I remember it; if you were a kid who grew up in Ann Arbor you do, too. The nights you spent in the hot summer air with cold lemonade, and the smell of the food trucks, the times you sat in the grass looking up at the sky, listening to bands on the main stage. It felt like a dream.
Top of the Park has been around now for 35 years and I've gone to it almost every year that I've lived in Ann Arbor. But this was the first time that I went alone to review a band. It's funny how being alone can sharpen your thinking and make you a keener observer.
By the time Chirp took the stage on June 30, the park had filled out. People stood or sat in chairs in front of the stage, while others sat in the grass or under the beer tent. Bassist Brian Long, guitarist-vocalist Jay Frydenlund, guitarist Ken Ball, and drummer John Gorine mix styles freely, touching on rock in their guitar work, jazz with the drum and bass solos, and soul through Frydenlund's voice.
After being introduced, Jazzmeia Horn came onto the Power Center stage on June 28 just as casual as she could be as she let us know she was new to town.
But the command performance of Betty Carter's "Tight" that followed showed Ann Arbor to be the only thing to which Horn was new.
Even though Top of the Park was entering its final weekend on Friday, the stage was still filled with infectious summer energy thanks to the music of Sumkali, The Ragbirds, and K. Jones and the Benzie Playboys.
All of these bands are based in Michigan, but their sounds are drawn from around the world.
Zach Lupetin fell in love with the Ann Arbor Summer Festival and its free, outdoor Top of the Park concerts during his time as a University of Michigan student. Wednesday evening, some 11 years after graduating, he returned as a performer, leading his LA-based acoustic band The Dustbowl Revival in a joyous, spirited set.
Recalling his U-M years, when he led an earlier local band called the The Midnight Special, he spoke of the community’s deep appreciation for live music. “People come together no matter what,” he said mid-show. “It’s an honor to play music here.”
The Dustbowl Revival made a name for itself more or less in the Americana genre, with some flavors of old-time jazz and western swing woven in. The band’s latest album expands its sound further, and Wednesday’s set started with a trio of songs -- the sexy “Call My Name,” the clever and danceable “Gonna Fix You,” and the intense “If You Could See Me Now -- that incorporated more elements of rock, soul, and funk.
When schizophrenic super-hero Moon Knight falls into one of many personalities, it's usually due to trauma or the intervention of Khonshu, the ancient Egyptian god of the moon, who also gave Marc Spector his powers.
When Ann Arbor's Tadd Mullinix creates or resurrects one of his numerous alter-egos, it's due to musical inspiration, not mental illness.
Whether as hip-hop producer Dabrye, EBM-techno savant Charles Manier, acid-house auteur James T. Cotton, or drum 'n' bass fiends SK-1 and the new X-Altera, Mullinix immerses himself in the persona and electronic-music genres attached to those names.
Whether it's with food, art, or music, fusion depends on a natural blending to be successful. Adding cayenne peppers to cherry ice cream just ain't gonna work.
But the music of Sumkali works perfectly, an expert blend of East and West, the ancient and the futuristic.
The Ann Arbor band's fourth album, Dha Re Dha, is a particularly good fusion of sounds and working methods. Recorded over a three-year period, the band says the LP falls into three categories:
1). arrangements of traditional Indian folk melodies, 2) Improvised studio sessions with minimal editing, and 3) Fully composed 'hyper-realistic' original studio creations that were built from the ground up in the studio track by track.
In addition to Sumkali's core members -- John Churchville (tabla), Bidisha Ghosh (vocals), Dan Ripke (guitar), Rich Rickman (bass), Anoop Gopal (violin), and Will Ciccola (sax/flute) -- Dha Re Dha features 15 guest musicians, including tabla giant Pandit Samar Saha and local legend Peter "Madcat" Ruth on harmonica.
Sumkali has honed it sound through monthly gigs at Indian Music Night in Crazy Wisdom's tea room, but those shows focus more on traditional materials. Dha Re Dha extends the band's sound by adding studio manipulation to the mix, allowing Sumkali to turn traditional Indian music into a modern mash-up without ever killing the original roots of inspiration.
It's a legit tasty fusion.
I emailed with Churchville to discuss Dha Re Dha.
Los Gatos have kept the Latin music flame burning in Ann Arbor for some 20 years, with essentially the same lineup most of the time. But there have certainly been some changes along the way.
For one, the band has outlasted two of its important homes for regular gigs, the now-defunct Bird of Paradise and the Firefly Club. It’s also undergone a shift in musical styles: Originally conceived as a purely Latin jazz ensemble, in later years the band has found itself getting deeper into salsa.
In fact, the Los Gatos recently released a new album, Guarachéate! -- its third ever, and first since 2007 -- that focuses primarily on the band’s salsa side. It’s a great snapshot of the band’s current sound and it displays their reverence for the music, their instrumental skills, and their joy in sharing what they love.
“I don’t think we could have predicted the band would last this long,” says pianist Brian DiBlassio, recently reflecting on their history.
You know you're onto something unique when you can count both Deepak Chopra and Snoop Dogg as fans.
The Black Opera, an alternative hip-hop group formed in 2011 in the Ann Arbor area, performed at Top of the Park on Tuesday, and from the moment the duo took the stage they had the crowd on their feet dancing, laughing, and enjoying the hard-hitting beats from the gritty group. The Black Opera was happy to be home and MCs Magestik Legend and Jamall Bufford showed it in each enthusiastic rhyme.
Dubbing itself “rap’s first performance art group,” The Black Opera began its set wearing striking white masks and proceeded to change portions of their outfits after each song to add new vibes and visuals. Videos played behind them with imagery ranging from the decorated streets of Detroit during the song “Beautiful City" to the Flint water crisis, and messages like “We Are One” and “Forever We Rebel” were splashed across the screen multiple times as a recurring theme of activism.
Nobody sings like Brandi Carlile.
Her voice has so much power and force it’s like something shot out of a cannon -- except that there’s subtlety there, too, and nuance, and many different shades of feeling.
At her June 9 show at the Michigan Theater show, co-hosted by The Ark, Carlile played to an ecstatic, sold-out audience, showcasing the power of her voice and the force of her backing band.
From her first album (Brandi Carlile) to her most recent (By the Way, I Forgive You), Carlile’s songs have reckoned with late nights, stiff drinks, and love affairs gone wrong -- or, occasionally, right. But in Ann Arbor, Carlile explored a different side of herself, a more grown-up side. If there was a theme to the show, it was parenthood.
Fuzz Fest lets the music do the talking.
I don't just mean the harmonious racket that'll be created by 33 bands performing nearly 18 hours of jams on June 21-23 at The Blind Pig for the fifth edition of this annual event. Well, I do mean that, but because Fuzz Fest has two performance areas in the club -- one on the main stage and one on the floor -- there are no breaks between the bands' 30-minute sets, which means no time for extraneous jibber-jabber.
It's just CONSTANT ROCK ACTION.
Chris "Box" Taylor, the primary person behind this sonic endurance event, is also content to let the music do the talking. When I asked him to name the most memorable things from Fuzz Fests past, Taylor got straight to the point: