Judy Banker traces the spirit behind her new country-folk-rock album, "Buffalo Motel"

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Judy Banker

Judy Banker has been a mainstay of the local country and folk music scene for more than a decade when, along with her late husband, John Sayler, she began accompanying the well-known Michigan singer-songwriter Jay Stielstra on guitar and harmony vocals.

Banker continues to accompany Stielstra on stage, but after her husband passed away she also began recording and performing her own songs with a rotating lineup of musicians. Her new album, Buffalo Motel, is a significant departure from her previous two CDs.

While she again recorded at Dave Roof's Rooftop Recording Studio in Grand Blanc and worked with some of the same musicians who have been accompanying her in concert for years, Buffalo Motel, has a more “muscular” sound than her previous albums, to quote her co-producer and son, Ben Sayler. The instrumentation and musical arrangements of Buffalo Motel have a country-rock feel and are both more varied, full than her previous country folk-tinged recordings.

Banker celebrates the release of Buffalo Motel with a concert at The Ark on Thursday, January 9. I asked Banker about the new recording and her songwriting.

Full Metal Jokers: Comedians & musicians team up for a night of laughs at A2's Open Floor Studio

PULP LIFE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Full Metal Jokers

Full Metal Jokers, clockwise from left: Mateen Stewart, Jeff Horste, Esther Nevarez, Full Metal Events logo, and Torey Arnold. 

Dan Thomas took two of his favorite things and made something better. 

Full Metal Events - Comedy & Music “started off as strictly a stand-up show,” Thomas says. “But I also really enjoy music, too. Saturday Night Live inspired me to take those two pieces -- good stand-up comedy and musical guests -- and put them together.”

The show begins with a comedian, followed by a few songs from the musical guest, about an hour of stand-up, and then ends with the musical guest again.

Thomas makes it a point to feature a diverse lineup. “We rotate hosts and performers every show,” he says.

The musical talent is as wide-ranging as its performers. Past shows have included music guests such as Nappi Devi, Frank Grimaldi, and Mark Norman Harris, who does rap, folk, and comedy. Comedians have come from both near and far and include Samantha Rager, Connor Meade (who recently won first place in the recent Comedy Rumble), Marv Barnett, Brandi Alexander, Emily Sabo, Andrew Yang, and Tony Tale.

The show on Thursday, Dec. 26, features a lineup of nationally known performers. 

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble: Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase features 30 female comics performing 90 seconds each

PULP LIFE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Comedy Rumble 2019

Clockwise from top left: judges Reese Leonard, Sam Rager, Jacob Barr, and host Bret Hayden will be at the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase as part of The Comedy Rumble.

It started when comedian Bret Hayden decided to have a party.

“I wanted to have a Christmas celebration with my comedian friends, so I did it as a show and everyone showed up.”

That party has since blossomed into one of the fastest-growing local humor nights: The Comedy Rumble.

It's not your typical comedy night with an opener, warm-up, and headliner; instead, the Rumble is a lightning-fast show featuring 30 comedians doing material for 90 seconds each. The briskly paced routines are performed in front of a panel of professional comedian judges, with the top four vote-getters getting to do another quick set before a final winner is declared.

The show at the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase marks the second anniversary of the Rumble. “We started at Cellarmen’s [in Hazel Park] in December of 2017,” Hayden says. “Since the first one went so well, I wanted to make it a regular event. After Cellarmen’s closed [in July], I talked to [Comedy Showcase founder] Roger Feeny, who knew me as a regular at the club. He was 100% on board and supportive, so we did our first show in Ann Arbor on October 30.”

The next one happens Wednesday, December 18, and this show is special because it is the second time the Rumble features female comedians only.

“About five or six years ago, when I first started in comedy, I could count on two hands the number of women comedians that I knew personally," Hayden says. "Comedy has always been overwhelmingly male, so I wanted to see if it possible to find 30 women comedians to perform.”

U-M Emeritus Professor John Knott recounts adventures of semi-rural Scio Township life in a new nonfiction essay collection

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Almost Country by John Knott

Occasionally you get a good look inside another life. It could be seeing a career other than your own. It could be hearing about a trip to a place where you’ve never been. It could also be learning about a distinct lifestyle chosen by another person.

John Knott’s new book, Almost Country: Living With the Land, reveals the latter. In this 147-page self-published collection of nonfiction essays, he outlines his experiences with building and living in a home in the woods outside of Ann Arbor with his wife, Anne. Anyone with an interest in construction, wildlife, ecology, native plants, and trees, land ethics, local politics, and stories about ways of living might appreciate these essays.

Their house was situated on about three acres near the Huron River and just far enough outside of the city that they experienced a closer connection to the natural world while still enjoying a quick drive to Ann Arbor. As Knott writes, “We would find ourselves learning to appreciate darkness and quiet more absolute than anything we had experienced in town.”

The Knotts moved to their home in Scio Township in 1992 after their children left the house and as a way to pursue their interest in environmental issues. In 2006, Knott retired from the University of Michigan, where he taught and led in academic administration and is now Professor Emeritus of English. He focused on English Renaissance literature before turning his attention to literature and the environment.

One recurring thread throughout Almost Country is the question of how to maintain a landscape. The Knotts made a strong effort to give preference to native plants. Striking a balance between aesthetic and ecological principles presented both a challenge and goal for them, as Knott contemplates the question, “Restoration to what baseline?” in the book.

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

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

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.

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.