Nadim Azzam has a lot on his plate. He’s launching a new "music-based, local-focused media company," writing new songs, and doing social media and marketing as part of his day job.
But he’s recently carved out some time to record a five-song EP with the band he’s been fronting in recent years. Even as his new music is adding more electronic elements, he wanted to honor and preserve the sound he’s become known for -- a smooth, seamless combination of acoustic pop and hip-hop.
Azzam makes the blend work perfectly, with a typical song offering up a catchy guitar hook and traditionally structured lyrics that slide directly into a rap break and then back again. He’ll showcase the sound -- and in particular, the songs on the new EP -- at a Blind Pig show on March 15. (CDs will be available at the show; the EP hits streaming services in April.)
Randy Tessier Explores New Sounds and Old With Solo EP
Area music fans know Randy Tessier first and foremost as the front man for the popular local band FUBAR, but he also works as a solo artist. Five years back he released a solo album called Hold Me Close, and now he’s following that up with a new six-song EP called Sugar Town.
The EP showcases Tessier’s love for a variety of musical styles, yet all feature his trademark gravelly vocals and guitar. “It’s Too Late” is a new take on old-school soul, complete with a horn section. “He Lifts Me Up” is bluesy rock, while the title song is catchy acoustic pop.
Tessier’s songwriting here is ambitious. “Texas Blues” paints a portrait of a young woman trying to escape, while “A Child Asked Me” is an anti-war song. “Incarceration: Marquette County Jail” includes the great line, “It’s not that I’m a spineless man / it’s just that I need help.”
Personnel varies from track to track, but primary contributors to the record include Chris Benjey, keyboards, producer; Geoff Michael, drum programming, engineer, and producer; Kim French, bass; and Don Kuhli, drums and woodblocks.
Tessier answered a few questions about the new record via email:
The local indie folk-rock band Little Traps brings sharp musicianship, an off-center outlook, and a distinctive sound with a banjo leading the way. Released late last year, their first full-length album, Can’t Count, is a welcome showcase of their work.
The band charms listeners with its warm, inviting sound, but underneath lies a somewhat more complex tone. “Uncertainty, ambivalence, and second-guessing are the bread and butter of my lyrics,” singer-songwriter-guitarist Nick Bertsos says.
In addition to Bertsos, the core band consists of singer-banjoist Annie Palmer and guitarist/pedal steel player Thomas Green. At various times other musicians help fill out the sound; on Can’t Count, Howard White plays bass and keyboards, while Ali Snyder plays drums. On New Tricks, a recently released EP of cover songs, Jessiah Hall is the drummer.
Bertsos answered a few questions recently via email:
The folk-music duo Gemini has been a vital part of the Ann Arbor music scene for more than 45 years.
Twin brothers San and Laz Slomovits started singing together with their cantor father in their native Hungary when they were very young and started learning instruments at age 7. They continued performing as the family moved to Israel and then the U.S., but things really took off after the brothers formed a folk duo post-college and then moved to Ann Arbor in 1973. For decades they’ve been known for their beautiful harmonies, multi-instrumental talents, and original songs, particularly for youth and family audiences, throughout Michigan and beyond.
Now, the twins are turning 70 and their music is still going strong. They’re planning a “140th Birthday Celebration” on Jan. 3 at The Ark, where the duo has performed countless times over the years. A number of special guests will join the brothers, and the concert will be recorded for possible release. Proceeds will benefit The Ark, where former leaders Dave and Linda Siglin and others have supported Gemini for decades.
“We literally can’t imagine what our music and career would have been like without them. This is a small gesture of gratitude on our part,” the brothers agreed. They answered a few questions about the concert and their career for Pulp.
Director Daniel Cantor finds a great deal of modern relevance in Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night, or What You Will. The nature of the human soul, the roots of romantic attraction, and the power of disguise are among its timeless themes, played out through a plot that involves a gender-bending love triangle.
Audra McDonald took her audience on a fascinating tour of American musical theater history Saturday at Hill Auditorium.
She incorporated songs she’s performed in stage productions, some classics from the genre, and some lesser-known gems, both old and new. It all worked together to make a compelling case for the enduring power of musical theater songs.
McDonald is one of our truly great current stage stars. She knows exactly how to connect with an audience on a personal level, and Saturday’s performance, sponsored by the University Musical Society, displayed her extraordinary abilities as a singer.
Her tone, range, and phrasing are all impressive, but equally effective is the way she inhabits each song, not just singing it but acting it as well. It makes sense, of course, given her accomplishments as an actor as well as a singer -- six Tony Awards, for starters.
The Rob Crozier Jazz Ensemble’s new recording, Ocean Blue, explores the theme of nature in general -- and water in particular -- in a variety of settings and styles. The nine original songs benefit from the support of a rock-solid band: primarily bassist Crozier on bass, Rafael Statin on horns, Keaton Royer on keyboards, Rob Avsharian on drums, and Aron Kaufman on percussion.
The follow-up to last year’s Tall Trees, the new album features Crozier’s compositions and the band’s skilled playing, which make for a powerful combination. The slightly mysterious quality of “Autumn Moon” does indeed evoke its namesake and would make a good soundtrack for Halloween. “Ocean Blue” is built around a sweet and somehow sad flute line courtesy of guest artist Kelly McDermott, Crozier’s wife. “Water Snakes” gives Crozier the chance to show his chops on, of all things, a didgeridoo.
While most of Ocean Blue is instrumental, the opening and closing tracks do feature vocals. On “Water,” Terry Jackson recites a poem that inspired the music. “Into the Gloaming” features a funky beat, atmospheric charming vocals from Emma McDermott, and a compelling bass solo.
On two occasions, the album departs from its nature theme. “Keaton’s Blues” sounds like it belongs in a smoky New York piano bar in the 1940s, highlighted by Royer’s swinging and shuffling piano. Meanwhile, “R Is For Richko,” with its sharp drumming and inventive sax solo, might have fit comfortably in that same bar a couple decades later.
Crozier took the time to answer a few questions about the new album in advance of a show on Friday, Nov. 16, at Kerrytown Concert House.
The offbeat, thoughtful, melodic, and often hilarious music of They Might Be Giants clearly suits a town like Ann Arbor, and the band seemed to treat Wednesday’s show as a bit of a homecoming.
“We are super excited to be back at the beautiful Michigan Theater, our home away from home here in Ann Arbor,” co-leader John Flansburgh said early in the show. “I’m a little disappointed that like nine-tenths of the used bookstores have closed.” After wondering aloud about a possible Wikipedia edit and noting someone in the audience would probably make the change before the night was out, he added, “I have a sneaking suspicion we are performing for some of the highest-SAT-scoring individuals among our fan base.”
The flattery was hardly necessary, as the adoring crowd was fully engaged for every note of the nearly three-hour show. Flansburgh and co-leader John Linnell have always made a great partnership, with complementary personalities and voices that blend in a perfectly geeky harmony.
It’s not easy to say goodbye to an old friend. Maybe that’s why the great Joan Baez is calling her final tour, which came to the Michigan Theater on Tuesday, “Fare Thee Well.”
If indeed that’s the last time Ann Arbor gets to see Baez in person, she left us with an evening full of terrific memories. She set a relaxed, friendly tone from the very start, when she strolled out on stage alone, with no introduction at all, drawing the first of several standing ovations.
Any apprehension about how she might sound at age 77 disappeared as soon as she began to sing. If her voice doesn’t quite have the crystalline edge it once did, it’s still a gorgeous, powerful force, full of warmth and depth. Accompanying herself on guitar, she fleshed out the sound with various combinations of a backup singer, a multi-instrumentalist, and a percussionist (who happens to be her son, Gabe).
Baez has a fine new album out, Whistle Down the Wind, and she played several songs from it Tuesday. The bulk of the show, however, leaned toward old favorites, to the delight of the sellout crowd.
It’s not unusual for well-known performers to speak to students at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Just last year, Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons both stopped at the school.
Alec Baldwin’s visit this week is a little extra special, however: He’ll take part in a full reading of Death of a Salesman that involves students, faculty, and members of the community, presented by the University Musical Society along with the SMTD.
UMS President Matthew VanBesien came to town from the New York Philharmonic, which has worked with Baldwin in the past. Word got around that Baldwin was interested in working with students, he heard that Salesman author Arthur Miller was a U-M graduate, and everything fell into place.
“We wanted to use a combination of faculty, students, and guest artists,” said Daniel Cantor, an associate professor of theater and drama who is directing the play. “All those things came together in this reading.”