The Year in Arts, Music & Culture • 2021

    icon Dec 16, 2021
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“Be who you are and not what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”   - Dr. Seuss

The Year in Music, Arts & Culture throughout the Great Lakes Bay Region began much as we find it ending, with the specter of COVID-19 and its numerous variants dominating the stage, instilling a sense of fear among many to attend large gatherings even as those stages  thankfully, joyously, and successfully re-opened, as was proven in December with sell-out performances of Pit & Balcony’s regional premier of ELF the Musical.

There is no doubt that all of us - rich or poor; young or old - have been impacted by the COVID Pandemic in ways we never could have imagined. One of the most severely hit sectors of society has been the Performing Arts, who through the trauma of empty concert halls, bare stages, deserted galleries, and isolated artists, have been yearning to connect with an audience and no doubt praying to St. Cecilia - the Patron Saint of Music - to give them the resilience to survive and the innovation needed in order to return to their former greatness.

Americans for the Arts estimates a $1.8 trillion total financial loss to the arts & cultural sector of the United States from the COVID-19 pandemic and nearly 490 million fewer attendees to arts & cultural events.  Indeed, back in March of this year, one year after the lockdowns started, the total financial loss to Michigan arts & culture institutions was estimated at nearly $20 billion, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the $338 billion loss in New York.  Indeed, out of 229 Michigan Arts Organizations surveyed, about 7 percent reported they were “not confident of survival.”

Amidst this bleak landscape, the month of January began with award-winning musical treasure Michael Brush re-inventing many of the original compositions and songs he created over the years, remastering them under the meticulous care of engineer Andy Reed and re-released for digital distribution & download at most music sites such as I-Tunes, Amazon. One of those songs, Crossing the Bridge, was co-produced by Donny Brown, former co-founder of The Verve Pipe; and infused with additional backing vocals containing vocal work by Amy Petty and Donny Brown.

Additionally, PIECES - a combination of Brush originals from his release of the same title, along with Like a Box of Chocolates, which features the work of vocalist Julie Mulady, have also been remastered for digital release along with his remarkable work of original holiday masterpieces on Decembering, which contains previous material from that EP along with newer addition

The history and culture of Latinos and their impact on American culture and society through the lens of baseball was also shared in the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service’s (SITES) new bilingual (Spanish and English) exhibition, “¡Pleibol! In the Barrios and the Big Leagues / En los Barrios y las Grandes Ligas, which was on display at the Castle Museum from January 23, 2021, through April 18, 2021.  Throughout the 20th century in the United States and Latin America, baseball provided a path for a better future. Workers in agriculture and industry in the United States used baseball to make ends meet and as a socially acceptable space to find community and organize for rights and justice. This exhibition was definitely one of the year’s highlights.

2021 was decidedly a big year for Saginaw filmmaker & artist Luka Dziubyna, who released his latest documentary After the Cage for a world premiere at The Court Theater in March. Assembling a cast featuring some of the world’s most renowned fighters and athletes, he focused his lens upon what happens when circumstances force these superstars to step away from the ring and drop out of the limelight into retirement when many of them - only in their late 30s to mid-40s - would ostensibly be in the prime of their life in any other occupation. Luka also opened a new venture - The Embalming Room Art Gallery in the former Case Funeral Home in Old Town Saginaw back in the Fall of 2021.

The Marshall Fredericks Sculpture Museum out at Saginaw Valley State University staged several impressive exhibitions in 2021, beginning in February with an expansive virtual exhibit of Hip Hop Icons  showcasing the origins and evolution of Rap and Hip-Hop from its early days in New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit as part of Black History Month, and continuing with exhibitions on Modern Michigan Architecture and later in the year,  works created by artists bonding together to assist a friend and fellow artist who lost his family home in Sanford during the dam breach titled Notes from the Quarantimes.

The Michigan Music History Podcast (MMHP 989) surfaced in 2021 and brought together two giants of Michigan music knowledge, Fred Reif and Gary Johnson, to explore the rich expanse of Michigan music that extends through their wealth of knowledge, research, and personal experience. The conversation is propelled by Scott Baker, who hatched the idea last year when geographic proximity and the shutdown gave him a lemons-to-lemonade idea, figuring some interesting, deep-dive conversations could result from the association.  Alan Garcia, a friend and former colleague of Baker’s at the Bay City Times joined the team, giving all four an opportunity to build a road between Michigan music’s golden past and its bright future through in-depth podcast interviews with musical regional movers & shakers new and old hailing from the Great Lakes Bay Region.

The most welcomed addition to the Live Music Scene was he opening of The Vault.  A collaborative endeavor between owner William Peters and programming manager Bill Silverthorn,  With a 30 foot stage, two floors featuring multiple bars on each level capable of servicing up to 770 people, a full-liquor license, and a 65,000 watt JBL sound system, not since the halcyon days of such large-scale venues as Shooters and Club Empire, has the tri-cities witnessed such an accommodating showcase for live musical entertainment. Showcasing national, regional, and local musical groups and artists spanning multiple genres, while catering to patrons with a venue unlike anything available throughout our region, this venue led the charge when it came to bringing in top-notch world-class Tribute bands, up-and-coming national artists, and special events such as The REVIEW Music Awards and the summer SOS Music Festival.

The Legal Matters, consisting of Andy Reed, Keith Klingensmith, and Chris Richards, created an exceptional new album to showcase their talents in the 12-song collection that comprises their third studio release titled Chapter Three.  Filled with sparkling melodies and lyrics reflecting the times we live in, and also featuring the drumming of Verve Pipe co-founder Donny Brown, the 12 fresh tracks on Chapter Three covered all variety of topics ranging from the Pandemic, Trump, honesty, affliction and affections while framing these topics within a musical cushion capable of catapulting one’s consciousness into that rarified air of heavenly bliss.

Back in 2003 the late Tom Webb embarked upon a monumental task. Pulling together veterans, friends, business associates and foundations to collect the various veterans’ memorials scattered around the city of Saginaw, his goal was to place them in one central location.  This marked the beginning of Saginaw County Veterans Memorial Plaza, which houses monuments from World War 1, World War II, Vietnam and the Korean War.  In 2021 a new effort was undertaken to add a new pod to recognize veterans who served in conflicts in the Middle East ‑ which given the state of the world today, is an important element to recognize in terms of those we have lost to armed conflict. With a budget for this final installment of the Plaza estimated to be $125,000, requests have gone out to major foundations throughout the region to complete this vision.

The Friends of Theodore Roethke Foundation made impressive progress in 2021 at furthering their mission of not only preserving the physical structures that were the birthplace of Saginaw’s Pulitzer Prize winning poet, but equally important - advancing their goal of bringing world class poets and speakers into the Great Lakes Bay Region that nourish the literary landscape of the people who inhabit it. In April and May they presented an impressive roster of notable poets with their  Virtual Spring Reading Series, and they wound out the year showcasing the newly restored Stone House, which only two years ago seemed doomed for the wrecking ball.

According to FOTR Executive Director Anne Ransford, “The community’s efforts to ‘Save the Stone House’ have been successful, and the Stone House is on its way to becoming a new community space dedicated to literacy, arts, and mental health programming. Construction is ongoing, and we are looking forward to using this space by the end of 2021. We can’t wait to share this singular community resource with the general public as the unique creative hub it was destined to be, which will inform and educate many generations to come.”

After 15 months of being locked down from the Pandemic, musicians, artists, community leaders, and the general public gathered together to blow down the walks of Jericho at the 35th Annual REVIEW Music Awards on May 16th of this year. Held within the immaculately spacious splendor of The Vault,  56 artists throughout the Great Lakes Bay Region in genres ranging from Jazz, Blues, Rock, Country, and numerous Miscellaneous categories were honored. Among the top winners were Andy Dalton for his masterful opus The Fireside Wake, Amy Petty for her stunning CD The Darkness of Birds, Marsupial Creampie, who was voted Best Variety Band, and songwriter Matt deHeus.

The historic structure that once was home to the congregation of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church still stands proudly at the corner of 2nd & Federal Streets in Downtown Saginaw. Back in November, 2020, largely due to dwindling membership, the congregation disbanded after 168 years, leaving the current structure, which was built in the late 1950s at a cost of more than $584,000, to await an uncertain future. It was left to a team of officers consisting of Kurt Aven, Mark Oswald, Carl Quackenbush and Bob Morgan to deal with the sale of the church. Initially listed for $500,000 within the past year they had witnessed the evaluation of their building drop from half-a-million dollars to $250,000, only to watch it finally sell for a meagre $10,000.

Having dealt with the loss and grief of closing their church and transferring all property and assets from their trust into a new foundation, this team of trustees released any hope for profit on the sale of the property over to a desire to facilitate the dream of the new owner, Pastor Chet Atkins, who’s desire and aspirations for  developing a church of outreach that can effectively service the needs of the community in many ways is finally starting to materialize on an entirely new level. 

To kick off their 50th Anniversary, the Midland Center for the Arts emerged from the pandemic with a 50th Anniversary presentation of the groundbreaking musical Jesus Christ Superstar in August.  Directed by Emily Anderson and starring Ray’mond Fields in the role of Jesus, this innovative translation merged contemporary attitudes and sensibilities, as well as slang, along with ironic allusions to modern life, designed in a manner to more deeply engage audiences into the timeless relevancy of Jesus’s many sacrifices.  

The DStreet Music Foundation emerged like a Phoenix rising from the ashes to stage their 16th Annual Parkapalooza Music Festival in September at The Tridge in Midland. For 15 years the festival was held on the beach at Sanford State Park, but the devastating loss of Sanford Lake due to the dam breach during the floods of 2020 added an entirely different dimension of challenge to their endeavors. Hats off to their perseverance and success!

With a new album of original material titled Odd Shaped Puzzle and armed with a fresh alliance of talent to render it, musician Aaron Johnson managed to create one of the most impressive and engaging listening experiences to emerge out of the local, regional, and national musical scenes in 2021. Enlisting the talent of drummer Erik Friday and Justin Mangutz on bass, along with Barbarossa Brothers keyboardist Loren Kranz, with his newest outing Johnson crafted together an album of nine original tracks that are each uniquely and intricately rendered with divergent tempos and textures, yet all fit together to form an impressively breathtaking musical experience.

After 18-months of theatrical screens sitting silent, the 15th Annual Hells Half Mile Film & Music Festival returned to Bay City and joyously turned the house lights up in spectacular fashion, featuring approximately 80 films from independent filmmakers ranging in length from features to shorts, while showcasing cutting-edge musical acts from all parts of the country, and re-inventing the festival itself by adding a ‘Virtual Access Pass’ that afforded patrons an opportunity to screen select content within the comfort of their own homes.

2021 was also a big year for local blues legend Larry McCray.  Even though he has headlined major international festivals and shared solo duets with greats such as B.B. King and Buddy Guy, broader commercial acclaim and success has proven to be evasive. Fortunately, all of that is poised to change.  Larry recorded an album’s worth of new original material with the eminently talented and successful Joe Bonamassa and guitarist Josh Smith.  Larry also brought the house down in November at The Fox Theatre in Detroit when Bonamassa brought Larry onstage as a featured guest artist - an unprecedented move for Bonamassa.

Finally, The Saginaw Arts & Enrichment Commission celebrated the 31st Annual All Area Arts Awards on the evening of Thursday, June 10th at the Saginaw Art Museum, after taking a one year hiatus due to the 2020 pandemic.   Commissioner, Pat Shelley served as emcee for the awards ceremony recognizing individuals, businesses, and non-profit organizations that have enhanced the Quality of Life in Saginaw County through their support of the arts.

This year's nominees consisted of Alpha Media, independent filmmaker, artist, and photographer Luka Dziubyna, historian Charles Hoover, musician and teacher Jacob Kohut, music teacher Demona Reed, musician, manager, author, and collector Fred Reif, Saginaw Choral Society's virtual presentation At Home for the Holidays, Pit & Balcony Theatre Managing Director Amy Spadafore, dancer Jamie Wallace, SVSU theatre professor and director Tommy Wedge, and Saginaw painter Lester White. 

Top honors went to  Demona Reed, who has served the youth of Saginaw and beyond as a music teacher in the Saginaw Public Schools and other districts for more than 40 years; Amy Spadafore, Managing Director of Saginaw’s Pit & Balcony Theatre and a founding member of ACE, the Arts & Cultural Engagement Collaborative; Charles Hoover, who has dedicated his life to historic preservation and the history and culture of the Great Lakes as former director of the Saginaw County Historical Society and the Castle Museum; and Alpha Media for their contributions to arts organizations throughout the region.

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