Mark Lavengood will bring warm down-home holiday sounds to Ann Arbor this weekend.
The Grand Rapids bluegrass roots vocalist and multi-instrumentalist will join a star-studded lineup of Michigan artists and musicians for the 12th annual “The Ebird & Friends Holiday Show” tonight, Friday and Saturday at The Ark.
Hosted by Erin Zindle & The Ragbirds, the variety-style show will also feature Alex Holycross (The Native Howl), Graham Parsons (The Go Rounds), Carolyn Striho, Anne Heaton, Brad Phillips, Jen Sygit, Jessica McCumons (Jessica Delle) and members from The Macpodz, The Appleseed Collective and Jive Colossus.
“I’ve done it two other years. I love Erin so much, that production is one of the most pro things I think I’ve been a part of, and it’s just always a good time, and I’m always honored to be invited back,” Lavengood said. “I get to lead some, and I get to back other people who play the instruments. It’s just a great hang, the community comes out in droves, and there really isn’t a show like it anywhere.”
As an established touring artist and musician, Lavengood regularly shares his resonant energy with spirited crowds from Michigan to Colorado. He eloquently combines folk, bluegrass and Americana with bandmates Justin Avdek (bass), Dutcher Snedeker (keys), Justin Wierenga (guitar) and Loren Kranz (drums) on stage and in the studio for a growing catalog of bluegrass roots singles and albums.
With an expansive musical palate, Lavengood adds delectable instrumental flavors of dobro, steel guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukulele, drums and percussion to assemble an appetizing eclectic sound for fans nationwide.
“I’m fleshing out a lot of songs that I been sitting on over the years, and I love playing the music, but at the same time, I like getting the ideas out and then bringing a band into the studio and tracking it that way,” Lavengood said. “There’s a lot of magic you get when you have a bunch of different minds in one space serving a song together.”
Planting Musical Seeds
Lavengood started serving songs with songwriter-guitarist Ben Fidler while growing up in Comstock Park. He drummed with Fidler and his band in high school and later picked up his dad’s Fender Stratocaster, which led to an immediate obsession with the acoustic guitar, ukulele, banjo and bass.
“I would tinker and try to find out how they all were similar and then how and why they were distinctive just to be able to work my way around and back,” said Lavengood, who’s inspired by Little Feat, the Grateful Dead and Bill Monroe. “Then I got to the dobro, and that was just a sound that was always attractive to me and so simultaneously elusive, and I just started tinkering and playing with it.”
As a budding musician, Lavengood used the dobro to carve out a new musical niche and started playing bluegrass after seeing Michigan-based artists Steppin’ In It, Seth Bernard, Joe Wilson and Drew Howard perform. He also shared his love of bluegrass with the Winter Sessions, a quintet of Comstock Park musicians who gathered in basements and attics to write and jam together as college students.
Along with the Winter Sessions, Lavengood frequented local shows and sought musical inspiration from Earthwork Music, a talented collective of independent Michigan-based musicians who promote environmental advocacy, social justice, creative empowerment and community growth.
By 2006, Lavengood attended his first Earthwork Harvest Gathering in northern Michigan and laid the foundation for becoming a full-time musician. For two years, he saw a ton of Michigan folk shows and became a staple at local open mic nights to build his chops and gain confidence.
“I started playing gigs, but it was still very much a hobbyist thing,” said Lavengood, who joined the Earthwork Music in 2011. “After about two years of doing it, I got more into the culture and with the lifestyle, but up until that point, I had never thought of it as a viable way to make a living, a line of work that’s exclusively from an artistic and creative output.”
Lavengood spent the next four years playing in six bands and moved to Chicago. During that time, he met Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys (now Lindsay Lou) at Blissfest and jammed with them on dobro. That jam session ultimately led to a live collaboration in Chicago and full-time spot in Lindsay Lou’s touring band.
“We were itching to be full time, and we were ready to work. We were playing 170-plus shows for years, and some years it was in the 200s,” Lavengood said. “Other years it was 140ish. That’s pretty much how I learned to become a professional musician.”
On the side, Lavengood released his bluegrass-dobro debut solo album, “From Dust to Steel,” in 2010 and featured mesmerizing collaborations with Red Tail Ring and Wire in the Wood. He also dropped a self-titled, six-track acoustic bluegrass EP on 7-inch vinyl in 2012.
After seven years on the road and a brief stint in Nashville with Lindsay Lou, Lavengood returned to Grand Rapids, had a family and decided to build a solo career in the Michigan roots scene.
In 2014, he released his full-length sophomore album, “No Part of Nothin’,” and collaborated with Lindsay Lou, Billy Strings, Keith Billik, Josh Rilko, Ben Rolston and Jen Sygit among others.
Three years later, Lavengood dropped his third release, “We’ve Come Along,” a splendid 11-track bluegrass dobro odyssey featuring a delightful cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.”
This year, he’s released eight roots-oriented singles, including a soaring bluegrass instrumental cover of Bobby McFerrin’s iconic single, “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” and the politically-charged “Dogfight,” which dropped Nov. 8.
The 2.5-minute track opens with deep churning acoustic guitars intertwined with Lavengood’s raspy vocals and bluesy slide guitars – “Born to live/Born to die/Well there’s a dogfight/On the streets day and night/You neither live nor die/Like a dog in a fight.”
“It’s vibin’ on the current state of affairs and the concept of how money influences everything. What we’re living in right now is the culmination of a succession of strategies that people have been using since the ‘80s,” said Lavengood, who wrote the track’s lyrics and riff while touring as part of a 2014 bluegrass jamboree with Lindsay Lou in Germany.
“You’ve seen how the equilibrium of wealth has gotten so skewed, and we’re at the point right now where we’re just hanging on to where we have just enough to where we don’t have to revolt. It’s not a sustainable point at all, and it’s interesting to see where it’s all going to lead, but at the end of the day, each one of us has our voice and choice in the matter of affairs, how we’re spending our time, and how we’re spending our dollars.”
Outside of releasing his latest single and performing this weekend’s holiday shows, Lavengood will perform two other live shows in 2019 – a Dec. 15 Earthwork Music Sunday Showcase with Mike Struwin at The Livery in Benton Harbor and a Dec. 19 Dogtown Studios Benefit Show at The Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids.
In 2020, Lavengood will continue to release new bluegrass roots music and build his Bear Mark Productions independent music booking company and consulting agency. Currently, he represents Marvin Elkins and the Dying Breed, Afro Zuma, Seth Bernard and Gregory Stovetop.
“I’ll be putting out one to three new albums next year, plus some singles, and then we’ll be touring back out to Colorado. We’ll be touring out east again, we’ll be touring down to Florida and Nashville, and definitely throughout the Midwest,” Lavengood said. “That’s a stronghold and home region and playing out in Chicago, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the U.P., just makin’ the rounds.”