montreal-based artist lived in Tree Town, the Ann Arbor District Library frequently lent Thomas assets from its Music Tools collection when he recorded his numerous solo records or those of his various bands, including Saturday Looks Good to Me and Hydropark.
So, when Pulp and the Music Tools crew decided to record musicians performing with instruments from the collection, Thomas was the perfect person to launch the video series: Tools Crew Live.
Thomas was back in Ann Arbor over the winter break, and on December 15, 2016, he came to the library’s Secret Lab makerspace and recorded “Echolocation” (from his new record, Changer) and “Cops Don’t Care Pt. II" (from 2015’s All Are Saved), using six instruments from the collection, including synths, effects pedals, and a guitar.
We also interviewed Thomas about his instrument choices and his amazing new album. Changer combines all the elements of Thomas' past work -- raw emotional insights, indie-rock stompers, and electronic evocations -- and manages to be the most personal and cohesive record of his long and creative career.
The leader of the Kelly Jean Caldwell Band is constantly juggling creative endeavors, be it leading the alt-country band behind her name, playing in the occult-metal group The Wiccans, or raising two little ones.
“My kids are going crazy right now,” Caldwell wrote in an email to Pulp. “I have a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old and they are freaks.”
Caldwell was fending off the kids while answering questions to preview her concert at the Elks Pratt Lodge in Ann Arbor on Friday, January 27. Her third album, Downriver, was recorded six years ago, but it finally came out late last year on The Outer Limits Lounge, a new label run by her husband, John Szymanski (vocalist Johnny Hentch from long-running garage-rockers The Hentchmen).
The album’s delay was due to a number of reasons, not the least of which is Caldwell and band bassist Brian Blair divorced, then she got remarried to Szymanski, with whom she has the two rugrats who helped her with this interview. After a break that allowed Caldwell to focus on family life, she eventually called up her old bandmates -- including her ex -- and the Kelly Jean Caldwell Band was born again.
On the surface, Downriver’s music sounds familiar enough to label it alt-country, but underneath the twangs are dark and humorous lyrics delivered by Caldwell’s powerful voice. She brings real personality and presence to the songs, elevating them above their rootsy origins. The tunes were written when former Ann Arborite Caldwell was living downriver with Blair, and the album is a chronicle of their time together and the eventual dissolution of their marriage.
SINGING THE BLUES AGAIN: "Ann Arbor has an incredibly rich history and tradition when it comes to the blues," James Partridge told MLive -- and he's right, from the Blind Pig's regular booking of big names in its early years to the establishment of the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969. Partridge's new nonprofit, the Ann Arbor Blues Society, is trying to continue A2's blues tradition by bringing the music to senior centers, schools, and local venues, but its long-term goal is downright grand: to revive the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, which was last held in 2006. (➤ MLive)
FOR THE BIRDS: U-M adjunct Keith Taylor and Ann Arbor artist Tom Pohrt have teamed up for a new book of poems and illustrations that meditate on nature. The 49 poems that comprise The Bird-while, which is part of Wayne State University's Made in Michigan Writers Series, is Taylor's 16th collection of verse, though not his first to explore the natural world. Nature has always been an important part of Taylor's work; check out "The Day After an Ice Storm." Literati will host the book launch for The Bird-while on Friday, January 27 at 7 p.m. (➤ Wayne State University Press)
200 CENTS OF SENSE: This year’s Washtenaw Reads book selection is $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. The authors are coming to Rackham Auditorium on Tuesday, February 7, and the Ann Arbor District Library is hosting several events related to the book. Get the full scoop here: (➤ AADL)
Christopher Porter is a Library Technician and editor of Pulp.
YES, ’MO: It’s been 7 years since the Ann Arbor-formed band Nomo released its last album, Invisible Cities (Ubiquity Records), but a few photos posted to the avant-Afro-gamelan-funk band’s Facebook page in August indicate a new record’s been made. We reached out to the band for info on when it might be released and haven’t heard back, but perhaps all secrets will be revealed when Nomo plays the Blind Pig on Saturday, January 21. And even though Nomo has been quiet for a long while, the band's core nine musicians have kept busy. Most prominently, saxophonist-leader Elliot Bergman moved to Chicago and released two pop-dub albums as Wild Belle (which includes his sister, Natalie) and formed the experimental Metal Tongues, whose sound is built on his hand-made kalimbas with synths and drums. Meanwhile, trumpeter Justin Walter has released a number of recordings under his own name, including the great 2013 LP Lullabies & Nightmares (Kranky), and saxophonist Dan Bennett leads his own jazz groups. (➤ Blind Pig event) (➤ Nomo)
NEW KICKS: When a musician gets asked to compile a mix for the DJ-Kicks series, it’s like a baseball player making the All-Star Game. Since 1993, the German !K7 label has had some of the world’s biggest electronic music artists, including Carl Craig, Hot Chip, Actress, and 54 others create DJ-set albums -- ones that still sell really well even though virtually every music website offers approximately 273,000 mixes to download for free.
Now it’s Matthew Dear’s turn to boot-up a mix, and the Ann Arbor artist and co-founder of Ghostly International is celebrating his DJ-Kicks album with a party at the Blind Pig on Friday, January 20. (UPDATE: Fellow Ghostly star Shigeto has been added to the gig.)
Dear will be DJing and dropping cuts from the 57th DJ-Kicks comp, which includes his new song, “Wrong With Us,” plus 24 more jams from the likes of Simian Mobile Disco, Pearson Sound, and Audion (aka Dear’s more dance-oriented alter ego).
Not familiar with Ghostly International or its sister label, Spectral Sound? If you’re an Ann Arbor District Library card holder, you can download almost everything the labels have released, free of charge, including many Dear and Audion classics. (➤ !K7) (➤ Blind Pig) (➤ AADL’s Ghostly/Spectral collection)