For Tom Alter, this weekend’s Hamtramck Music Fest provides a welcome homecoming.
The Fraser folk rock singer-songwriter and guitarist will return to his family’s old stomping grounds to perform Friday night at the Polish Village Café.
“It feels pretty nostalgic to be playing in Hamtramck since my mother was raised there. She graduated from St. Florian High School. My grandparents lived in Hamtramck until they reached their 80s, and I have memories of visiting there when I was a child,” Alter said.
“Some of those memories are captured in my song, ‘Hamtramck.’ I grew up in suburban East Detroit, which was a very different environment. When visiting Hamtramck, my siblings and I were exposed to a very different culture, even with my grandparents speaking another language through much of our visit.”
Alter quickly revisits his childhood on 2018’s “Hamtramck” as sentimental acoustic strums, sunny electric guitars and ruminative bass repaint loving scenes from the past. He reflects, “Visit from suburbia/Dropped into this urban dream/It’s a new diversity/In the streets with rising steam/I feel this city claiming me.”
“I think that experience gave me an appreciation for the many cultures that make up our nation. I released the song, ‘Hamtramck,’ on Bandcamp a few years ago. Since then, I have played it as an acoustic piece, and I plan to release a new version similar to my live performance on a new album I’m working on now,” said Alter, who also performs as part of the soul-jazz-rock duo After Blue with Katie Williamson.
For Friday’s Hamtramck Music Fest set, Alter will share tracks from his thought-provoking 2020 EP, Songs for an American Hero, which pays tribute to the late U.S. Rep. and civil rights activist John Lewis.
“It’s been just about a year since John Lewis passed. I think the impact of the equal justice protests of 2020 still resonate today, but unfortunately at a somewhat lower volume. I want to continue to put a light on John Lewis’ life and that cause in my own way,” he said.
Living One Year in the Lesser Middle
Additional Hamtramck Music Fest live tracks will come from Alter’s latest introspective EP, One Year in the Lesser Middle, as well as other contemplative songs from his ongoing Lesser Middle series. Released in January, One Year in the Lesser Middleeloquently chronicles his thoughts about the racial, social, political and personal impacts of the pandemic.
“The state of our country after the George Floyd murder and the election that was unlike anything we’ve ever seen before – these things weighed heavily. The first song I wrote for this album was ‘I Miss Mondays,’ and it was about the first really impactful experience I had as a result of the pandemic,” said Alter, who started releasing solo material in 2018.
“In the middle of March (2020), I attended a church service where only three other people showed when attendance at that service was usually about 100. My pastor announced it would be the last in-person service for a while. Not only would I not be attending services, but it also made me think about everyone who was put out of work and would realize how much they miss their everyday life.”
Those initial experiences inspired Alter to write and record eight reflective tracks from March to December 2020. For One Year in the Lesser Middle, he played all the instruments and recorded the project in his home-based studio.
“I also had personal challenges, including losing a brother-in-law to cancer in a time when visitation was severely limited. I saw my wife go through so much trying to attend to her brother’s needs; it was a really emotional experience,” he said.
“At about the same time, my father was hospitalized with COVID and being unable to communicate with him was really scary. Those experiences are revealed in songs like ‘Rogue Waves’ and ‘The Pendulum.’”
Outside of his personal experiences, Alter thoughtfully depicts lingering racial tensions on “Rivers’ Lament,” which highlights basketball coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers’ public comments about the increase in police shootings of Blacks as well as shootings of police officers.
Hopeful acoustic strums and deep-seated synths surround Alter as he sings, “So many times you’ve said to me/I’m welcome in the band/I reach for the hand you extend to me/And again you pull it back/You pull it back.”
“‘Rivers’ Lament’ is probably my favorite to play because it seems to resonate with my audience. I’m hoping that listeners get a sense that they are not alone in their feelings about life in 2020 and even in 2021 in a sense,” said Alter, who took up guitar at age eight and later played in a wedding band.
Alter deeply explores feelings of loneliness on the Latin-flavored “Rogue Waves” as soulful acoustic strums, rhythmic percussion and calm bass provide instant comfort.
He shares, “You might live for years and years/Think there’s nothing that you lack/Safe and sound one moment here/ Then not so much the next/When you stop to pause awhile/Try to get on track/You may find you’ve gone too far/And there ain’t no turning back/There ain’t no turning back.”
“At the same time, I gained an appreciation for family and the heroes of the front line, and I address these topics on the album. But I hope people also gain some encouragement and appreciation for the good things we still have,” he said.
Alter revisits the importance of gratitude on the poignant EP closer, “The Pendulum,” which blends whimsical synths, echoey electric guitars, vibrant acoustic strums, delicate bass, smooth drums and tingling cymbals as daily life shifts to and fro.
He sings, “In the evening heartbeats slowing down/The commotion settles in a cloud/Floating away we hope to stay in a safe place/For at least an hour or two.”
“Like most people, 2020 was a real challenge. It wasn’t just the pandemic that would keep me awake at night,” Alter said.
Alter started his prolific, reflective Lesser Middle EP series in 2019 with Notes from the Lesser Middle and Passage from the Lesser Middle. In 2020, he followed up with Wading in the Lesser Middle.
“First, I’ve always joked that I am the least of the children in my family since I am the fourth of five children. I don’t have the distinction of being the oldest or the youngest. I don’t even have the distinction of being the dreaded middle child,” said Alter, who’s inspired by The Beatles, Wilco, Pat Metheny, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Wes Montgomery.
“The second part of the Lesser Middle concept is political. As political parties have become more polarized, there seems to be little room to work for solutions in the middle. I think that’s a danger to the sustainability of a democratic nation. I write a lot about the need to come to solutions in the middle and to recognize the importance of all Americans.”
Creating Songs for an American Hero
Alter also intricately chronicles the importance of racial equality on his inspirational 2020 EP, Songs for an American Hero, to honor the life and leadership of John Lewis. His admiration for Lewis dates back to the original airing of the “Eyes on the Prize” documentary about the civil rights movement on PBS in the late 1980s.
“At that time, I knew about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but I had no idea how much John Lewis had done in that movement. I remember saying, ‘That guy is a saint and a true American hero,’” Alter said.
“For years, I admired him, and then when it was announced that he had pancreatic cancer in late 2019, I started thinking, ‘That’s someone I should write a song about,’ and I started reading his memoir, Walking with the Wind. Throughout it, I started taking notes, and I had so many notes at the end that I decided to write a series of songs.”
Alter introduces his insightful, six-track Songs for an American Hero EP with the mesmerizing “Pike County” as dreamy acoustic strums, peaceful shakers and tender drum taps transport listeners back to Lewis’ childhood in Alabama.
He sings, “No great recognition/On his day of birth/In the line of children/Undistinguished as the third/Raised on a few acres/Of raw Pike County earth.”
“Here’s this guy who’s of the most modest means and who grew up on this rural farm and was able to make such an impact on the world. I like how it starts out with that and how I have that information about him to write that track,” said Alter, who shared a copy of his EP with Lewis’ office.
Songs for an American Hero beautifully highlights the pivotal moments in Lewis’ life, including the March 7, 1965 “Selma” to Montgomery civil rights march where Lewis and others were brutally beaten by police and state troopers.
The project closes with the impactful legacy of change and courage that Lewis leaves after dedicating his life to fighting systemic racism on “This American Hero.”
Vivid Latin acoustic strums, spirited electric guitars, jazzy bass, enduring synth and tranquil drums surround Alter as he sings, “This American hero/Still continues to persist/This American hero/Never ever quits/Even now.”
“My favorite part about recording is what happens when things just come to you. I didn’t have the instrumental portion in ‘This American Hero’ when I wrote it, and I just had a little chord progression at the end that made me want to play over it with an electric guitar. I think symbolically it talks about him and his influence being ongoing forever,” Alter said.
After Blue and More
Outside of his profound solo releases, Alter performs with vocalist-keyboardist Katie Williamson in the eclectic metro Detroit duo After Blue. The pair has released three spellbinding albums, including the transformative Change of Weather album in 2019.
“There were things going on in our lives, and I lost a brother-in-law in that. Katie knew him as well, and that’s influenced in some of the tracks, especially ‘More Like You.’ Everything that’s being said in that track is about what he was like. Katie was also undergoing some changes in her job. We captured that lyrically and in a tone that we wanted to have,” Alter said.
Alter and Williamson started working on their next After Blue album in November and recently finished recording Williamson’s vocals.
“It’s a little bit of a departure from our previous recordings as we are trying to simplify our mix and get closer to the acoustic performances we now give, but I still love to layer and overdub,” said Alter, who formed After Blue with Williamson in 2016.
Alter also continues to write and record new solo material, including a new project that’s tentatively called Poetry and Protest.
“I’m near done recording and writing all of the songs, and I’m planning to have a couple of other guests on it, including Katie. I’m not sure if I’ll continue the Lesser Middle title, but the next project certainly continues many of the same themes,” he said.
3 thoughts on “Homegrown – Tom Alter Returns to Old Stomping Grounds Friday for Hamtramck Music Fest”
Great article, thank you!