Friday, December 21, 2012


The Year in Review

Endings, Rot and Renewal

I can never quite reconcile my yearly migrations, the summer solstice, fall equinox and Mayan predictions of doom and gloom. But I do feel grateful that this year is winding down. I need some renewal. I need hope for the future. Living in Saginaw is like living in Lebanon where sectarian violence between the Sunnis and Shiites has escalated ten-fold. I’ll say it straight I’m abhorred by the random stupid violence in Saginaw. I’m worried that there is not enough music and poetry in Saginaw. The Arts are not a panacea to the violence that has corrupted our country but it nourishes our soul. Listen, feel and breathe it in. It is yours, forever.

We’ve lost so much in the past year. It seems an injustice to write only about the rock & roll heroes that have passed away in 2012. I’d hazard to guess that when they reached the gates of Heaven, our savage rockers might gumption up enough nerve to ask St Peter if there could be a loophole. Oh well. The list is long and I’m not going to single out anyone who has not touched my life in a personal way. Let’s begin with a small list of well-known artists who died in 2012 (there were several hundred):

Jon Lord (Deep Purple); Hal David (lyricist); Chris Stamp (Manager  of the Who); Dave Brubeck (Jazz pianist/composer); Marvin Hamlisch (composer); Michael Davis( MC5); Earl Scruggs (The Ballad of Jed Clampett): Bob Babbitt(Motown/Funk Brothers bassist),;Dick Clark (American Bandstand); Levon Helm (the Band); Adam Yauch (the Beastie Boys); Etta James (I Just Want to Make Love to You); Jim Marshall (Founder of Marshall Amps); Don Cornelius (Soul Train); Duck Dunn(Booker T & the MGs); Robin Gibb Bee Gees; Joe South (Singer Songwriter/Games People Play).

There are four artists with Saginaw ties and that I’ve met personally, a short sketch of each follows:

Kathi McDonald

 Here is an unknown superstar from the heyday of rock & roll. Kathi took over as singer for Big Brother & the Holding Company after Janis Joplin left to forge a brief but illustrious solo career. She released several acclaimed LPs including Sex Not Guaranteed, Above & Beyond and Insane Asylum. She was a sought after session singer and can be heard on the Rolling Stone’s masterpiece Tumbling Dice from Exile on Main Street. She was a tiny person with a big voice and a heart that could cradle so much love. She became close with Keith Richards and they remained friends until the day she died. She told me that Richards was always there for her that he was kind and caring. McDonald recorded and toured with Long John Baldry for over two decades. In 1980 they had a big hit in Australia with You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’. We had dinner together and I was struck by her self-effacing humility. We agreed to make an effort to get Baldry over to Saginaw but his health was fragile and it was not to be. He passed away in 2005.

Kenny Roberts

I’ll always remember Kenny as the Jumpin’ Cowboy, because he would, well, jump up and down onstage. He was a spectacular yodeler and had hos own Children’s television Show on WNEM TV 5. It was essentially a cartoon show. Sue White was just a kid when she got a chance to be part of his show. Sue said that Roberts seemed a bit distant on the set and gave off the impression that he didn’t like kids But when I got to know him about ten years ago he was funny and very down to earth. Mercy that man could talk. Listening to Kenny phone talking was like sitting through a free presentation on a Time Share. But then again he had a down home charm that was just irresistible. Kenny had several charted hits including Chocolate Ice Cream Cone and I never See Maggie Alone. Kenny used to perform at Daniel’s Theatre (later known as Daniels Den) between features. He would sing a few songs, strum his guitar, yodel his ass off and then take the money and run. Loved him!

Louisiana Red

Red was a phenomenal blues guitarist and harp player. He moved to Germany in 1980, tired of all the strife and racism. He was very sensitive to discrimination and violence in America. His mother died of pneumonia during child birth and his father was lynched by the Ku Klux Klann when Red was only five years old. He carried these scars with dignity not anger and he was able to sing through his pain and suffering and really connect to his audience.  In the late fifties Red played two years  with John Lee Hooker and later in his life he guested on albums by Eric Burdon and Albert King. He gifted me his blue bottle neck tube he used to play slide guitar during his gig @ White’s Bar. He was a quiet and dignified man who was all business yet had a genuine laugh. He could stand outside his pain and enjoy life. His wife accompanied him on this trip back to Michigan. He was a beautiful man.

Johnny Bassett

Gentleman Johnny Bassett was a underappreciated talent. He was an extraordinary blues singer, guitarist and songwriter. For years he was primarily a session man providing his tasty licks to songs by Nolan Strong & the Diablos, The Miracles (Get a Job), and Andre Williams. He gigged with Tina Turner, Little Willie John, Dinah Washington and his good friend Alberta Adams.  A few years back Alberta performed at White’s Bar backed by RJ Spangler’s band. It was a stellar performance. No one but me knew that before the show Johnny called the club and asked for Alberta. They talked for a few minutes and Alberta turned to me and said, “that was Johnnie, he just wanted to pay his respects.” For a brief moment I saw wistfulness in her eyes. She went back onstage and knocked us out with then real thing. When Johnnie played Whites he dressed in a full suit, immaculate. He played it sweet and righteous and the small crowd ate it up. He performed songs from his current LP Party My Blues Away including Big Boss Man, Johnnies Boogaloo and Wonderin’ Blues, Hoochie Coochie Man, Raise the Roof, Jumpin’ Blues and Born Under a Bad Sign.  Before the show we discussed Johnny's close friend Alberta Adams and his thoughtful call to her at White's just before she took the stage. In wrapping a statement around a question, Johnny said, "Alberta put on a REAL show, didn't she?" But that's the kind of man he is honorable and unassuming. Johnny Bassett played on to the wee hours long after I left
You see – he was a man of his word, a man of integrity who has been around long enough to take the bad with the good and still have a twinkle in his eye. In our phone conversations and negotiations for the gig, we addressed each other formally, respectfully - Mr. White and Mr. Bassett . Here's to you Mr. was truly an honor





2012 Music; The Year In Review

 The Year in Music

It was a fertile year for music as aging sixties icons resurrected themselves, recorded new music and toured. The list includes the Beach Boys triumphant yet acrimonious tour that included their resident tortured genius Brian Wilson and singer/guitarist Al Jardine. The Rolling Stones rolled out several concerts in preparation for 50th anniversary tour. The concert for Sandy raised millions for the Robin Hood Relief Fund to help those ravaged areas from the Jersey shore to New York and Connecticut. Paul McCartney, The Who, Bon Jovi, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Roger Walters performed in a top heavy assemblage of artists from British Invasion era. Mick Jagger joked, “This has got to be the largest collection of old English musicians ever assembled in Madison Square Garden.” Perhaps it’s a last gasp of our fading heroes but it feels good that they are all still performing. If they are still relevant maybe we are too.

Cher Lloyd’s Want You Back, Carly Rae Jepson’s Call Me Maybe and Katy Perry’s Firework are my guilty pleasures. The energy and spunk in these golden chestnuts just blows me away. I saw Jepson perform on Jimmy Fallon’s late night show and it really got me to sit up and take notice. It was an unplugged performance with nice syncopated percussion from several black artists standing behind Jepson and Fallon who were seated in front, trading off vocals. This girl had talent and a sly tongue-in-cheek humor, almost self-deprecating yet decidedly confident. It was an epiphany; goodtime music with a crooked smile.

Box sets are all the rage and several are available for the Christmas season including pricey career spanning discs by the Beatles (a gorgeous vinyl collection; a steal @ $349 for Beatles completest), Blue Oyster Cult, Roxy Music, Judas Priest, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and Heart. The Kinks released a glorious 6 disc set from their live BBC recordings – a must for any serious anglophile.

 I’m more interested in our local music. There is a rich store of releases in the past year including American Underdog, the Tosspints, Brother Smokes, Whaler, Brody & the Busch Rd Trio, Zig Zeitler, Jeff Schrems, Mode , Gutbucket, Lavel Jackson, the 25 Cent Beer Band, Keef Courage and Chase Engel. Buy Local! Shop at Records and Tapes Galore at 1303 Court Street. Bill & Judy Wegner have thousands of vinyl LPs and CDs and if they don’t have it in stock, they’ll find it for you. They are knowledgeable about music and support the local musicians in the Great Lakes Bay Region and beyond. You can call them @ 989-793-1777.

It’s been quite a roller coaster ride for live music in the Great Lakes Bay Region of Michigan. The mighty Maybe August hung it up, Sprout went on hiatus and Thick As Thieves released a spectacular CD, had a party and vanished in thin air. Months later they resurfaced as a UFO sighting. Truth be told Kyle and the crew were just laying back diggin’ the California sunshine and losing momentum. We also lost the Honky Tonk Zeros, Rustbucket, The Bearinger Boys and Sinister Footwear.  We lost a lot of great music, brother. But here’s the rub, despite the loss of population, venues and bands we still had a ton of great music from Jazz and rock to blues and country. Mike Brush is still on his game. Eric Johnson and his daughter Shannon are making a name for themselves with their great singing and rootsy music. Mel sings You Don’t Own Me to Jekel and he just nods and says “merica”, whatever that means. Tom Dolson and Duane Miller have been resurrected by Andrew Kitzman’s spark. He’s a force to be reckoned like a thoroughbred race horse with a fine lineage. You better bet on him. Jim Perkins is a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Eastside Mike and Zig Zeitler remind me why I love music some much. Dave Asher is a true believer and a spiritual force that has touched the lives of both fans and fellow musicians. I cannot imagine our music scene without his benign presence.  I’m a fan of metal because it reminds me of Iggy & the Stooges, a band I grew up with in the late sixties but never really appreciated…until now. I love Tension Head, Hokori, Spork, All For the Cause, 2nd System, Failed Society, and all the other true believers. Keep on keeping on.

 There are several clubs providing stages to our bands. Here’s a shout out to the Hamilton Street Pub, Bemos, Grand Central, Tiz-its, Old City Hall, Prime Event Center, Jamestown Hall, Gabby’s Pub & Grill, Coty’s Landing, Baywood Lounge The Log Cabin, Castaways and White’s Bar. It’s a tough line of work and it doesn’t always pay due to over-regulation, taxes, insurances and punitive fees from ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC.  Let’s join together and support each other. It’s about time!

Andy Reed continues to astound me with his baroque pop masterpieces and with his ability as a producer to get the most out the artists he produces. Listen to his seemingly effortless craft with such great new bands as Brody & the Busch Rd Trio, Mode and Big Brother Smokes as well as local icons like Verve Pipe, Bryan Rombalski, Banana Convention, Laurie Middlebrook, The Tosspints, Scott Baker and Lavel Jackson. Reed is the gold standard for keeping music alive. There is richness and diversity in our music scene even as our society crumbles around us and our government becomes more ruthless in savaging our rights. We need music, poetry and the arts to comfort each other, to learn the truth and to survive.

Music is the food of love. Join me in the feast

Andy Reed is my pick as artist of the Year. He has been selfless in his promotion of excellence and the search for beauty and truth in the music he creates.

There once was a note pure & easy                                                                                Playing so free like a breath rippling by

-         Pete Townsend

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Al Hellus Remembered


This is a photo of the Plastic Haiku Band. It was the brainchild of Al Hellus, a gifted poet and Bruce Crawley, an incredible bassist/arranger. They teamed with some of the best musicians in mid-Michigan including Mike Brush (keyboards), Shabazz (percussion), John Rickert (horn & vocals), & Tony Ioppollo (drums). They recorded a show @ Delta College in 1998. It was spectacular! My favorite Hellus composition is Dead Dogs & Dope. Hellus shook me up every time I heard him unleash it. This was an epic song that was hilarious yet had a deeper message – a perfect example of Kidding on the Square. I’m forever grateful to Al & Bruce for championing original music and creating a jazz-based genre that was accessible to the masses. He was truly a local gem. Al brought M.L. Liebler to White’s Bar which led to appearances by Country Joe McDonald and John Sinclair. Al & Bruce are gone now but they will not be forgotten by anyone who tuned into our local music scene in the past twenty years. All Hail to the Plastic Haiku Band, one of Saginaw’s lost treasures.