Bring the Noise: Benjamin Miller's Porcelain Hammer and Mark Morgan explore the far side of music

MUSIC PREVIEW

Screenshot from Ben Miller's live performance at Detroit's Eastown Theatre, 2015

Screenshot from Ben Miller's live performance at Detroit's Eastown Theatre, 2015.

It was nearly 10 am on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2019, when I turned on WCBN in my car. The University of Michigan student radio station is a staple in my listening routine, but even my catholic ears were surprised to hear noise icon Merzbow power-sawing his way through two tracks followed by fellow Japanese screechers Otomo Yoshihide and Keiji Haino just after breakfast time.

It was free-form radio at its free-formiest, but it was also a reminder that these Japanese artists -- among others on the outer fringes of music -- helped spawn a Southeast Michigan noise-music scene in the 1990s that, despite the difficult listening, spread through the DIY underground and helped hatch micro-scenes in various basements across the U.S.

The Michigan scene birthed in the 1990s grew up in the early 2000s -- think Wolf Eyes, Universal Indians, Princess Dragonmom -- and began to morph as artists left the state, changed the focus of their music, or left playing in bands entirely. Still, the scene continued to plug away and mutate with new groups emerging such as the more rocking Child Bite and Heavier Than Air Flying Machines, the dark and ambient Evenings, tape-based acts Sick Llama and Creode, coarse electronics from Lidless Eye, and electro-acoustic weirdness from The New Me, Glass Path, and more. There was also the recent Trip Metal festivals, founded by Wolf Eyes' John Olson, which brought together noise freaks, free jazzers, and assorted other sonic cosmonauts in Detroit for three days of plundering earholes. 

And I can't forget Ann Arbor's mysterious Satan Face, an unnamed member of which appears to be responsible for playing Merzbow & Co. on the radio during otherwise pleasant mid-mornings. The Satan Face show Nothing but the '90s! is on WCBN every Tuesday from 9-11 am playing the harshest of the harsh, and that show's playlist could easily include Ben Miller's Porcelain Hammer and Mark Morgan, former guitarist for acclaimed art-rock act Sightings. Miller and Morgan lived away from Michigan for many years, but they've both returned to the Detroit area and are teaming up for a hair-parting concert on Saturday, Dec. 14, at Lo-Fi Bar in Ann Arbor.

Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Yeomen of the Guard" casts a darker shadow for light comic opera

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW

UMGASS's Yeoman of the Guard

Photo courtesy of UMGASS.

Comic operas usually live up their genre name: lively songs, light humor, and endings filled with satisfied characters.

For the most part, Gilbert and Sullivan's twist on the style, Savoy operas, are no exception. But their The Yeomen of the Guard mixes playful puns and broken hearts, making for an emotionally complicated environment that is a distinct change from standard comic-opera fare.

The play debuted in London on Oct. 3, 1888, at the 1,200-seat Savoy Theatre, which was built to showcase Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas. The University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society (UMGASS) is staging its take on The Yeomen of the Guard at the 600-seat Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, December 5-8, which will give attendees a more intimate look at a play Sullivan described in his diary as, "Pretty story, no topsy turvydom, very human, & funny also."

Wisconsin indie-folk band Dead Horses look to the moon and Midwest for inspiration

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Dead Horses

Music from the indie-folk and Americana band Dead Horses grapples with hope and pain -- how to reconcile sorrows and desires -- through both songwriting and sound. Lyrics on the 2018 album, My Mother the Moon, draw on frontwoman Sarah Vos’ life story, including experiencing an unsettling childhood and finding her way as an adult, as well as her observations as a musician. The track “Turntable” offers this image:

Oh, she said, “If my heart was a turntable,
And my belly was the speaker and my soul the needle.”

These are the kind of songs in which you can hear something new each time you listen. Finding autonomy and self, acknowledging hurt and struggles, recognizing social issues, interacting with nature, and looking hopefully to the future all figure into this album.

Most recently, Dead Horses, started by Vos and bassist Daniel Wolff, is releasing a series of singles, which will appear on an EP next year. Their latest one, “Birds Can Write the Chorus,” embraces possibility, as “it’s never what I thought it was; it’s never too late,” according to the lyrics.

Dead Horses play The Ark on Wednesday, December 4, with doors opening at 7:30 pm and the show starting at 8 pm. Vos and Wolff responded to questions by email beforehand.

"Last Letters" documents a love story among German Resistance fighters in World War II

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Last Letters book

“We are only here because of Harald Poelchau, the prison chaplain who risked his own life to smuggle these letters back and forth to my grandparents,” says author Johannes von Moltke. “There is no other way that my grandmother would have gotten these letters and been able to keep them the rest of her life.”

The messages von Moltke refers to are the heart of Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence Between Helmuth James and Freya von Moltke, 1944-45, which contains the intimate notes between German Resistance fighters in World War II. The book is published in English for the first time thanks to von Moltke, his sister Dorothea, his uncle Helmuth, and translator Shelley Frisch. 

Late in 1944, Freya von Moltke waited at home while her husband Helmuth James von Moltke was being held in a Berlin prison, awaiting his trial for his part in the Kreisau Circle, one of the crucial Resistance groups in Germany. In the months leading up to Helmuth’s execution in January 1945, the two exchanged heartfelt, moving letters about their lives and love for each other. Poelchau risked his safety daily to smuggle these writings in and out of the prison. 

Dr. von Moltke, now a professor of German and film at the University of Michigan, says his grandmother always had the letters with her.

Bill Kirchen reminiscences on Commander Cody, Iggy Pop, and Bob Dylan before the Ann Arbor guitar legend's Honky Tonk Holiday

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Excerpt from Bill Kirchen's Holiday Honk Tonk 2019 poster

Ann Arbor native Bill Kirchen is instrumental in creating the rootsy country-rock-blues-folk mix we today call Americana. 

Kirchen hit it big early in his career as the lead guitarist for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen; he’s responsible for the dazzling guitar work on their enduring 1972 hit “Hot Rod Lincoln.” He’s since become known as an absolute master of the Telecaster guitar, playing with a nearly endless list of impressive names through the years. 

Most recently, though, Kirchen has found one more way to shine: He’s become well known for his Honky Tonk Holiday tours, which showcase some of the most amazing, overlooked Christmas-themed gems you’ve never heard, alongside some other favorites from throughout his storied career.

On Sunday, Dec. 1, Kirchen brings his annual holiday spectacular home to Ann Arbor for a show at The Ark.

Dusting off should-be-classics like “Daddy’s Drinkin’ Up Our Christmas,” “Silent Surfin’ Night,” and “Truckin’ Trees For Christmas,” Kirchen -- now based in Austin -- will appear with his backing band The Hounds of the Bakersfield, featuring Rick Richards on drums and David Carroll on stand-up bass. 

Kirchen took the time to answer a few questions via email, reflecting on the upcoming show and his time in Ann Arbor.

U-M brings diversity to Steinbeck’s "Grapes of Wrath"

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Grapes of Wrath book cover

Excerpt of the book cover for the first edition of The Grapes of Wrath, 1939.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a great American classic.

It is set in a specific time, the Great Depression of the 1930s; specific places, the Dust Bowl ravaged southwest and the fertile promised land of California; and a specific group of people, the migrant Joad family of Oklahoma, one of many families looked down upon as ignorant Okies, traveling with hope for a better life. Yet the story continues to resonate as migrants make their way from Central America to the United States border and from Syria and North Africa to the shores of Europe in search of justice, peace and a chance for that better life. 

The University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama is presenting a production of Frank Galati’s critically acclaimed stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel.

“It seemed timely, relevant, a great American tragedy, a great novel,” said production director Gillian Eaton, an award-winning actress, director, and U-M faculty member.

Get Away With She: Nellie McKay wants to escape from it all

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Nellie McKay

Photo by Shervin Lainez.

This story was originally published on May 9, 2018, ahead of Nellie McKay's May 13, 2018, concert at The Ark in Ann Arbor. McKay is returning to The Ark on Monday, November 19 in support of her new 8-song EP, "Bagatelles," which you can hear below in addition to her 2018 LP, "Sister Orchard."

Nellie McKay often seems like she’s at a loss for words.

During our phone conversation to promote the pianist-singer-songwriter’s show at The Ark on May 13, her answers were often preceded by a swarm of ums, uhs, I means, and various other utterances. And when McKay did get to the answers, it wasn’t necessarily in response to my questions, instead offering long vignettes about politics and the stark realities of being a full-time musician. 

On stage, McKay has a similarly discursive way of speaking, mixing funny anecdotes, political pleas, and stammering self-effacement.

But once McKay strikes a piano key, everything flows. Words stream from her gorgeous voice with confidence and warmth. The quirkiness that defines her conversations gives way to sass and power, and listeners get invited into her world -- which is not of this era.

Malcolm Tariq's poetry book, "Heed the Hollow," examines blackness, queerness, and the South

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW

Malcom Tariq and his book Heed the Hollow

Author photo by Karisma Price.

To say that Heed the Hollow by Malcolm Tariq is about the queer black experience is both true and also too simple. The poetry collection engages with the American South, the history of slavery, and sexuality and eroticism in candid, unexpected ways.

In the introduction, Chris Albani, who selected the book for the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, aptly illuminates what this book does, writing, “This is where we find Malcolm Tariq’s work, on the cusp of a new south, a new Black, a new self-love, a new history. He is one of a new emerging crop of writers that is redefining Blackness in the United States….” The collection shares perspectives on this history and lineage in relation to today.

One of the poems -- a cento that borrows lines from other places -- states, “We give narrative to experience every day. Being born and living lawfully in my / humanness, I live a reality denied to the enslaved and formerly enslaved.” This contrast between today’s way of life and the not-too-distant past offers insight into how this country’s history still shadows the experience of the present.

"Staying Power: Concrete, Not Wood" is a multigenre production by youths in Ypsilanti, Mich., and Richmond, Calif.

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW

Jua'Chelle Harmon

Jua'Chelle Harmon is a 17-year-old student at Washtenaw International High School and Middle Academy and member of the activisit-poetry collaboration Staying Power.

On Saturday, Dec. 7, a cohort of teen artist-activists from Ypsilanti, Michigan, and Richmond, California -- collectively known as Staying Power -- will put on a multigenre production that will culminate a year-long cultural exchange program between teens from these two communities.  

"Staying Power: Concrete, Not Wood" will blend original poetry, music, theater, and film to stage conversations around gentrification and housing injustice experienced across the U.S, centering the voices and vision of youth of color who are using their art to create change.

Jua’Chelle Harmon, 17, is one of Staying Power's participants and below she reflects on what the project and poetry mean to her.

Regrets, He's Had a Few: Former Wolverine and NFL wide receiver Braylon Edwards is forever "Doing It My Way"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Braylon Edwards' book Doing It My Way

Former University of Michigan All American wide receiver and NFL Pro Bowler Braylon Edwards has a reputation for being outspoken, to say the least. But even so, he had to warm up to the idea of writing Doing It My Way: My Outspoken Life as a Michigan Wolverine, NFL Receiver, and Beyond.

Triumph Books, my publishing company, originally approached me in 2017,” Edwards said. “I had no idea what my book would be about, and to be honest, at the time, the money was laughable. … So we said, ‘We’ll pass.’ And by we, I mean me and my mother. She’s my business manager, so I run everything by her. But as we started telling people that I was presented with this opportunity -- my aunties, my uncles, my cousins, my coaches, my friends, everybody -- I started to think there enough things I’ve gone through in my life that make my story unique.”

This included constantly traveling between two sets of parents as a child; being a “legacy” athlete since Edward’s father, Stan Edwards, played football for Michigan under Bo Schembechler; the ups and downs of Edwards’ football career, both at Michigan and in the NFL; and his struggles off the field, including his battles with drug use, anxiety, and depression.

“It became evident that the book should happen -- that this was something we should definitely sign up for,” Edwards said. “So when [Triumph] came back to us in 2018, I didn’t care so much about the money. It was more about my story out there. … People forget that there’s more to athletes than a helmet, or a golf club, or lacrosse sticks -- especially now, with social media and fantasy sports. It’s like no one cares about athletes anymore. It’s all about, ‘What can you do for me?’”

Edwards wrote Doing It My Way with ESPN’s Tom VanHaaren. And while you might assume that Edwards felt a bit nervous and vulnerable when his highly personal book debuted in September, that’s not the case.