I was a fan of JD McPherson’s music the moment I heard his debut album, Signs & Signifiers, around seven years ago. This was high-energy rock 'n' roll that immediately brought to mind the early masters of the genre -- think Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochrane, Bo Diddley.
Rural Oklahoma native McPherson specializes in original material, not cover versions, and he and his dynamite group -- together for eight years -- put a fresh spin on music too often thought of as golden oldies, something safe and nostalgic. McPherson’s discography is thoroughly listenable and also includes 2015’s Let the Good Times Roll, 2017’s Undivided Heart & Soul (my personal favorite), plus Socks, his delightful album of new Christmas songs released late last year.
McPherson and his band -- bassist Jimmy Sutton, keyboardist Raynier Jacob Jacildo, drummer Jason Smay, and saxophonist/guitarist Doug Corcoran -- were in fantastic form when they played in Ann Arbor last summer as part of Bank of Ann Arbor’s Sonic Lunch concert series, and they return to town this Wednesday, April 17 for a show at The Blind Pig. I caught up with JD McPherson by phone last week as he was getting ready for a concert in Calgary, Alberta and had a lively discussion about everything from favorite recording studios to Socks to the reasons behind his rock 'n' roll sensibility.
A breathtakingly brilliant harmonica player who’s been an essential part of the Ann Arbor music scene for decades, Peter Madcat Ruth will officially celebrate his 70th birthday on Tuesday, April 2. But his big birthday bash will happen two days later at The Ark on Thursday, April 4, when he’ll be joined by an impressive number of special guests for a roof-raising celebration. Joining Madcat at The Ark will be Howard Levy, Chris Brubeck, Joshua Davis, Corky Siegel, Shari Kane, Seth Bernard, Rachael Davis, Drew Howard, Michael Shimmin, Mark Schrock, Dominic Davis, William Apostol, Dick Siegel, and Joel Brown, with the proceedings emceed by WEMU-FM music host Michael Jewett.
Madcat is understandably best known for his virtuosic harmonica playing, but he’s also a gifted vocalist and just as impressive on ukulele, guitar, and a host of other instruments.
Recently I spoke to the laid-back, always friendly American roots music practitioner about his career, his upcoming birthday bash, and some of the top artists he’s worked with over the last 50 years or so.
If you are unfamiliar with the artful pyrotechnics of the California Guitar Trio, simply buy a ticket to their upcoming show at The Ark on March 11 and get ready to have your mind blown.
California Guitar Trio is comprised of Bert Lams, Hideyo Moriya, and Paul Richards, who combine exquisite musical chops with an omnivorous, multi-genre approach to music. On stage and on their albums, CGT includes all manner of acoustic cover versions as well as dazzling original material. Whether it's rock, classical, jazz, country, or surf music, CGT perform with style and skill that’s hard to match elsewhere.
I’ve been a fan of the Trio since the beginning of their career, so it was a real treat to catch up with band member Paul Richards by phone in advance of the group’s Ark date on Sunday.
Martin Bandyke Under Covers: Martin Torgoff, author of "Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats, and Drugs"
From the author of the acclaimed Can't Find My Way Home comes the gripping story of the rise of early drug culture in America.
With an intricate storyline that unites engaging characters and themes and reads like a novel, Bop Apocalypse details the rise of early drug culture in America by weaving together the disparate elements that formed this new and revolutionary segment of the American social fabric.
Drawing upon his rich decades of writing experience, master storyteller Martin Torgoff connects the birth of jazz in New Orleans, the first drug laws, Louis Armstrong, Mezz Mezzrow, Harry Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, swing, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, the Savoy Ballroom, Reefer Madness, Charlie Parker, the birth of bebop, the rise of the Beat Generation, and the coming of heroin to Harlem. Aficionados of jazz, the Beats, counterculture, and drug history will all find much to enjoy here, with a cast of characters that includes vivid and memorable depictions of Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Jackie McLean, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Herbert Huncke, Terry Southern, and countless others.
Donald Harrison's latest project is, of his own design, a passion project which won’t happen without your support. Harrison is the Lead Producer, Director and Founder of 7 Cylinders Studio, which makes videos for a variety of businesses and organizations in the Ann Arbor area and beyond, from RoosRoast Coffee to the Huron Valley Watershed Council. Video production is a natural career path for the 43-year-old Southfield native, having previously served as Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival from 2008 – 2012.
His newest endeavor, Commie High: The Film, is a documentary that Harrison and his crew hope to make about Ann Arbor’s Community High School. The school started in 1972 as an experiment in public education and was one of the first public magnet schools in the country.
“It was part of a movement in the late 60s and early 70s,” said Harrison during a recent interview with me on 107.1 WKQL-FM. “The movement was to do education in a different way. Students were getting credit for going out in the community and doing things, actually interacting with different businesses and different people. If you were interested in blacksmithing, [you would] find a blacksmith and learn how to do that, how to work with metal. You were also able to design your own curriculum and you also called teachers by their first name - that continues to this day.”
Setting Community High apart from other alternative schools is the fact that it doesn’t skew toward a specific student population (‘gifted’ or ‘underachieving’), and it doesn’t favor a certain area of study above others. Community High, located on North Division near Kerrytown, has an impressive and diverse list of alumni which includes NPR reporter Neda Ulaby, author and Found Magazine publisher Davy Rothbart, party-rocker Andrew W.K., Evite co-founder Josh Silverman, and blues-rock guitarist Laith Al-Saadi, who’s currently tearing it up on NBC’s The Voice.
So what made Harrison want to make this film in the first place? “My initial interest in the film was when I met an alumnus who camped out for two weeks in 1996 to try to get into Community High,” he said. “That got me really interested in learning more. To me it’s such rich, local Ann Arbor history, but it’s (also) important nationally in terms of education and what can we learn from an alternative school that’s part of an already really great school system.”
Harrison is in the final stages of a Kickstarter campaign that hopes to raise $45,000 toward the making of Commie High, but time is running short as he hopes to find funding for the project. “It’s this roller coaster ride,” he said. “Over 200 people have already backed it, but we have some room to go before we make our goal. Either we make it and we go into production or we unfortunately have to go back to the drawing board.” As of noon on April 7, over $32,500 has been pledged, with the remaining $12,500 to be raised by next Wednesday, April 13 at 10 am.
“We’re optimistic and we think there are a lot of people with love for Community High or 'Commie High,' as so many people affectionately refer to it,” said Harrison. “Although at points it was used as a derogatory term, we’re really embracing it. We’re not teaching Communism, it’s just teaching people how to be better individuals.”
Martin Bandyke is the morning drive host on Ann Arbor’s 107one, WQKL-FM.
For more information about Commie High: The Film and to make a pledge go to the film's Kickstarter page.