The weather, the vibe, and the music all felt like summer on Thursday for the first concert in this year’s Sonic Lunch series, as rising pop-rock band Moon Taxi brought its infectious sound to Liberty Plaza.
Although past Sonic Lunch shows have occasionally had an opening band, this year for the first time every show will feature two acts. Thursday’s opener, Nadim Azzam, is a talented Ann Arbor singer-musician-songwriter who combines indie folk and hip-hop -- and some other genres -- into a seamless mix. “Out of Air” highlighted the enjoyable five-song set, in which saxophonist Jacob LaChance backed Azzam.
Moon Taxi leader Trevor Terndrup greeted a crowd that easily numbered several hundred, and under a cloudless sky, the band launched into “Let the Record Play,” the title track from its major-label debut album, released earlier this year by RCA. The reggae flavorings of the song came to the forefront a bit more in concert than on the studio version.
The concert at The Power Center opened with talented young singer-songwriter Haley Heynderickx. Her original songs featured inventive imagery, warm vocals, and expressive guitar. She also showed an offbeat sense of humor, introducing one song as being about “how we’re all going to die, and that’s OK.”
DiFranco hit the stage in a burst of energy that barely let up throughout her set. When she momentarily got lost in the lyrics of her opening song, she and her band -- bassist/keyboardist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Terrence Higgins -- literally didn’t miss a beat, quickly recovering and leading DiFranco to joke, “Thanks for coming to rehearsal.”
Versatility is key to a covers band's success, but The Pherotones' repertoire really takes that idea to the next level. In its Thursday night standing gig at The Last Word, the group puts a jazzy spin on a wild variety of musical eras and genres. A recent show found the group covering material ranging from a jazz standard ("These Foolish Things") to a century-old spiritual/protest song ("Down By the Riverside") to an '80s pop hit ("Everybody Wants to Rule the World") to a classic TV theme (The Muppet Show).
The Pherotones' catalog rewards a deep and diverse appreciation of popular music in its numerous incarnations, and the band's musical approach to the material is similarly enjoyable. The jaunty arrangements add a dignified but fun twist to familiar tunes, with the whole band shouting out unamplified vocals on some selections. The players themselves form a distinguished local supergroup of sorts. Trumpeter Ross Huff and bassist Brennan Andes are well-known for their roles in The Macpodz (and countless other groups), and drummer Wesley Fritzemeier is known for his more folk-influenced work with the Ben Daniels Band and Thunderwude. Locals may know pianist Giancarlo Aversa for his proficiency in quite a different art: The Last Word's principal bartender.
Although it's now been over five years since The Pherotones originally got together as Giancarlo and the Wedding Rehearsal Singers, the band's story remains something of a mystery. There's very little publicity on the band and little online record of its work. We tracked down Huff to ask about The Pherotones' origin story, how they've developed their repertoire, and how they respond to audience requests.
Corey Strong is a classically trained adult contemporary/pop singer and songwriter with a rich baritone voice. He has released two albums so far -- Believer and It’s Christmas -- but Strong recently underwent a musical transition, from singing inspirational music to transferring over to the pop market.
Strong, who's a longtime friend, performs at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library on May 30 at 7 pm. I sat down for an interview with the multiple times nominated Detroit Music Award artist and we talked about many things, including his new single, Moments, which features the songs "Bring Him Home" and "Baby Mine."
Jen Cass has been developing a following as a singer-songwriter dating back to appearances at The Ark’s open mic night while she was a student at the University of Michigan. Since then she’s released three albums and done a considerable number of live shows.
But in 2013, she started dating fellow musician Eric Janetsky, and naturally, they started performing music together. That was the start of The Lucky Nows, which started as a duo but evolved into a full band. Now they are releasing Rise, their debut album as a group, complete with a release party at The Ark on May 31 -- which also happens to be the couple’s fourth wedding anniversary.
Friday evening the Cavani String Quartet made an appearance at the Kerrytown Concert House, presenting a balanced program of Mozart and Ravel. Playing to a packed house -- following a champagne reception and a brief pre-concert talk -- the four musicians found an enthusiastic audience.
Formed in 1984, the Cavani Quartet has been hailed for its artistic excellence and been the recipient of numerous awards, but the group has also shown a strong commitment to music education. Throughout the years, Cavani has been an ensemble-in-residence at various festivals and universities, and since 1988 has been the quartet-in-residence at the Cleveland Institute of Music, one of the preeminent conservatories in the Midwest. Cavani's appearance in Kerrytown on Friday, May 25 was part of another such residency, as the musicians are the artists-in-residence at this year’s PhoenixPhest, a chamber music educational festival run by the Phoenix Ensemble. One of the organizers of the festival moderated the pre-concert talk.
KRS-One is a hip-hop legend. The man born Lawrence Parker left home at 16 to start making music and experienced a lot of hardships, including homelessness and the death of his friend and Boogie Down Productions cohort DJ Scott La Rock. After La Rock died, KRS-One stopped rapping about drugs and violence in favor of more politically conscious material, and he also led the Stop the Violence Movement. KRS-One persevered through the adversity and has released more than 20 albums and three books.
The crowd was buzzing as early as 9 pm before Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone's May 23 show at The Blind Pig. KRS-One didn’t play until around 11 pm, but several hip-hop artists took the stage for the first couple hours. My favorite was Ann Arbor's own Nickie P, who rapped about love and loss and the importance of respect and honesty in relationships. Another Ann Arbor MC, Duke Newcomb, took the stage and immediately connected with the audience, saying 15 years ago he was one of us, one of the audience members at a KRS-One show, thinking he was too old to start rapping. "Remember that tonight I am you," he said. "You are me."
Jim Manheim has the unique distinction of hosting both one of WCBN's most popular shows -- and, arguably, one of its most obscure. Since 1989 Manheim has co-hosted The Down Home Show, a classic country music program that often raises the most or second-most money during station fundraisers (WCBN's closest equivalent to more traditional listenership metrics). He also co-hosts a popular bluegrass program, Bill Monroe for Breakfast. But in three stints from 1996 to 1999, 2008 to 2011, and 2014 to the present, Manheim has also regularly graced WCBN's airwaves with the Drivetime Polka Party.
Currently airing Wednesdays at 6:30 pm, the Drivetime Polka Party is a joyful and educational trip through the once popular, now largely forgotten art form of polka. While the music itself doesn't fit into today's sonic landscape, it's still difficult to resist its buoyant rhythms and surprisingly wild sense of experimentation. (For one particularly mystifying example that caught this writer's ear on a recent Polka Party, check out this hillbilly-polka crossbreed cover of "Hot Rod Lincoln" by Jimmy Sturr and His Orchestra.)
Manheim is a charming and engaging guide throughout this weekly journey, projecting a light-hearted, good-humored personality that matches the music (and is inspired by Buffalo, N.Y., polka DJs). He's also a treasure trove of information, providing background on each song while also placing it in the broader historical context of the genre. We chatted with Manheim on why he started the show, what keeps him coming back to the polka genre, and what his plans are for his WCBN shows as he mulls a move to Indonesia.
The first time I heard Chris Smither I was on a road trip from Ann Arbor to Alabama, helping my cousin move so she could begin her master’s in creative writing. It was late at night and we were somewhere in Kentucky or Tennessee. There were no other cars around and the road kept curving and curving. The windows in the car were down and the muggy air was streaming in. We were feeling slow and sleepy, so my cousin put in Chris Smither’s CD #Leave the Light On#. I heard Chris Smither’s voice for the first time: low and rough, singing, “If I were young again / I’d pay attention / To that little-known dimension / a taste of endless time / it’s just like water / it runs right through our fingers / but the flavor of it lingers / like rich, red wine.”
It’s almost impossible to describe the full effect of good music, music that reaches deep. But I can tell you that I started thinking about time that night in a way that I hadn’t considered before. When you’re young, time feels endless, and what a privilege that is.
Since 1967, The Meters have created ultra-greasy syncopated grooves that induce spontaneous boogie. The New Orleans funk legends' catalog is stuffed with influential jams, such as "Cissy Strut" and "Look-Ka Py Py," that are the very definition of rump shakers.
Even if The Meters' name doesn't invoke the immediate recognition of fellow funk pioneer James Brown, the band's influence looms large and has spread from the Crescent City to every booty-shaking band in the world, including Ann Arbor's Disaster Relief.
Led by guitarist-organist Darrin James, Disaster Relief recently released its self-titled debut, which features nine dancefloor fillers. But it's not just New Orleans second-line funk that has seeped into Disaster Relief's sound. The spirit of Afro-beat is present, too ("August Addiction," "Too Soon for June," "March Wind"), as well as Motown and Memphis influences ("October, Who's Sober?"). But tracks such as the opener, "Downtown F#@karound," and "January Junk" bring New Orleans to the heart of Washtenaw County.
Disaster Relief's musicians are also active participants in southeast Michigan's jazz scene, so there's also plenty of improvisation from James, Brennan Andes (bass), Rob Avsharian (drums), Dan Bennett (baritone sax), Molly Jones (tenor sax), Tim Haldeman (tenor sax), and Ross Huff (trumpet).
I chatted with James over email about how this serious singer-songwriter came to lead a party-ready funk band.