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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Mavis Staples w/ Rick Holmstrom Band July 9 @ Frederik Meijer Gardens

At one time the mention of amplified harmonica was considered wild and far out. Little Walter and Snooky Pryor experimented with the idea, always looking for the newest thing. No one threw a parade either when they started using tremolo and inserting country & western themes in blues music to make rock-n-roll. But that’s exactly what Chuck Berry and Bo Diddly did--and you know how they are revered today. Although heavily steeped in West coast jump blues tradition, guitarist Rick Holmstrom is of similar ilk. The unassuming Holmstrom is always reaching for the outer limits of the musical Milky Way.

The impetus for Rick Holmstrom’s genre expanding 2002 Hydraulic Groove release, featuring DJ Logic and loops de jour, was found in the making of RL Burnside’s Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down (2000), which his band had just worked on.

“On the Burnside disc they asked us to listen to Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp” and Otis Redding’s version too,” Holmstrom told #TMGR. “Then they asked us to play a version of all that. The producers cut it up, made loops out of it and other crazy stuff, and then had RL sing on top of it. I still like that disc. They kept the tones and grittiness of what we did but boosted it up with hip-hop production values.”

“We decided to try the same type of thing with my stuff. I’m influenced by Pee Wee Crayton. So let’s make something that sounds kind of bizarre using electronica and a Pee Wee Crayton idea. That’s how we came up with the song ‘Pee Wee’s Nightmare.’”

Guitarist Rick Holmstrom leads the Mavis Staples band when they appear as part of the Sweet Soul Harmony tour stopping July 9 at Frederik Meijer Gradens.  

Blues music purists can be some of the most intolerant listeners. If you ain’t playing “Sweet Home Chicago” they’re heading for the exit. As you might expect Hydraulic Groove was met with indifference at best.

“For me it was a fun chance to push myself,” Holmstrom said. “I never claimed that it was trying to progress the blues or anything like that. I was just trying to do something creative. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing anyway, creating something not just recreating?" 

As fate would have it there was a sliver lining to all of this. An associate of Holmstrom’s who helped work on that record went on to a future in artist management.

“One of the guys who worked at Tone Cool records (label for Groove), Dave Bartlett, is now Mavis Staples’ manager. Mavis was his first client. I would have never got the Mavis gig if I hadn’t done that record.”

Holmstrom says a big portion of him landing this current job has a lot to do with his willingness to bend rules and think outside the box. In true big picture form he says Hydraulic and the RL Burnside effort might have attracted music fans to the blues who might have otherwise dismissed it.

“There’s a valid argument against doing it,” Holmstrom said of adding hip-hop to blues. “The criticism of that record was not even half the amount of the good things that happened as a result. I think it widens the umbrella that much more.” 

Rick Holmstrom appears with Mavis Staples in the Sweet Harmony Soul tour July 9 @ Meijer Gardens.  

Rick Holmstrom website:  rickholmstrom.com/

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Lustre Kings wsg Truckstop Cobras June 26 @ Tip Top Deluxe

For Mark Gamsjager, guitarist and singer of the Lustre Kings, work life is pretty good right now. His Albany NY-based rockabilly band gigs about 150 dates a year. The versatile unit performs club dates, concerts, and festivals and supplements the rest with weddings and special events. Throw in a newly recorded Luster Kings CD and you can say he is already living the life of a King.

“I manage the band and I have a day job as a school bus driver,” Gamsjager said. “Other than that I work on my guitar playing and singing which keeps me busy.”  

The Lustre Kings bring their heralded brand of East Coast rockabilly to Grand Rapids on June 26 in an 8pm show at the Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill.

Gamsjager is the first to admit he’s not been much of a songwriter. Performing pure DNA songs from the lexicon of American music is really where he’s at.

“My hat is off to anyone who can write quality material,” Gamsjager said. “But there’s so much bad stuff out there too. Maybe I’m not giving myself enough credit to try it. I just don’t have time to sit down and write 12 or 14 songs like they’re all going to be great.” 

The latest CD by the group, Go Green, came out in May. Gamsjager explains how the title and material contained therein by Big Joe Turner, Johnny Horton, plus a new version of Sleepwalk, are essentially re-purposed.   

“Basically I wanted to do a CD of tunes that we do live at a show,” he said. “Every time we play these songs people always ask for them, so we recorded a couple. In a way they’re kind of like recycled songs.”

You might be surprised to learn that Elvis-mania is alive and well all over the world, almost like to it never went away. Every year in January the Lustre Kings embark on a month-long Elvis Birthday Bash Tour.

“I’ve been into this kind of music since I was a kid,” Gamsjager said. “It’s ingrained in me. I am also a big fan of Chuck Berry and the blues." 

Gamsjager has figured out that audiences want to hear what they’ve already heard from the band whether they’re original songs or not. But he admits it is hard work when trying to spruce up the already nattily attired.

“Overall I’d rather record and perform good songs,” Gamsjager said. “There’s a craft to that. I’m not trying to change the world I’m just trying to entertain the best way I know how.”  

The Lustre Kings wsg Truckstop Cobras, 8pm, Friday @ Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill. 

Lustre Kings website: www.lustrekings.com/

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Doug Deming & the Jewel Tones w/ Dennis Gruenling 6/13 @ Tip Top Deluxe

Maybe it wasn’t the biggest shock for Dennis Gruenling to find his likeness pasted on the cover of a new Hohner Marine Band Crossover harmonica box, their latest in high performance harps. They would have already seen him around the office or over in Quality Assurance. 

“I’ve been playing Hohner’s since day one, literally,” Gruenling said during a recent tour stop in West Virginia. “I tried others during my first years playing but I kept going back to the Marine Band.”

So now without ever hearing a note you might surmise how Dennis Gruenling, sought-after music instructor and part-time radio host, has the tools to make a run at a spot on the short list of Harp Players to Watch.

Gruenling appears with Doug Deming & the Jewel Tones, one of the very best swing and traditional jump blues bands, in a show Saturday at the Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill.

Ahead of the curve for certain, Gruenling came up ordering and playing specialty low key harmonicas designed by harp historian and technician Joe Filisko. Hohner recently released a line of low key harmonicas similar to Filisko’s customization. Gruenling is a product tester for the German company and helped with the design of this new Thunderbird series.  

“I’ve been playing low tune harps since before my first record in 1999,” Gruenling said. “No one else was even making them back then. I had Filisko custom make me those harps before you could get them anywhere.”

Greunling is all things harmonica if you hadn’t already noticed. But wait, there's more. If you look closely on Saturday you’ll notice the chrome microphone he uses to amplify his instrument. He probably refurbished it himself at some point as part of a side business he runs. Gruenling got into restoring these 1940s-era vintage “bullet” microphones, like the Astatic brand, almost out of necessity.

“When I was first on the scene I bought a microphone from this guy and it didn’t work that well so I kind of got ripped off a little bit,” Gruenling said. “I think because I was so mad at getting ripped off I started looking out for and collecting them. I have hundreds of old vintage microphones. I started repairing them for myself and now I have customers worldwide like Kim Wilson (The Fabulous Thunderbirds), Charlie Musselwhite, and Tom Waits.”

According to Dennis Gruenling, in a fitting gesture, Joe Filisko’s face is purported to grace the covers of the new Thunderbird harmonica box. These guys will say it’s all about nothing but, really, how cool is that?

“It’s kind of like getting your picture on a box of Wheaties,” Gruenling said with a laugh. “Whatever happens I’d still be playing a Hohner no matter what.” 

Doug Deming & the Jewel Tones w/ Dennis Gruenling, 8pm, Saturday @ Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill

FB Event Page (Get signed up and go!)

Dennis Gruenling's Wide World of the Harp and Microphone: badassharmonica.com/

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Sugar Ray Norcia, Hank Mowery & the Hawktones wsg Nick Moss May 1 at Billy's

(Sugar Ray Norcia)

In 1991 just as singer and harmonica player Sugar Ray Norcia was signing on with the Roomful of Blues band, the latest swing dance/music craze was taking over the US. Luckily Roomful and Norcia already possessed the horn and jump blues credibility to fit right in with the retro crowd of the day.

“We started out in a small cramped van but finally graduated to a tour bus,” Norcia said. “Roomful of Blues did 250 dates a year in those days. I was with them for 7 years and they were some of the best times of my life. My last show was New Year’s Eve 1999.”

Prior to Roomful Norcia had been playing harp and singing for over 10 years with his own jump combo, Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, but this new gig pegged him primarily as a vocalist.

“Understandably with a horn band like Roomful you aren’t going to get the opportunity to play harp much,” Norcia said in an interview before a recent sound check in Wilmington, DE. “I played two harmonica songs per set if that. Above all I wanted the world to see that I could harp.”

West Michigan music lovers have a chance to hear one of today’s best singer/harp players when Sugar Ray Norcia joins Hank Mowery & the Hawtones wsg Nick Moss May 1, at Billy’s Lounge in Grand Rapids.

Over the years Roomful has processed some 55 band members. More than just another hired gun, front man Norcia wielded extra clout.

“When I joined Roomful they hadn’t made a record in 6 years,” Norcia told #TMGR. “I was instrumental in getting them back in the studio and getting the recording ball rolling. I’d say we had good success.”

But what Norcia longed for most was a return to a band where his harp playing reclaimed prominence. He says he feels most comfortable with a smaller band who knows their way around the intricacies of the singer out front. That is one reason why Norcia showed no hesitation in accepting a recent offer to play with the Nick Moss Band from Chicago.

“I didn’t even bat an eye, didn’t even think twice,” Norcia said. “Nick and I played together a bit in Chicago at Buddy Guy’s club Legends. We’ve passed paths many times throughout the years. I know he’s played with some of the same people I have like Jimmy Rogers.”

So similar is their influence and experience there was no discussion about which material to cover for a recent East coast tour “we just got together and went,” Norcia says.

The legend of home town backing bands is among the richest of blues traditions. The local guy accompanying distinguished visitors is storied practice. So if a first-call backing band is what Norcia expects, such a band he will get in the form of Hank Mowery & the Hawktones. Mowery’s been working hard at this band stuff; he is currently paid up on all his dues. His fellow Hawktones boast experience with harp heavies like Dennis Gruenling, Jim Liban, and Gary Primich. Nick Moss fills the role of honorary Hawktone this particular evening.

Norica and the Bluetones spent their youth welcoming to the East coast and playing behind Chicago blues luminaries Otis Rush, J.B. Hutto, and Hubert Sumlin. With recent opportunities to tour with current Chicago blues bands he says his musical world feels more complete.  

“Now Nick Moss and these guys are doing the same thing I did by offering to tour and play behind me. It’s pretty cool, like I’ve gone full circle.” 

Sugar Ray Norcia, Hank Mowery & the Hawktones CD release party for Excuses Plenty wsg Nick Moss, 9:30 p.m. Friday at Billy's Lounge. $7

The band plays the 8th annual White Lake Blues Festival, 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Howmet Playhouse (Whitehall, MI) see www.killerblues.net/ for more info

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

'Freedom & Dreams' by North Mississippi Osborne (N.M.O.)

Freedom & Dreams (2015) by N.M.O. is the result of a recent collaboration between Luther & Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars and New Orleans singer-songwriter Anders Osborne. Freedom & Dreams sounds as if the North Mississippi Allstars dropped a yard of fertile heritage soil on a Delta blacktop with Osborne’s evocative lyrics seeding the top. Kneel down, breathe, feel the moist life-giving nutrient between your fingers. The blossoms harken a timeless portrait of southern folk life today. Freedom and Dreams is the smell of dust, flowing water, soybeans and sweet potatoes. You can almost hear the droning insects on a steamy late afternoon heading towards sundown (Many Wise Men). NMA’s time-honored musical approach is firmly rooted in the Mississippi hill country blues region of Otha Turner and Junior Kimbrough. Throughout the recording Osborne gives a sturdy but tender voice to the hill country spirits; he paints a picture of the American south so accurate it somehow contradicts with his Swedish homeland upbringing (Junco Pardna). All of these guys were influenced by the jam bands of their generation; Osborne still plays with members of the Grateful Dead (Brush Up Against You). At press time personnel credits were sparse for Freedom & Dreams. As expected Luther Dickinson’s slide work is the sinewy thread that holds it all together. Brother Cody's textured percussion is spot on; he also finds added piano playing time. 

North Mississippi Allstars & Anders Osborne present North Mississippi Osborne (N.M.O.), 7:30pm, Thursday at the Intersection.

Sectionlive.com event page

Purchase N.M.O. Freedom & Dreams link  

Friday, February 27, 2015

JJ Grey & MOFRO March 1 at the Intersection

Photo by Jim Arbogast

It’s been a tough year for blues-based band institutions from the southeastern part of the US. The Allman Brothers Band called an end to their long and storied career; they go out on top. Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes throws the towel directly at the other founding members of the band; the Crowes limp to the sideline for now. Bands Galactic and Dumpstafunk are still up and running although their New Orleans funk qualifies them for categorization of their own. As horn-driven, Hammond organ-grounded, soul singer-led, recording and touring acts go JJ Grey & MOFRO and the Tedeschi Trucks band remain atop a dwindling lot.

Grand Rapids music lovers get a rare chance to see a southern soul music scene contender when JJ Grey & MOFRO, America’s premier rock/funk/blues/jam band, makes a March 1 stop at the Intersection in Grand Rapids.

Tedeschi Trucks and JJ Grey go back many years now and both approach their zenith at about the same time. Plus they share more than a geographic association: MOFRO’s Todd Smallie played bass with the Derek Trucks Band for 15 years.  

“Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks are the matriarchs and patriarchs at the top now,” Grey said on the way to a recent tour stop in New York. “I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today if it wasn’t for them. Susan’s given me so many opportunities back in the day to open up for her. Derek obviously did for years and they still do.”

“It’s great to see Tedeschi Trucks doing so well. I think it inspires other bands and cats like us at the lower level. They're lighting the way, so to speak.”

Grey is a singer/songwriter at heart, trapped in a surfer’s body. And like a lot of surfers growing up in Jacksonville FL he felt the impact of the hip-hop movement early on. Grey recalls kids from high school, with aspirations of becoming DJs, pretending to scratch records on imaginary turntables on the dashboard of their cars.

“I just downloaded By the Time I Get to Arizona by Public Enemy the other day,” Grey confided. “I’m a big fan of Hank Shocklee (Public Enemy Bomb Squad) and Chuck D’s voice. I loved all that stuff: Run/DMC, Sugar Hill Gang, the Beasties.”

Even before the hip-hop bug bit Grey, he recognized how the songs of his biggest musical hero, country funk pioneer Jerry Reed (Lord, Mr. Ford), were partly spoken and partly sung. Grey cites his own songs in that vein as “70 percent Jerry, 30 percent hip-hop influenced.” So if you detected a hint of spoken word on Grey’s song “Your Lady, She’s Shady,” which Grey now says is “70 percent hip-hop, 30 percent Reed,” you are correct.

“I wanted to tell that story but it didn’t make any sense to just sing-it, sing-it. It made more sense to do it like Reed and talk-sing it.”

Grey plays guitar and harmonica in performance but he’s primarily a soul singer and lyricist with original compositions. He’s certainly not down with telling anyone how to feel or what to think. But if you go to one of his shows to forgo life’s reality for a spell, as people often do, Grey suggests that you be open to all manner of truth. In other words you might go instead to embrace reality for a couple of hours rather than not.

“How great the show is always rests on one factor: how much are you are truly there?” Grey said. “How far are you willing to go into all the moments while you’re there? The deeper you go into that, the more real everything is. The more real it gets the better the chance you’ll have a real relationship with yourself and everyone around you. My goal is to share an honest moment with everybody.”

JJ Grey & MOFRO wsg The London Souls, 7pm, Sunday at The Intersection in Grand Rapids

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Celebration of Friendship Aimee Warren Fundraiser Jan 25 at Billy's

Restaurant and hospitality workers share a kinship not readily apparent in other professions. Their bond is a solid one forged over staff Christmas parties in January and service industry recognition nights at corner pubs.

This spirit of togetherness and caring goes on display Sunday January 25 at Billy’s Lounge when a fundraiser is held to help cover medical expenses for longtime bar employee Aimee Warren. Warren, on leave from her managerial position at Mulligan’s, is currently undergoing treatment for cancer.

The afternoon will feature live music, a silent auction, and raffles. There is a $10 suggested donation at the door.

“Dennie Middleton is taking care of the entertainment,” event organizer Rick Dion said. “Dennie’s got three different acts he does. He’ll have various guests showing up at different times including some from Papa Vegas.”

“We’re open all day at Billy’s but we start this at 4:00. We’re also having a live auction for a couple of the bigger items.”

Dion says people have been dropping off goods at Billy’s all week. Among the items lined up for the raffle are a new iPad and a yet-to-be-determined amount of cash money to be auctioned off. Prizes so far include a drum head signed by Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, an autographed picture of Conway Twitty, and other music memorabilia.

“So far we’ve got gift cards from several different restaurants,” Dion said of the items donated. “Smitty’s Specialty Beverage is putting together a craft beer basket. Billy’s is doing liquor baskets with various liquor swag included.”

“I think we’ve had a pretty good response so far. Many people have called me out of the blue for this one.”

You might not recognize Warren’s name right off but chances are you’ve seen her working behind the bar somewhere in West Michigan during the past 30 years. Her employment resume reads like a Who’s Who of local dining and entertainment establishments: Tootsie Van Kelly’s, Shout!, The B.O.B, Billy’s Lounge, Elbow Room, Mulligan’s Pub. 

“We started planning this around Christmas,” Dion said. “Dennie picked a date that he could make work with his band mates. But it’s been a short process.”

Due to the tight window of time they’ve had to operate under, Dion says he’s hoping word of mouth will help get people in the door on Sunday. All that remains is delivery of the items and services to the donation location.

We all know how life often presents the unexpected challenge however Dion sounds like he’s taking this latest development in stride. 

“Never would I have guessed that something like this would come about,” he said. “It was completely unexpected. She’s a vibrant healthy person and all of a sudden this caught us off guard.”

Celebration of Friendship Aimee Warren Fundraiser, 4-9 pm, January 25, Billy’s Lounge, 1437 Wealthy St SE. $10 suggested donation. Bands scheduled to appear include American Heartbreakers, The Hype, Bimini Brothers, plus special guests. 

Donations can be made by contacting Rick Dion (616) 293-9352 (rickdion7@gmail.com) and Dennie Middleton (616) 260-8947 (denmid@comcast.net)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Dan Tedesco Jan 8 at Founders Taproom

Singer/songwriter Dan Tedesco is one of the fortunate few to attend college based on musical talent--in a warm climate, no less. The Chicagoland native was the recipient of a scholarship to the music school at Arizona State University.

“I was given a scholarship to study jazz performance for guitar and that helped me make my decision initially to go in that direction,” Tedesco said during in a recent interview.

But after two years in Tempe he says the educational side of music was getting mechanical and a little too scientific

“That’s not a bad thing to explore,” Tedesco said of the rigors of advanced study. “But I felt like it was getting to the point where if I kept going down that road I might lose my original attachment to music.” 

Faced with delving deeper and deeper into the theoretical side of things, including melodies that were derived from mathematical sets, Tedesco switched study areas for fear of losing the organic accent.

“I graduated with a double minor in music and business,” Tedesco said. “I did that to get more of a well-rounded experience and knowledge before I was done.”  

Folk/rock musician Dan Tedesco looks to put his musical education in the spotlight when he appears January 8 at Founders Taproom.

Tedesco acknowledges one thing the music regiment at the college level taught him: the importance of overstepping your comfort zone.

“It’s a healthy thing to stretch your brain and push yourself in areas where you might not stumble on your own because that’s how you grow,” Tedesco said.

Sticking with the fundamental side of music has paid off for Tedesco. To date he's recorded 3 CDs including the 2014 release Death in the Valley. 

On Death in the Valley, Tedesco addresses the exploration of human habits and ditching of stagnant routines. Conceptual topics center on growth, endings, and renewal. He said the record examines how life leads to death but how death also leads to new life; good things are born out of the expiration of old ideas. The songs appear tailor made for the season.

“It’s never too late to try something new,” Tedesco said. “Challenge is the only way you grow. It’s important not be afraid of it.”

Above all some of these guys talk the good talk. What shakes out in the end is sometimes interesting. Tedesco, however, sounds like he’s walking the walk.

“It’s a hard thing to say goodbye to something you’re comfortable with because it’s going to be different in the morning,” Tedesco said. “That’s a scary thing but also very exciting and that is important to remember.” 

Dan Tedesco wsg Nicholas James & Bigfoot Buffalo, 9:30, Thursday, at Founders Taproom. Free