2015 Hells Half Mile Musical Festival

Tripping the Note Fantastic

Posted In:   From Issue 815   By: Matt deHeus

03rd September, 2015     0

Now in its 10th year, it is fair to say that the Hell’s Mile Film and Music Festival (HHM) has grown into one of the marquee cultural events on this region’s Fall entertainment calendar.  Every September the Festival brings some of the best in independent film and original live music to Downtown Bay City.

Though taking second billing in the event’s name, music has always been an equal partner in the Festival. 

Music Committee Member Brendan Baranek described the evolution of the musical component of HHM:

“Music was always meant to be integral to the festival; a compliment to the films.  Tommy Jenkins, one of the festival founders, really wanted to grow the arts in Bay City and he wanted music to be part of it.  The point was to showcase Bay City as a place where people would come to see original music get played.”

When the festival first started, bands were recommended by word of mouth and often booked via cold calls from festival organizers. The process evolved over time as Music Committee Member Cole Waterman began to “scout” bands in Detroit that might be a good fit at the Festival. This effort now has been augmented by Michael Paulus and Lawrence Jenkins, with cities like Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Lansing providing good spots to see interesting bands from across the region.

According to Baranek, the word has gotten out and it is now the norm for bands to contact HHM about playing.  As he put it, “The word is out among the bands.  You want a cool gig?  Talk to the guys at Hell’s Half Mile.”   I am going to have to add to this to Baranek’s sentiment, “You want a cool interview?  Contact the bands playing at HHM.”

Baranek had indicated HHM’s intention was to bring together an eclectic set of acts to town and it quickly became apparent within a few questions that they have succeeded. The first thing I came to understand is that the term “independent” is not a hat that sits easily on the heads of today’s musicians.


Bryan Lackner of Passalacqua somewhat summarized the issue.  “It’s almost a non-word now, don’t you think?  I feel like I see ‘indie” and “independent” everywhere, so it is easily glossed over.  At the heart of it, it means people are taking matters into their own hands.”

This sentiment was echoed by Hillary Davis, violinist of Cold Blood Club, “Most bands are ‘indie,’ even if they have booking agents or managers.  For us that means creating your own opportunities.”

Kendra Jones, lead singer of Cold Blood Club, offered some “historical” perspective on the issue.  “I think, back in the day, ‘indie’ was not only associated with being an artist trying to make it on your own, without any of the big label money, but also with a certain sound.  For me, at least, indie music isn’t really a term anymore.  It has gone back to being just a way of life for struggling artists and the sounds coming out of this world have gone back to being a lot more diverse and, frankly, a lot more innovative.”

The diversity point was driven home when the bands were asked to describe their sound.  These answers ranged from straightforward “alt country” to “a fist-pumping ode to a party at the end of the world.”  If those don’t fit your fancy, then try “lo-fi space funk, hi-fi garage-hop” or “if the Killers threw a house party, with LCD Soundsystem dj-ing, Andrew Bird passing out red cups, Robert Smith lost his cell phone and Karen O fighting with her boyfriend.  Throw in a fist full of glitter and that’s it.”  (That last one was courtesy of Emily Iaquinta of Cold Blood Club.  The rest you are going to have to check out at HHM and figure out for yourself.)

After gaining some understanding of how the bands viewed themselves, it was interesting to turn the lens around, asking them to describe the people that seem to be attracted to original (space funk, red cup, alt country, house party) music. 

Valentiger vocalist / songwriter Brent Shirey described the crowds in part as “people who still really like being ahead of the curve on some things; having a private little band of their own.”

Shirey took this point a bit further by pointing out that people are actually going out to see bands perform.  “I feel like people are coming around to wanting the ‘nitty gritty’ again, seeing a live person make mistakes and sing some of their own thoughts.”

Kendra Jones had an interesting take on this same point.  “The fans of indie music have always maintained their own ecosystem, out of the mainstream music sources.  Their ingenuity when it comes to discovering new music in the far corners of that ecosystem has always been what’s driven my tastes in music.”

Cold Blood Club’s Hillary Davis also offered that “Fans are also becoming more savvy and expect higher quality from recordings and live shows. (Which bands can provide increasingly easily … thank you technology!)”

Lackner took a much more straightforward tack when describing the people who are attracted to Passalacqua shows.  “They are sexy, sexy freaks.”  (He must have seen me in the audience.)

As diverse as these acts are, they also have some things in common with just about every other band that has taken a stage.  They love to see you dance.  They’d like to see you put your cell phone down after you are done with a few pics.  They’d like to see you sweat.

Oh, and Valentiger doesn’t mind being heckled.  Just realize that is a two way street and they will heckle you back.

The Hell’s Half Mile Film and Music Festival is September 24 – 27 in Bay City.  Music events will run throughout the festival, spread throughout the downtown area. 

See the www.hellshalfmile.com for a full schedule of events and information of ticketing.


What They’re About • HHM Band Bios & Schedule

Thursday, Sept. 24, 11 p.m.

Old City Hall, 814 Saginaw St.

Valley Hush (Detroit)

This Detroit quartet has been making waves around the region for their evocative fusion of electronica, pop, and indie rock. Multi-instrumentalist and producer Alex Kaye crafts a synesthetic kaleidoscope of sounds, upon which Lianna Vanicelli lays her sultry and silken vocals. Gloppy beats, sensual rhythms, and scintillating synths are the group’s hallmarks.


Friday, Sept. 25, 9 p.m.

Empire Room Banquet Hall, 1205 Washington Ave.

Ampersand Castles (Bay City)

After a brief but focused gestation, this Bay City super group comprising veterans of some of the area’s premiere bands made their debut at an HHM Indie Music Showcase in May, blowing away the audience with their deft textures and space-rock qualities. With their captivating interplay, Trevor Edmonds, Cody Marecek, and Aaron Cianek shift from proggy shoegaze, to synth pop, to balls-out rocking, pulling from their diverse experience to craft something entirely new.

Pink Lightning (Detroit)

This quintet wrangles, subdues, gnaws on, slurps down, and spits back a demented mélange of sounds. Built upon Leo McWilliams's accordion and frontman Chris Butterfield's unhinged charisma, their brand of cabaret-punk occupies an alternate timeline where the world is nothing but carnival freakshows and seedy burlesque clubs.

Cold Blood Club (New York City)

Cold Blood Club is the band you want to play your end-of-the-world rooftop party as an asteroid burns through the atmosphere. The seven-member Manhattan troupe is apocalyptic in their revelry, fun as hell without being light. Think of them as aggressive new wave or heavy noir pop, their sound a nocturnal affair of compelling you to dance without concern for whatever might travail you.

Passalacqua (Detroit)

Whether spitting rhymes over vintage, soul-inflected soundtracks or rapping amid a barrage of layered synths and crashing beats, this duo is dynamic in all facets. Composed of Brent “Blak” Smith and Bryan “Mister” Lackner, Passalacqua are smooth-groovers whose artistry is paramount and infectious. Trading off vocals, they rhapsodize social commentary narratives, introspective examinations, and chronicle the simple joys of camaraderie.


Saturday, Sept. 26, 9 p.m.

Masonic Temple Blue Room, Madison Ave. & Sixth St.

Pines (Davisburg)

What Pines play is a vein of impossible-to-pigeonhole/lo-fi ambient jazz noise rock. From gently cascading melodies to blistering bouts of riffing to trance-inducing pulsations, Pines does it all, and they do it all in stellar fashion. Be forewarned, when they play, they play LOUD.

Valentiger (Grand Rapids)

You could label this trio alt. country with their vocal harmonies, pastoral textures, and rustic vibe. At the same time, the tag does this trio a disservice in limiting the scope of their range. Add in their rollicking rhythms, insouciant approach and stage presence, and revved up energy, they flick the switch between acoustic balladry and driving rock.

The Lippies (Grand Rapids)

Old school punk is thriving in the veins of this Grand Rapids quartet. Concrete-fracturing basslines, shockwave drumming, and frenzied guitars compose the platform from which vocalist Tonia Broucek projects her scathing pipes. Through it all, there’s a strong sense of melody and earworming hooks in each of their tunes.

Stepdad (Grand Rapids)

Stepdad are a mainline shot of pure sugar in the synth pop confectionary, purveying 8-bit anthems tailor-made to get you dancing in a communal bout of camaraderie. Try listening to the bouncy pop of “My Leather, My Furs, My Nails” or the mystical grooves of “Must Land Running” and not feel a galvanizing force stir inside you.

Mystery location and time

Nigel & the Dropout (Detroit)

Think of an art show at once visually, aurally, and intellectually stimulating and you behold Nigel & the Dropout. A projected light show of images flutter about the duo of Nigel Hemmye and Andrew “the Dropout” Ficker as they conjure a whirlwind of sounds to match.



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