The Year in Music: Survival, Success & Working Against the Grain

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Local Music,   From Issue 802   By: Robert E Martin

26th December, 2014     0

Writing about notable events in American music is like kissing the Donkey’s ass too often. Take a look at the Country Music Awards; which one is better, which one is best. There is the CMA, ACM and the CMT and they all have their own websites. You need to grease a lot of palms to stroke it good. You may notice that in most of these the country superstars are good-looking, slender and down home nice, especially those dudes who wear a cowboy hat and play electric guitar. The country musicians who back it all up never miss a beat or a squeal and provide just the right amount of synthesized colorations to make it sound pretty. The sledge hammer, rock & roll rhythm section is an integral part of overall sound, yet it’s buried in the mix, go figure.

From the perspective of a working class curmudgeon, the current status of popular music in general is a shambles. It is all pre-empted, co-opted, and recycled.   How many times can you listen to Pharrell William’s song Happy without getting a sour tummy? He sings it like he means it… “It might seem crazy what I'm about to say…Sunshine she's here, you can take away….I'm a hot air balloon, I could go to space….With the air, like I don't care baby by the way….Because I'm happy,,,,Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof….Because I'm happy….Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth….Because I'm happy….Clap along if you know what happiness is to you…..Because I'm happy…Clap along if you feel like that's what you wanna do.”

I don’t buy it. Like Madeline Albright says “the world is a mess.” And as music becomes more a distraction instead of a platform for truth, peace, and beauty - we seem to be recreating the bread and circuses of the ancient Roman Empire. We are insular and beaten down and the world refuses to wake up.  It’s a weird alchemy that reduces music to notes without a deeper meaning. Deciding not to scalp the enemy is a step in the right direction and I think we can find it across the world, in pockets of enlightenment where music and the arts flourish.

We have it here in the Great Lakes Bay Region of Michigan.  Venues have dried up a bit, yet the survivors keep pumping out great music from notable bands. The Hamilton Street Pub is # 1 in my book - great food and drinks and even better music. Motts Place is a newcomer in the area, but they hit the road running by booking Sprout & the Orange, John Krogman, Matt Besey and others. The Baywood Lounge is coming into it’s own as a venue that cares about good music. They might book Matt Besey and follow-up with Day 8… very cool.

Bemos is my favorite people and they book the best bands around. They are the anchor for Bay City’s music scene along with favorite son Andy Reed.  We are kindred spirits and it feels real good whenever I get a chance to talk with Luann or Andy… because it’s real.

The musicians are the seasoning in the stew. They make it all work despite long hours and little reward. John Krogman is forever a dreamer and he keeps on playing beautiful original music with a message. Zydeco Ziggy and White Crow are an inspiration to us all, digging deep into the caves and crevices of ancient acoustical music that gives voice to the everyman. Honesty Elliot, Mandi Layne and Dani Vitani are simply incredible, blending their strong, soaring voices into a heavenly elixir. They should be superstars. Mel Curry and Michelle O’ Neill are quietly taking the scene by storm, their rich voices blending perfectly and providing the backdrop to the everyday people that support the acoustic rhythms and harmony that provide us all with a sense of our homeland.

Jazz and blues have been resurrected from the ashes and the Phoenix has risen. Larry McCray just released a fabulous new CD and he’s gigging locally. We need Larry McCray, he’s the new messiah of the blues and he wears it well. Donny Brown opened up the Red Room and proved to be more than a Freshmen. He’s a great singer, songwriter and a talented multi-instrumentalist.

Donny Zuzula and the Tosspints create some of the most dynamic and daring music on the planet. His lyrics give you an idea of his existential angst. Zuzula means what he says and he will step up and step in it when something sucks. He famously confides, “you can’t fix suck.”

Bryan Rombalski along with Ryan Fitzgerald and Loren Kranz shifted Three Worlds into high gear. The energy and mastery is breathtaking. Kedree Young and Kyle Mayer are performing solo on a regular basis and they still fill up the tank to take Thick as Thieves on the road. Thank god.

My vote for the most engaging and original artist is Tim Avram and his band the Mongrels. Avram has become an auteur of the dark side of life, vampires and deep cesspools of pain. The abyss calls but Avram won’t give it his face because he knows better. He has already crafted an album of punk classics to be added to the Mongrels’ catalog. I can’t wait to get my filthy mitts on that little treasure trove of truth from the dark side of the street.

But the big local winner for 2014 is …Greta Van Fleet. This quartet of teenage rockers has the goods, from their age to their looks, along with their awe-inspiring mastery of craft. These teen wizards channel Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin, yet they have their own unique sense of who they are. It seems as if they are wise beyond their years, yet they are supported by good management and an extended family that cares. This is a band that has a chance to make it beyond the corridors of Mid-Michigan. Good luck and good sailing!

And on the other side…

Saginaw born & bred and Detroit based artist Stewart Francke released his 14th album of original music, A Familiar Fire, which undoubtedly was his most accomplished work to date. Replete with songs centering upon fundamental topics of love, loss, success, and struggles commonly shared within the socio-economic realities of our time, Francke’s forte as an artist continues to center upon his brilliant ability to lend a sense of hope and survival to the magical realization of dreams in a world with roads that may lead to freedom, but are also pitted with potholes filled with possibility one minute, which drop into the abyss the next – depending upon the direction one takes plotting the route.

Newcomers to the regional scene, The Distorted Waltz released their debut CD of original music that was filled with stylistic surprises, with material that ranged from energetic rockers to grunge-inspired assaults, to melodic jazz & blues inspired constructions all anchored by Andy Jeglic’s keen eye for constructing solid lyrical structures.

Saginaw’s Michael Brush continued to prove to be one of the hardest working artists on the scene possessing a steadfast goal to expand upon his craft. His work with Brush Street expanded his foray into orchestrations with the String & Brass version of the group, pushing Brush into panoramic arrangements of his original material with renderings reminiscent of Burt Bacharach; while his work with Dan ‘Swival’ Sliwinski on pulling together a pair of signature Tribute concerts to the majesty of the Hammond B-3 organ proved him to be an incredibly effective archivist of music and sound.

Conductor & Musical Director Brett Mitchell announced that 2014-15 would mark his last performances with the esteemed Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, now in its 79th season. Mitchell is departing to take on a full time position as Director & Conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra, and his talent, vision, and energy will be sorely missed. Throughout his brief tenure with the SBSO Mitchell managed to shatter 75-year-old attendance records with the reinvigorating energy of his vision, achieving the SBSO’s first two ‘sellouts’ under his musical direction, which is marked by a keen ear for combining and contrasting challenging signature orchestral works with the best new compositions created by contemporary classical composers.

2014 marked the 35th anniversary for Review Magazine along with the 28th Annual Music Awards Ceremony. With a total of 6,578 votes cast top honorees included Dani Vitany & 10 Hands Tall, receiving 3 out of 6 Country Awards and also releasing a top-notch CD of original material this year; Andy Reed (3 Peoples’ Choice & 1 Critic’s Choice Award); Big Brother Smokes (4 Peoples’ Choice & @ Critic’s Choice), along with nods to Matt Besey and Bryan Rombalski, who dominated their respective genres of Blues & Jazz. The big surprise was Donald Benjamin, who with his group Less Than Ordinary, gleaned a total of 11 awards; and whom has just released a new solo album to critical acclaim.

Ex-Verve Pipe co-founder Donny Brown dropped a short but sweet EP release of five original songs and staged a debut solo performance at Saginaw’s Red Room that proved Brown is much more than a gifted drummer & back-up vocalist.  Fronting the show on acoustic guitar and backed with a stellar line-up of regional musicians, Brown stood front & center to deliver a powerful set of his new material, sprinkled with new translations of Verve Pipe classics and a show-stopping delivery of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb. As a songwriter, Brown is taking his gifts for creativity to new levels of excellence.

Speaking of The Red Room, Dow Event Center General Manager Matt Blasy unveiled the missing link within the matrix of regional venues.  The 300-600 seat venue (with tables) can accommodate up to 1200 people (without tables) and serves an excellent bridge for featuring artists capable of drawing more people than can be accommodated in local clubs & halls, yet not large enough to fill the theatres & arenas.  With performances that have thus far featured artists such as Mega-80s, the legendary Leon Russell, and bluesman Larry McCray, expect big things from The Red Room in 2015.

Another young artist to watch is New Yorker Bria Skonberg, whom Saginaw’s Dave Oppermann (of The New Reformation Jazz Band) brought to town for a July performance at Bay City’s State Theatre. Skonberg is an incredibly gifted trumpet player, a beautiful vocalist, and a composer that embraces the pallet of popular music with open arms. In the process she constructs a dynamic and innovative sound filled with subtlety and nuance, yet built upon a firm foundation of Dixieland Jazz mixed with equal amounts of experimentation.  When she puts a ‘Wah-Wah’ pedal on her trumped for the song Whiny Boy, it sounds like Jimi Hendrix playing a brass instrument.


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