Additional Reporting by Robert E. Martin
The music scene in the Great Lakes Bay Region is struggling. Live original music is surviving and occasionally thriving in small pockets as, clubs, theatres and bars navigate to stay afloat. It's like a 9 moving rapidly to a 3 and then jumping back to a 10 - entirely unpredictable. It appears that the shared experiences of venue owners and music fans are held in one symbolic memory. We are all feeling the pull of ennui and confusion, sensing that we are living in a state of deficiency that is waiting to be saved.
Music and the arts are like a child that's not really valued and grows up with an innate association to…nothing? It brings us to that part of us that is small and frail. It is the doorway into passion, a sacred place where love and truth are possible. This is our musical vision quest, an integration of mind, body and spirit into a cohesive narrative of the here and now.
That said - 2011 was a great year for music in our local scene!
Saginaw native Stewart Francke explored the entire nature of struggle and loss in our New World Order of declining prosperity and the redemption and salvation to be found by moving to higher ground in his beautifully crafted Heartless World. Featuring a guest vocal contribution from Bruce Springsteen, Francke also opened for Bob Seger on several dates of his current tour, and proved that the only currency that matters is - in Stew's own words - “being real, finding hope, common ground, and having faith in each other.”
Andy Reed achieved astonishing success touring as a full-fledged member of the seminal alt-rock band The Verve Pipe. He recorded and toured the USA and Europe with the band and experienced the life of a middle-class rock and roll musician - few make it to that pinnacle of success. Reed was flying higher than eagles fly, drifting toward the canyons of greatness. He was also busy with Reed Recording Studio producing CD's for such great acts as The Tosspints, Arthur Autumn and his own band American Underdog. The results were spectacular! This trifecta of superbly crafted music led the charge in the Great Lakes Bay region. Reed also helped with Bryan Rombalski's Two Steps Closer to Zen, a more complicated musical format that incorporated West African, Brazilian, and Indian rhythmic structures. Reed has proved to be a musical chameleon that can bring the best in the artists allowing form to follow spontaneous expression. He records in analog and produces rich warm sounds. The Tosspints loved the sound so much they released their masterpiece Cenosillicaphobia on vinyl - it's like sipping on a cup of white chocolate mocha at the Red Eye on a cold winter's day. Delicious.
Tim Avram released his iconoclastic roots inspired, autobiographical journey into a core wound and an existential reality. In Era of the Angry Young Man, Avram opens himself up and welcomes in his own emotional experiences - even if it's painful. He conveys a sense of “I don't know who I am.” The songs sound like they were created in a time before the rot set in, a time when people cared about Danny O' Dell, Avram's alter ego and the protagonist in this remarkable disc. This is simply the best piece of music released in Mid-Michigan in 2011. It deserves a wider audience.
2011 brought an eagerly anticipated reunion of sixties Michigan rockers The Scott Richards Case (SRC). In the mid to late sixties they were wooed by the Who's leader Pete Townsend to sign with London's Track Records. Instead they signed with Capitol Records (home of The Beatles) and released three highly regarded LP's but never achieved mass popularity. For better or worse SRC wore the mantel as the nation's first psychedelic band. They performed an outdoor show this past summer and re-created their intricate sound. The sellout crowd roared their approval despite leader Scott Richardson's diminished vocal power. SRC performed songs from their entire catalog including Black Sheep, Hall of The Mountain King/Bolero, and Checkmate. It was a glorious experience.
November also brought the legendary Dick Wagner back to Saginaw after a long absence. He struggled with health problems and was unable to sing or play his guitar for over five years due to the damaging effects of several heart attacks and strokes. We all wondered how Wagner was going to pull it off…but he did - magnificently. The set list spanned his career and included Baby Boy (Bossmen), Sweet Jenny Lee/ Black As Night (Frost), Darkest Hour (Ursa Major), Sweet Jane (Lou Reed), and Only Women Bleed/ Welcome to My Nightmare (Alice Cooper). Wagner was in great voice. He hit the high notes and joked around with the crowd.
Sometimes anatomy does not equal destiny as evidenced by wildly popular bands fronted by talented women; Melissa May/Thunderchickens; Shar Molina/Banana Convention; Calista Hecht/Vagabond Wheels; Ruthy Kwiatkowski/Temporary Limbs. These women lead the pack. Despite the phallocentricity of our society, these talented and daring women have succeeded to make brilliant music. There is no Cinderella Complex limiting their perspective only a coherent view of femininity. A woman who leads a rock & roll band is metaphorically preserving an ancient ritual by means of couvade, the custom whereby the male takes to his bed when the women is having a baby - daddy stays at home while mama rocks.
Local venues such as Bemos, The Vault, Spencers, White's Bar, Coty's and the Hamilton Street Pub deserve kudos for keeping music alive. The Red Eye Cafe and Dawning of a New Day also contribute mightily to the cause.
The Great Lakes Bay Region is home to several other great bands that create incredible and original music. Kudos to The Honky Tonk Zeros, Kyle Mayer/Thick as Thieves, Brett Mitchell, Tension Head, Silverspork, Sprout, Brody & the Busch Road Trio, Severe Head Drama, Round & a Distant Few, Laurie Middlebrook, Mandi Layne, Neighborhood Muscle, All For the Cause and Rustbucket. Thank you all for keeping music alive and following your creative impulses!
And sadly, we also lost four profound musical legends of the local music scene in 2011: the brilliant guitarist Doug Sheltraw, soundman and humanitarian Al Limberg, the brilliant Maestro Leo Najar, and the classiest jazz guitarist to ever grace a stage, Ron Lopez, were all taken from us much too soon.
On the positive front, Michael Brush received a much-deserved Tribute for his contributions to the musical community in October at a special evening held at the Saginaw Arts & Science Academy.
And finally, The Review Music Awards Celebrated their 25th Anniversary this year at the newly rebuilt Golden Glow Ballroom back in May. Top honors went to: Astray, SKE3M, DJ Snakes, Life Size Ghost, The Sinclairs, Thick As Thieves, and Brett Mitchell & the Giant Ghost, to name but a few.
The National picture is much bleaker for reasons that are at least partially due to ascendance of technology, mass preference for downloading music and the decline and fall of rock radio. Sure the Foo Fighters are keeping the music alive in 2011 with a hard rockin' disc entitled Wasting Light as well as a retrospective documentary of the band's illustrious career. Grohl will forever be linked to his former Nirvana band mate Kurt Cobain - a welcome presence as we come to terms with the end of rock & roll as a popular idiom.
REM just released Part Lies Part Truth Part Garbage 1982-2011, an anthology that represents a coda to their career. It is magnificent. The highlights are all there; Man on the Moon, Everybody Hurts, Stand, Losing My Religion just to name a few. They also included three new songs that blend perfectly with the songs on Anthology: We All Go Back to Where We Belong; A Month of Saturdays; and Hallelujah. I remember taking my son and a few of his friends to see REM in Ann Arbor about 15 years ago. Patti Smith made a cameo appearance and danced her ass off. Radiohead opened and they were simply breathtaking. But REM was on top of their game and pulled of a coup d'état despite the brilliance of their supporting cast. I will miss them
Mirror Traffic is the most recent release by Steven Malkmus and the Jinks. It's a must for any music fan who enjoys literate yet obscure lyrical references The former front man for Pavement has a brand new lease on life with this brilliant, caustic, and hybrid blend of rootsy yet progressive Americana. Beck produced this LP and created a soundscape that is easy to digest with the sing-a-long melodies but is equally frustrating (or compelling) is Malkmus' tendency to change chord progressions, keys and tempo. I love it. Malkmus has a facility for composing ironic lyrics that reveal everything by saying very little - as in the song Senator in which he combines dioxin poisoning with entitlement:
Tom Waits released Bad As Me in 2011. It was his first studio album of new music since 2004. About time. Waits is in fine form, his voice is raggedy strong and soulful. He growls, moans, slurs and spits out lyrics like a demented Captain Beefheart. Waits has concocted his most accessible LP to date. The songs are mean and lean and contain a joyousness that comes from creating music with a perspective of a deep soulful truth, even if the songs are melancholy. As Waits tells it, “I'm a sticks and wires guy.” On this LP he does an edgy Eddie Cochran on “Get Lost” and croons like Sinatra on “Downbound Train.” Waits even brought in Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards to sing harmony on “Last Leaf” and play guitar (5 string with open tuning) on a blues rocker entitled “Satisfied.” This disc is a MUST!
Foster the People, an obscure Indie band from Los Angeles, have reached the stratosphere by concocting the biggest hit on the planet, Pumped Up Kicks. It was written and recorded by Mark Foster while working as a jingle writer at Mophonics Studio. The song sounds like a jingle. It has a metronome beat, a catchy upbeat rhythm and a heavy bass line. The singsong singing belie a more ominous meaning to the lyrics. Foster says, “It's an FU to the hipsters.” Like it or not this is one of the biggest songs of 2011. It is almost irresistible. Take a peek at the lyrics.
Robert's got a quick hand/He looks around the room/He won't tell you his plan
He's got a rolled cigarette/He's a cowboy kid
Yeah he found a six-shooter gun in his dad's closet/In the box of fun things
Don't even know what/but he's coming for you/Yeah he's coming for you
All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
Run, better run, out run my gun
All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You better run, better run, faster than my bullet
There were several notable (and expensive) deluxe editions from various rock legends. The Kinks re-released a deluxe edition of Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). It was expanded from one to two discs with the addition of several obscure period 45's. Arthur enjoyed almost unanimous acclaim upon its release in 1969 and became the Kinks calling card back to America. It was initially conceived as a soundtrack to a Granada Television play developed by Julian Mitchell. Alas, the project was never completed so leader Ray Davies simply released it as the next Kinks LP. Rolling stone raved that Arthur was the Kinks finest hour. Another reviewer claimed it was the best British LP of 1969. Unfortunately, Kinks music could never live up to such heavy praise despite its musical integrity. The Kinks were always outrageous, sloppy and spontaneous.
The Beach Boys released a huge deluxe reissue of lost but not forgotten tapes of the legendary Smile LP - Brian Wilson's psychedelic masterpiece. Many of the unissued versions of released songs (Good Vibrations, Heroes and Villains, Surfs Up) have been circulating in bootleg circles for the past thirty years or so. It includes vinyl, CD and video as well as a sixty-page booklet. It is expensive. I'd love to spend some time with it but I'm convinced I would tire after listening to the 33rd take of Heroes and Villains or the 24th version of Good Vibrations. I might be tempted to do an Elvis all over it. Despite the Herculean effort and the loving care of the Beach Boys archivists, it does not uncover the masterpiece amongst the roughage.
Bob Seger just released a 2-disc retrospective entitled Ultimate Hits. Well, it's not exactly… ultimate - but it does pack 26 songs on two discs. It touches on Seger's mega hits from the seventies and eighties including such homegrown anthems as Night Moves, Rock & Roll Never Forgets and Mainstreet. He even included the original 1968 version of Ramblin' Gamblin' Man. Sweet Justice Jesus. A complete Seger anthology should also include early gems such a Heavy Music, East Side Story, 2+2=, Ivory, Lucifer, Back in 72, Rosalie, and Looking Back. This is for the casual fan.
The Rolling Stones while discussing possibilities of a 50th Anniversary Tour next year (can that really be true?) managed to release a Deluxe Edition of their 1978 stand-out LP Some Girls, including a dozen previously unreleased tracks - many of which are as good as it gets with the Stones. Including such gems as Claudine which was never released out of fear for a lawsuit (the tune is about Claudine Longet - the ex-Mrs. Andy Williams who shot skier Spyder Sabich) and a surprising number of country ballads with Ronnie Wood playing impeccable pedal steel guitar. Plus the standout Tallahassee Lassie is hands down one of the best rockers The Stones have ever cemented for posterity.