Best Original Band • Best Alternative Band • Jazz Songwriter • Jazz Musician

    icon Jun 24, 2020
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One of the running jokes when I sit down to interview people for the Review is what I call my “product liability statement.”  It goes something like this:

“The first thing I have to tell you is I am not a journalist.  I am a chemical engineer.  I don't know why Bob (Martin) lets me write these columns, but so far, I haven't pissed anybody off too badly.”

On that basis, we go forward with the interview.

One of the things that I have come to learn about actual journalists is they disclose their biases.  When Bob asked me to profile Barbarossa Brothers, winners of the 2020 Review Music Awards for Best Original Band and Best Alternative Band, I decided it might be as good a time as any to start to make the turn toward legitimacy in the trade by admitting (some of) my biases upfront in this story.  There is some history I feel I should  disclose.

One of the roots of this story begins years ago with a discussion with the guys from jam-band legends Maybe Augus tabout new acts that were coming into the scene. Sprout and the Orange, as they were known then, came up.  But it was the notoriously finicky Ron “Rosco” Selley that brought up a new band called Barbarossa.    As I recall his quote was “Those young cats get it.”

I took the opportunity shortly thereafter to check them out at a Midland Street gig.  It was on this evening that I first got to hear Loren Kranz and Ryan Fitzgerald play in what amounted to their “High School Band.”  Rosco was right.  These kids could play.  I took note.

Fast forward a couple of years and I was on the Board with Dstreet Entertainment. We put on a clinic at the Prime Event Center called “How To Start A Rock Band,” aimed at high school and middle school students.  By this time Loren was in a band called Michigan Monsoon.  I knew he was in music school and teaching.  I took a chance and asked him if he would bring the band in to do a playing clinic  for the kids.

They accepted and the event was one of the most memorable instructional moments I have personally participated in.  The way that Loren broke down his approach to the keyboard part on a song and his view of keys as part of a rhythm section were eye opening.  I knew right then he could not only “do it,” he could explain it.  Those two gifts are not always conjoined and they are skills he employs to great effect to this day.

That clinic was also the first time that I met the band's shaggy haired front-man, Drew Pentkowski.  He already had a growing reputation, showing up on the scene as an aspiring blues guitarist as a teenager.  By this point he was not only expanding past that genre on the instrument, he was developing into a powerhouse lead vocalist.

My favorite story about Drew that day wasn't about playing or teaching, though.  It was when our emcee for the event tried to tease a little more dialog out of the somewhat reticent Pentkowski.  (We had forgotten to tell Drew it was a clinic and he was going to have to explain what he was doing to kids. Oops.)

The emcee asked him why he had chosen the guitar he was playing, a Gibson SG.  His answer, “I liked it and I had enough money for it, because it was on sale.”  

Drew is honest and he is straightforward.  It is a consistent characteristic.

I'll share another story about Drew that may or may not be something I should keep to myself.  

Last fall I played a show with Drew.  I hadn't seen him in awhile and in the interim I had suffered a bit of a personal setback that was news to him.  For everyone that would like to describe Drew as aloof,  I would suggest that is at odds with the feeling you get when he cares about you and you talk to him about a problem.  His ability to go from “zero to empathy” is endearing.  I'd also argue it informs his art as a songwriter.

So, first admission, I have significant bias when it comes to Loren Kranz and Drew Pentkowski.  

When founding member Ryan Fitzgerald eft what had morphed into Barbarossa Brothers, Pentkowski and Kranz weighed a few options in going forward.  After a couple of “trial balloon” gigs and configurations, what clicked was bringing in a ready-made unit of players who could equal, or even add to the musical gumbo that the band had concocted over several years of hard gigging and a critically acclaimed album.

Enter, guitarist Scott Van Dell, bassist, Allison Scott and drummer Andy Scott, known to many in the area for their own band, The Straight Eights.  Van Dell has a whole shelf of Review Awards, including this year as Best Jazz Musician.  His daughter Allison has her own collection going, including this year's win in the Best Jazz Songwriter category.

This is also a point where I need to admit some more biases.

When I first moved back to Michigan in the early 90's, I was living in Ypsilanti.  A couple of my old friends had a new band called the Swaggering Rogues and they sometimes needed a place to stay when they played in the area.

This is where I met Scott Van Dell, who then sported a good foot of hair that hung down his back.  He didn't say much, but I can very vividly remember the first time I saw him play guitar. When I went out to see the Rogues, the first song that they played was the Beatles “Get Back.”  When they got to the guitar break, my reaction was “Damn. That sounded just like the record.” And that went on song after song, all night long.  

A couple of decades went by before I actually landed in Bay City.  I've gotten to know Scott a lot better.  He's still my favorite guy in town to go see play guitar.  But, full disclosure, I've used Scott on my recordings.  I've taken guitar lessons from Scott.  We've had a beers when the main topic of discussion was our mutual underemployment and concern for what was coming next.  If you think he's quiet, I spent three hours on the phone with him in the early days of the lockdown as we were both unsure of how things were going to play out.

Yeah, if I write something about Scott Van Dell, it’s hard for me to be neutral.

But, wait … my conflicts of interest get “worse.”  

Allison and Andy Scott are not only arguably the best rhythm section currently playing in this area, they probably had the coolest wedding reception I have ever attended.  When most of your friends are musicians, you don't need to book a band.  You just set up gear.

Adding to the fun, if you have ever attended a wedding where the bride lays down James Jamerson style bass lines while in her wedding dress, please raise your hand.  I have.  The word that comes to mind is badass.

But one other thing about having musicians set up and jam:  No one thinks to play a slow song.

So, when I stepped up and showed the guys the three chords that pedal underneath “In Color,” it did not occur to me that I was now responsible for the couple's wedding dance.  You want an enduring emotion?  Sing that song to a bride and groom and have them each look at you with a tear in their eye.  I'm crying right now, actually.

Oh, and Andy's dad, John, has played drums with me in Catfood Sandwich for the last two and a half years.  It's just another one of these situations where I probably can't be unbiased.

At this point you may be wondering why I am telling you these stories.  Honestly, because there isn't a lot to report right now.  We are talking about people that are musicians.  Professional ones.  We are all in limbo right now.   Barbarossa Brothers had planned on rocking out all summer, with festivals dates stretching into the fall and some opening slots that would have brought great entertainment to town.

Instead, right now they are like a lot of people, sidelined by a crisis that doesn't care what your plans were or how hard you have worked, only to watch opportunities evaporate.  I'd love to write an optimistic article of all the cool things coming up in the near term, but that is not on the table right now.

More than anything, I wanted to say, if you are looking for opinions on Barbarossa Brothers, I am probably going to have to recuse myself.  I probably can't be neutral.

In lieu of that, I'd like to offer up this streamed performance, courtesy of  sound tech Charlie Williams.  You can form some of your own conclusions based on this.

Barbarossa Brothers Live at Bemo's




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