Years ago in Lansing, a group of guys got together and formed a roots-music band that combined vintage sounds and modern sensibilities. Called Steppin’ In It, the band built up a devoted audience and critical respect in Michigan and beyond as its sound and its songs deepened and matured.
Now, the band itself has become somewhat vintage: Steppin’ In It is marking its 20th anniversary and doing a short concert tour to celebrate, including a May 20 date at The Ark.
In recent years, the band’s core members have established very successful individual careers. In particular, lead singer/guitarist Joshua Davis has become well known as a solo act, notably placing third in NBC’s singing competition The Voice and becoming the first contestant to sing an original composition on the show. Bassist Dominic John Davis, meanwhile, has worked extensively with rocker Jack White, among others. In fact, the members have become so busy individually that they no longer perform together as Steppin’ In It very often, so the current tour is highly anticipated by their still-loyal fan base.
Joshua Davis and Dominic John Davis recently answered a few questions from Pulp via email.
Michigan has impacted Jimmy Webb in some interesting ways -- especially given that he was born in Oklahoma, lived for many years in California, and now resides on Long Island.
The great songwriter and performer -- who plays solo at The Ark on Sunday, April 29 -- regularly visited the Ann Arbor area as a child. His father, a Baptist minister, took the family on trips here to see another minister when Jimmy was around ages 8-12, he said in a recent phone interview. “Every summer my dad got $100 out of the bank, and we’d pile into the Plymouth or whatever our family vehicle was, and we’d head for Michigan,” he recalled.
Later, as an adult, Webb returned to Michigan to buy a boat and start a memorable trip from Lake St. Clair through Lake Erie and ultimately down the Hudson River.
He is just so good. They are all just so good.
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder played The Ark on Saturday, March 3, for a concert to benefit the Breakfast at St. Andrews. And the sold-out crowd enjoyed an absolutely first-rate bluegrass show that transported the spirit of Kentucky fully intact to Ann Arbor.
The version of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess that will be performed at Hill Auditorium on Saturday, Feb. 17, won’t be tremendously different from other renditions familiar to audiences through the decades. But it will be the closest thing anyone’s heard in quite some time to the “folk opera” performed just the way its creators intended.
Saturday’s opera is part of the Gershwin Initiative -- a long-term partnership between the Gershwin family and the University of Michigan. Presented by the University Musical Society and the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the event will mark the public debut of a new, scholarly edition of the opera’s score. Morris Robinson as Porgy and Talise Trevigne as Bess lead the cast; the performance will also include the University Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Kiesler; the UMSMTD Chamber Choir, directed by Jerry Blackstone; and the Our Own Thing Chorale, directed by Willis Patterson.
There was a sense of things coming full circle Saturday at Hill Auditorium for the sold-out second night of the Ann Arbor Folk Festival.
There was Joe Pug, who first became known to Ann Arbor audiences via a well-received one-song cameo at the 2009 festival; since then, he’s become a very popular singer-songwriter and this year returned as the festival’s MC. (Pug will play The Ark on March 9.) There was Mountain Heart, the terrific young bluegrass band that has developed a special affinity for Ann Arbor, even recording a live album here in 2007. And most of all, there was John Prine, headlining the 41st edition of the festival just as he did the very first one back in 1976.
But that’s not to imply that the festival -- which is a fundraiser for Ann Arbor musical institution The Ark -- is stuck in the past. On the contrary, Saturday proved again just how vital, vibrant, and compelling roots-based music can be in 2018 and beyond.
Local Americana band Corndaddy celebrated its 20th anniversary at The Ark on Thursday in a birthday party that perfectly showcased some of the reasons for its longevity.
The well-paced show highlighted the different sides of the band’s musical personality, starting with a rock-oriented set, followed by a more country-flavored interlude; a purely acoustic, no-drums set; and a fitting finale wrapping everything together. Old songs met new songs, dedications were made, and tributes were paid. And the band sounded great throughout.
A well-done opening set from another longtime local favorite, Paul’s Big Radio, perfectly set the stage for the headliners -- partly because talented bass player Jerry Hancock anchors the sound of both bands.
Growing up, Erin Zindle -- leader of the Ann Arbor global-roots band The Ragbirds -- loved her extended family’s Christmas Eve gatherings. Her “very large and very musical family” would traditionally gather to perform Christmas songs together. “It was my favorite thing all year round. Honestly, it was better than the presents,” she says. “I was known for making everyone sing all seven verses of everything. I didn’t want it to end.” That’s the spirit she and her fellow musicians will re-create at the annual Ebird and Friends Holiday Show at The Ark Dec. 7-9. “It was just a real natural extension of that childhood experience,” Zindle says. And indeed, the holiday concert has become a tradition all its own, now marking its 10th year.
Thanksgiving is all about traditions. And over the last couple of decades, one tradition that has taken root in Ann Arbor is Matt Watroba’s Day-After-Thanksgiving Concert at The Ark.
The well-known Michigan performer, songwriter, and radio host isn’t exactly sure how long he’s been doing the concert on the day after the holiday, but he estimates it’s been about 25 years. It’s become his most popular annual gig, and he knows some families incorporate it into their regular holiday plans.
“It has taken on a real community feel,” he says. “People are actually making it a tradition.”
While the annual show often features some guest performers, this year’s edition will likely be something closer to a solo show -- although he notes, “There’s always the possibility of surprise guests popping in.”
Watroba’s wife, Kim, will sing with him for part of the concert. “It’s awfully fun to sing love songs on stage with someone you actually love,” he says.
Since the audience typically includes some longtime fans, Watroba will try to include some material from all his past albums. And he’ll definitely include a “community sings” component, something that has become a major focus for him in recent years.
The community sings movement encourages regular gatherings of people to sing as a group, regardless of musical ability. Watroba’s involvement began when he conducted a radio interview with folk music icon Pete Seeger, the dean of the movement, aged 89 at the time. At the close of a long, accomplished career in music and social activism, Seeger told Watroba his most important work was getting people to sing for themselves.
“That just astounded me,” Watroba recalls. So, a couple years later, “Living in a country that seems to be more polarized than ever, I got the notion that it was time to take up Pete’s invitation.” He now leads some regular community sings across the region, and he also spends time spreading the word and teaching others how to lead them.
Community sings can include classic folk songs as well as newer songs that can be easily taught. The type of song doesn’t matter; the act of singing together is what’s important. “Everybody leaves feeling better than when they got there,” Watroba says.
Although he’s well known throughout the region as a performer -- both on his own and in partnership with Robert Jones, with whom he’s also creating a new nonprofit called Common Chords -- many fans first came to know Watroba via radio. For more than 20 years, he hosted the Folks Like Us show, primarily on WDET, playing a wide range of acoustic-based music.
Just last month, he returned to the Michigan airwaves: Folk With Matt Watroba now airs 6-8 p.m. Sundays on WKAR in East Lansing, and it can be streamed online at wkar.org.
“It’s really been heartwarming,” Watroba says of the reception to the show. “WKAR has just bent over backward to make it happen.”
He’s committed to always featuring some Michigan artists on the show, and he also includes a calendar of folk music events around the region -- both of which were important features of Folks Like Us. He notes with a chuckle, “That old show had an effect on a lot of people.”
Bob Needham is a freelance writer; the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com.
Matt Watroba plays The Ark, 316 S. Main St., at 8 pm on Friday, Nov. 24. Tickets are $20/$27; a dinner-show combination is also available in conjunction with Conor O’Neill’s for $30/$37. Visit theark.org for tickets and more info.
The Ann Arbor Concert Band holds a special place among the area’s musical groups. Following the classic concert-band tradition, it’s an ensemble consisting almost entirely of wind instruments.
So as the band prepares to open its new season at the Michigan Theater on Sunday, the theme for the concert may seem a bit surprising: a selection of opera works, which we’re accustomed to hearing performed by singers with an orchestra.
“I chose this theme because it's rarely done by concert bands, and it's a nice contrast to a typical program that has only marches and Broadway medleys,” says James Nissen. “My job as conductor is to expose the audience to the vast wind ensemble repertoire, and there are so many great opera overtures that translate well for wind instruments. Also, there are so many instances where a composer wrote an opera that was soon long forgotten, but its overture survived as a masterpiece. I don't want these overtures to be forgotten!”
Alvin is best known as a core member of the roots-rock band The Blasters, often considered part of the 1980s Los Angeles punk scene. Gilmore is a Texas troubadour who helped start the alt-country/Americana movement as a member of The Flatlanders. But the two came of age loving the same kinds of authentic folk and blues music -- and today, they’re both comfortable working in a laid-back singer-songwriter format.
In fact, they’ve been friends for more than 30 years. So when Alvin suggested the two start doing some shows together -- including on at The Ark on Oct. 30 -- it seemed like a natural pairing.