For Bobby Pennock, a new decade will bring more chances to perform live as a solo artist.
This month, Pennock will make a rare live solo appearance opening for Jeff Scott as part of the Farmington Civic Theater’s “LIVE!” 2020 winter concert series. His Jan. 17 opening set will include acoustic-filled gems from his collaborative and solo projects, including The Pennock/Stephens Project and Taller Than They Appear.
“I know there’s already going to be songs from each of those in the set,” Pennock said. “I’m also doing a new song that’s one of the latest ones Mike Stephens and I wrote called ‘Circling Back to You.’”
Formerly known as “Friday Night Live” at the Farmington Civic Theater, the newly renamed “LIVE!” 2020 concert series also will feature Bones Maki and the Blue Water Boys with Rochelle Clark (Feb. 21), Olivia Millerschin with Adam Liebman (March 20) and the Nashtown Songwriters Round (April 23).
The Pennock/Stephens Project
In 2018, Pennock released a striking folk rock album called “The Pennock/Stephens Project” with the late singer-songwriter Mike Stephens, who passed away from cancer in October. The duo met years earlier through Myspace when Stephens hosted a podcast called the Open Mike Café and eventually developed a strong friendship.
Throughout the years, Pennock and Stephens wrote an extensive catalog of folk rock songs and decided to release their self-titled debut album as a duo. At the time, Stephens had relocated to Colorado to live near his daughter as he battled long-term health issues, but later returned to Michigan.
“He was diagnosed with cancer, and our good friend who lives in Nashville, M.J. Bishop, set up a GoFundMe, and then I wanted to do something else,” said Pennock, who also performed with guitarist Terry Birkett as part of the project.
“Mike and I had continued to write songs together, and I got the idea of recording an album and the proceeds of which would go to him for his medical costs. That’s how that album came together, and my friend John Finan said he’d record it for free.”
Along with Finan, Pennock recorded eight tracks with sparse arrangements akin to slightly polished demos and consulted Stephens throughout the entire project.
One standout track, the James Taylor-esque “Won’t You Be My Lighthouse Tonight,” features vibrant acoustic strums and lush harmonies in the chorus – “Won’t you be my lighthouse tonight/Let your love guide me home/I’ve got stories to tell you/Tell you everything I know.”
Another Pennock/Stephens beauty, “There Goes That Fool,” includes a jazzy tenor sax solo intertwined with an upbeat acoustic guitar – “We derailed hard in the suburbs/I found myself in the sea/I look back at the train wreck/Casey Jones got nothing on me.”
“Some of the songs we wrote sitting in the same room together as we traded off lyrics and music. I always deferred to Mike on lyrics because he’s a poet,” Pennock said. “We’d usually be working on something, and we’d get stuck, and he’d go out, smoke a cigarette and come in with the next line.”
10,000 Stories and Taller Than They Appear
Stephens also encouraged Pennock to record and release his exquisite debut double album, “10,000 Stories,” in 2008. The album served as Pennock’s first foray in the studio after relocating from Columbus, Ohio to Detroit six years earlier. During that time, he amassed a large collection of songs after focusing on writing instead of performing.
“I tried to sequence them in two books. I think on the album I had book one and book two. I thought they kind of flowed in the way that I sequenced them, but there was no grand plan,” said Pennock, who grew up in Berea, Ohio and attended Ohio University. “I think the songs are pretty strong, but I don’t love the whole project overall.”
One of Pennock’s most notable “10,000 Stories” tracks includes “Round Peg in a Square World,” an ode to outsiders with steady drum taps, continuous acoustic strums and intermittent xylophone – “Everyone I see is floating downstream/I pull my weight going up/Steady hands drinking their religion/Well I smashed my cup.”
“That’s probably my favorite recording on the album. That’s one that I still perform a lot,” said Pennock, who’s influenced by The Beatles, Paul Simon and Richard Thompson. “‘Can We Go Both Ways’ is another one I still perform a lot. I love that song.”
Five years later, Pennock formed the folk rock supergroup Taller Than They Appear with Jere Stormer, Sigrid Christiansen, Judy Insley and Lauren Crane. The quintet met during a Songwriters Anonymous monthly event at Livonia’s Trinity House Theatre and joined Crane for an on-stage performance. That unplanned gathering prompted Stormer to notice the group’s chemistry, and he suggested they work together.
After the first year, Taller Than They Appear became a quartet and started performing regularly throughout Michigan. By 2017, they released their five-track self-titled EP and continue to write and record new material.
“We’re all very different writers and performers. I like it because I can step back,” Pennock said. “I’ve always been the frontperson, and I liked that I could step back, sing harmonies and play things that I wouldn’t normally play. It kinda stuck, and we’re a crazy, merry band of musicians.”
Outside of Taller Than They Appear, Pennock plans to record some new solo material at Rooftop Recording in Grand Blanc with David Roof and Dan Hall. Currently, he has nearly two albums worth of material to eventually record in the studio.
“I have a song picked out that I want to start with just the three of us doing a Crosby, Stills & Nash thing,” Pennock said. “We all like three-part harmonies, and there’s not a lot of that folky acoustic three-partner stuff going on right now, and we would like to explore doing that.”
Friday, Jan. 17 | Doors 7:30 p.m. | Show 8 p.m.
Farmington Civic Theater, 33332 Grand River Ave. in Farmington