The Year in Music • 2017

A Touchstone Year for Regional Music

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Local Music,   From Issue 854   By: Matt deHeus & Robert E. Martin

07th December, 2017     0

The music world spent a lot of time in 2017 reflecting on 1967, as it marked the 50th anniversary of what is arguably the greatest year for pop album releases in history.  Whether it was The Beatles introducing us to “Sgt. Pepper” or taking us on a “Magical Mystery Tour,” Jimi Hendrix asking, “Are You Experienced,Jefferson Airplane laying us down on a “Surrealistic Pillow” or the Moody Blues reminding us of “Days of the Future Past,” each of us has a touchstone from this epic year.

It’s an admitted hyperbole, but for those involved in the Mid-Michigan music community, 2017 has that kind of feel.  If nothing else, one can make the argument that this is the year when all the components have come together. Between seasoned artists mixed with new talent, good established venues and the rise of new ones such as Bourbon +Co., some pretty great songwriting and an excellent batch of recordings, much to the delight of both players and fans alike, all the components are currently present.

Veteran songwriter and performer Jen Cass summed up one of the most common responses heard about the current state of the Mid-Michigan original music – the fact that Andy Reed and his studio, Reed Recording Company, have acted as such a catalyst for the current burst of creativity.

As it was put by Cass: “I think the most important thing happening in our area is the presence of Andy Reed and Reed Recording Company. Andy’s place has become a magnet, not just for our local music scene, but for great music being made all over the country and the world. This has created more camaraderie and collaboration between the local bands and musicians, and led to the growth of multiple new bands and projects including my band, The Lucky Nows.”

Cass continued, “I’ve toured all over the country, and I would be willing to put our local talent up against any local scene out there. Andy is the glue. But it also helps that every single person I work with is not only a genuinely exceptional talent, they are also exceptional people. We support one another. We encourage each other’s projects and talents. We make each other better and we help each other grow.”

It is true, as documented over the course of this year in the Review, that Reed has had a front row seat as many of the artists operating in the area decided to document their craft.  His calendar is well stocked months in advance as his reputation grows and the investments he makes in his business increase his capabilities.

Singer/songwriter Sarah Schingeck, whose CD will be debuted in January at the State Theater is inspired to see the number of people who are taking up the opportunity to record. “It is really great to see how many artists have been recording with Andy.  The Lucky Nows are recording, The Straight Eights are recording, Jen Naegele's EP was done there. Lauren Jones has an album coming out (soon) under a new name Loren Cole.  Barbarossa Brothers have been playing out a lot and released an album this year. My own EP.  I am sure there is more I'm missing. It’s all very cool!”

Songwriter and “harmonica player for hire” Rosco Selley has been involved in original music for over two decades, with bands such as Blues Controversy and maybe august on a resume that includes current work on studio and stage with Michael “MFR” Robertson, Jan Cass and the Lucky Nows and others.

“We all push each other,” reflects Selley. “We all play on each other's records, and we all LOVE the process. Recording original music has been what I've wanted to do since Blues Controversy in the early 90s. I always regretted that we didn't have more recordings of maybe august.  Working with MFR, Donny Brown, Brandon Calhoon, Jen Cass, (and even Andy Reed) has required me to up my game - and I think we all feel that way about each other. The more you record, the better you get at it, and the more ya wanna! Lastly, we have an INCREDIBLE group of songwriters in the area, and great recordings start with great SONGS!”

Andy Reed, for all the mention of recordings and technology, agrees with Selley when he strips the quality of the scene down to a couple of essential elements, both of which are required to make a community of recording artists work.

“The songwriting in our area is incredible.  I think everyone is so open minded and we are all learning from each other and inspiring each other.  There is no sense of competition whatsoever.  It’s all community driven.  It’s awesome to see everyone come together and play on each other’s records as well. I’m glad to have the best seat in the house during all of this.”

Jeff Scott of WUCX 90.1 FM often features locally produced music on his weekly radio program and podcasts. States Scott: “As far as our local music scene here in Mid-Michigan goes, I think we’re in an era of greatness right now.  Music lovers in the region do not have to wait too long or travel very far to experience highly skilled professional musicians playing superb original material.  It seems like there is always a good show to catch somewhere.”

Scott also added, “Technology has made it easier for local artists to lay down their tracks and of course for music lovers to enjoy them.  In our region, I think that has paved the way for an explosion of creativity and a recent landslide of great music that we get to take with us.”

The theme of songwriting was also consistent with many of the people The Review spoke to.  The fact that artists such as Bob Hausler and Laurie Middlebrook have worked so hard over the years to cultivate the craft and mentor new songwriters was mentioned by many of those that responded.

Singer / songwriter Jennifer Naegele, whose CD Chickadee with Jet Lag debuted this year, is a relatively new addition to the area’s roster of talented original musicians, but she has immediately picked up on the sense of community that exists between performing artists.

As Naegele described, “Our region’s music scene has an authenticity that breeds a sort of inclusivity. This inclusivity in turn bolsters a culture where authentic and original music can thrive. Musicians here are throwing their hearts into incredible original compositions; every song stamped with a signature as unique as a thumbprint, and embraced wholly by fellow musicians and our community. Whether viewed as a hidden gem, or making a small shift to ubiquity, one thing remains: The Great Lakes Bay Region is a warm, vibrant and inspiring place to be making and sharing music.”

Songwriter J.D. Dominowski pointed out how exciting it has been to see people doing their best work, recording and performing songs that are meaningful to them. 

Said Dominowksi, “This area has long been supported internally by other musicians in the area, but the caliber of work that has been released in 2017 or will be released in early 2018 is some of the best I've heard around here in the past decade.  There's some real substance to these releases that are a real promising sign of things to come.  There seems to be something brewing in the Americana/Alt-Country movement here specifically in Mid-Michigan that is seeking to fill a void left by traditional rock bands in the area and that...to me...pretty much sums up 2017.  Great music being created by great people...seems to indicate something great is going to happen in the coming year!”

Andrew Kitzman is one of the standard bearers of independent musicians in the area.  In addition to his second original release in 2017, he is known for his use of the various media platforms and venues available to a solo performer.

“I've always been proud of our local scene. Everyone is generous with advice, knowledge, and support. As for the explosion in original music I do have one thought. Things like YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and paid music subscriptions are the new norm. Along with that, practically everyone has a smart phone. This means that people can listen to any song, any time they want. So, what does that do to the cover band scene? I think it shifts their purpose away from being a Top-40 Jukebox, and instead shines a light on their talents and tastes. They may still cover music, but now people want to hear THEIR take on a song. Or maybe they want to hear original music. People are dying for something original. When all the radio stations play the same song on repeat, and you can hear commercial pop music whenever you want, you realize how superficial it is and it makes you hungry for something more substantial. That groundswell is being felt by creatives and it's supporting their more ambitious dreams.”

Keyboardist Anthony Lee, of the Mecurials, The Epic Thing and Flatlander Recording Studio agrees that people are very receptive to music that is not mainstream or provided by the mass media.

“I think the airwaves have been bombarded with a lot of music that sounds slick, but lacks the soul. It seems passionless and derivative, business as usual.  I think there is a slight rebellion against that here, and I mean that as a compliment.  For me, this area seems flush with "the rock n roll experience". A night of friendly drinks and head bobbin'? Hedge Row. A night reminiscent of reflection and perhaps a bit of debauchery? The Hellbound Drifters. A romantic night out? The Mercurials. Need that 80s-post punk? Audrey Byrne has you covered.”

Guitarist Aaron Kowalski, of the Kuzco’s Poison and the Kowalski Brothers, agreed,

“The local music scene seems MUCH more welcoming to original music as opposed to cover bands that are usually out there. There's a lot of good original artists out there and now there are younger promoters pushing the original artists for shows, which is awesome. New bands like Forest Green, Hot Mulligan, and Citizen all from Michigan are finding huge success and I would credit it to the local community supporting them and local venues letting them play original music for a set, instead of 4-hour cover sets.”

Where we began discussing 2017 in the context of the most seasoned performers and those producing professional recordings, Troy Weiler of the Excellency Music Festival series had an interesting take on the “other end” of the musical journey – those that are just getting started in performing, promoting and attending independent music shows.

As Weiler explained, “The work that the bands Forest Green and Vital Sea have put out are top notch. Those bands are making strides all over the state and I think it has a lot to do with the music they have released and how hard they work at those opportunities.  I also think with the emergence of the newer festivals in our area such as Patchwork and Excellency creates new “local” music fans in our area. It helps with the draws at shows in Mid-Michigan and they even bring in new people to our community.”

As Weiler continues, “I’ve noticed a lot of new acoustic artists popping up all over the place. I think this is cool because a lot of these people are just taking the chance to play a show for the first time. You never know when those specific people will grow as far as popularity or if it even branches out into a favorite “local” band.”

“One big thing I’ve noticed with doing shows almost weekly is the family feel. People I considered strangers when I first started have become very familiar faces with how often they come to shows, and then those people bring their friends and those faces become familiar as well. It’s a never-ending process that is also growing our music community.”

Regional Impact on a Broader Stage

The way this renaissance and synergy of talent resonates with the audience that supports it was witnessed this year at 31st Annual Review Music Awards, which was held in April at Lumber Baron’s Genevieve Ballroom, and witnessed a total of 4,288 votes cast by the general public with a total of 546 artists nominated throughout the Great Lakes Bay Region.

Top honors went to the new Hip-Hop group BXG5 who walked away with seven trophies (including Best New Artist of the Year and Best CD Release; Andy Reed, who secured six honors both individual and with his band The Legal Matters; Tweed & Dixie, who walked away with four trophies; and Carrie Westbay, who picked up three honors for Best Female Rock Vocalist, Best Rock Songwriter, and Best Rock Band with her group The Westward Sons. Other winners included The Barbarossa Brothers (Best Alternative Band); Hell’s Half Mile Indie Music Showcases (Best Concert/Album or Project) and Sanford Parkaplooza (Best Music Festival).

An additional unexpected highlight at this year’s Music Awards ceremony was the special commendation received by The Review from the State of Michigan and City of Saginaw for “preserving and enriching music and the arts and promoting regional arts and musicians.”

Greta Van Fleet’s Rocket Ride to the Top

Speaking of The Review Music Awards, two years ago local rock band Greta Van Fleet emerged out of the cozy, close-knit town of Frankenmuth to make their debut at the 29th RMA Ceremony; and now as 2017 comes to a close, they are indisputably the biggest success story of the year on the national and international music scene.

After signing to Lava Records on the spot in March, the group dropped their debut EP Black Smoke Rising, which landed on the Billboard 200, just one month later; and named Artist of the Week by Apple Music.  With a sold-out United States tour and another European Tour in the fall that also witnessed sold-out venues, the group just released their double EP From the Fires, as they embark on yet another fully sold-out North American tour.

Numerous online music sites have clocked impressive download traffic and major media coverage from Billboard, The Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times have cast this enterprising young band as the face of rock ‘n roll for a new generation, while other shave compared them to the legendary Led Zeppelin.

As vocalist Josh Kiszka explained his reaction to this rocket ride of rapid success to the Review in an exclusive interview: “Considering that it took me 20 years to get to this point, everything is happening really quickly and you can’t totally prepare for it – nobody really could. There is no class you can take so you have to ground yourself and rationalize things through, otherwise you could go off the deep end very easily.”.

 

 

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