As the year (thankfully) comes to a close, we reflect on the strength, grit and willpower that slowly got us through. Together, we relied on new soothing, hopeful tracks that provided a welcome escape from the COVID-19 pandemic, social isolation, political rifts, grief and loss.
Uplifting, rewarding bits of indie folk, country-pop, folk rock, psych rock, shiny lo-fi soul, reggae, dreamy pop, chill hip-hop and experimental art rock demonstrate the courageous creative and emotional spirit we all share heading into 2021.
Strong flavors of folk, country and rock will fill the autumn air at Lake Orion’s Canterbury Village this weekend.
Those aromatic sounds will come from a talented roster of metro Detroit singer-songwriters performing intimate outdoor acoustic sets at Open Air Markets Saturday and Sunday.
This weekend’s lineup will feature James Wailin, Sean Blackman, Al Carmichael, Tom Butwin, Johnny Rhodes and Jon Rice, said Mark Reitenga, a Royal Oak folk rock singer-songwriter who curates live music for Open Air Markets.
“This is a pure energy boost because many of the musicians have been laying low since March and many of the patrons as well. It’s like two happy colliding forces,” he said.
“The music is the tonal center of the market in that the musicians keep the spirit happy as market goers walk around the vast campus looking for goodies, donuts, cider, clothing and specialty items. The musicians play in the outside dining area to folks on picnic benches and also walking by.”
Outdoor market and live music aficionados can expect masked, socially-distanced crowds at Canterbury Village through Oct. 4. The markets also will showcase the work of local artists, crafters, cooks and jewelers and spotlight a different theme for vendors spaced throughout the village.
“They have been fantastic for the pretty strong socially-distanced crowds and also for the safe-distance and mask-wearing aspect. The musical acts have been superb – with many selling their original CDs and making great tip money from the family-oriented crowd accompanied by dogs,” Reitenga said.
As modern beat poets, Mike & Joe distinctly carve new pathways to folk rock.
The Detroit-Ann Arbor first-cousin duo of Mike Benoit and Joe Provenzano etches experimental elements of dreamy psych pop soundscapes, rich retro textures and deep mystical lyricism into traditional harmonized folk rock on their second and latest album, What About You?
“Our little tagline is ‘folk rock and beyond,’ and there’s a lot of folk rock on that first record, but when you get to the second record, you hear my crazy ass solos on ‘One Trick Pony?’ We’re able to do that because we trust each other so much as songwriters, and through doing that, we arrive at what we feel is an original, seamless collaboration that’s something special,” said Provenzano, co-lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist.
“If that trust and expansive, multi-genre appreciation didn’t exist in both of us, then it would be extremely stifling to our collaborative process, so that’s why we just trust each other and rock on.”
Throughout What About You?, Mike & Joe rock beyond typical folk genre boundaries and jam into new territories draped in jazzy prog, baroque pop and singer-songwriter sensibilities. They seamlessly weave a broad spectrum of folk and rock influences, including The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, Fleet Foxes, Father John Misty and My Morning Jacket, into 10 captivating, nonconformist tracks.
“They were making this music that was informed by their own enthusiastic study of history and filtering it through their own modern, original minds. It was like finding out this whole army of like-minded people existed, and they were acting, and they were doing so with power. It’s the extra torch-bearing, energizing thing that made us demand even more of ourselves and feel even more of a kindred association with those acts,” Provenzano said.
Provenzano and Benoit share this kindred association thematically through several internal struggles – heartbreak, inauthenticity, disillusionment, desensitization of violence and self-doubt – while externally chronicling their creative growth as songwriters, lyricists and musicians. Track by track, they share different emotional challenges, unearth hidden meanings and reflect poignantly on their newfound growth on What About You?
Border Patrol masterfully builds a lasting sonic bridge between Detroit and Windsor.
As musical architects, the American-Canadian “folk-everything” duo of Dave Toennies (guitar, vocals) and Cody Howard (banjo, vocals) creates a timeless infrastructure supported by candid lyrics, robust string instrumentation and impassioned vocals on The Worst Excuses.
Released last week, Border Patrol’s second, soul-stirring album spans eight raw tracks layered with shared stories of self-doubt and second guesses wrapped in daily struggles and victories of incremental growth, minor adjustments and hopeful moments. Each Worst Excuses track poignantly and irreverently addresses a spectrum of inner hurdles and identifies novel ways to overcome them.
“It started from my personal experience, and that’s the only way that I’ve managed to make real progress growing in recent years. I’m easily overwhelmed sometimes at the prospect of self-improvement and all the things that have to come with it,” said Toennies, who lives in Hamtramck.
“Because I tend to get real busy and involved in things and overwhelm myself, I try to focus on just the one little thing in front of me that I have to do, get that one done and then move on to the next. Once I started trying to scale that up and applying it to a much more broad growth thing, it’s been the only thing that’s really worked for me.”
Uncovering ‘The Worst Excuses’
With Toennies and Howard at the storytelling helm, Border Patrol invites listeners into a raw, recognizable head trip that crosses international waters and lands directly in the midst of relatable chaos. Their internal journey begins with “A Little Bit Better (Still Bad)” as a tight-knit fusion of folky acoustic guitar, banjo and drums quickly launches into an ongoing tale of feeling stuck personally and professionally.
Despite the track’s initial, dark mood, Toennies eloquently finds a small silver lining, “But there was nothing that could hurt me in that moment/And there was nothing for me in the life I knew/In that moment something unexpected happened/Out of nothing, something grew.” Occasionally, an optimistic, hopeful thought briefly wins over an anxious, weary mind on the toughest of days.
“I hope it’s a positive thing, and there are just a lot of running jokes that we perpetuate, too. It can be sort of depressing music, but I think that it’s depressing in the way that it’s trying to be frank and talk about things that we have a hard time talking about sometimes,” Toennies said.
“We’ve always tried to take these serious topics, and rather than having it sound super serious, maybe make it a little fun, bouncy and upbeat. I hope that it’s relatable and positive in spite of all the things that are wrong.”
For Petty’s newest album and first in nearly a decade, the Saginaw folk rock singer-songwriter dives headfirst into a wondrous musical realm that exists between day and night. It’s the vivid, haunting place where dreams mimic real life, but quickly dissipate once the sun rises.
“I thought I knew what it was going to be when the songs first started coming. I didn’t necessarily sit down to write an album. I was inspired by an idea and then wrote a song. Eventually, they all came together, and I didn’t know why. In hindsight, I feel like it was more of looking at who people are and how they get to where they are,” said Petty, who dropped her new album today.
“It’s more like an observation of the real side of people, and that’s a very broad thing from murder ballads to contemplating how we fit into this vast universe, and we fall all across the spectrum every single day. It feels like a complete thought instead of just one idea that I decided to investigate at length. It just feels like lots of aspects of the same person.”
Petty eloquently explores those different sides throughout her magical 11-track observation. In a sense, she serves as an oracle predicting which scenarios or paths will best guide people toward their destiny. The glorious opener, “The Dreams That Are Waiting for Us,” urges people to follow their instincts, realize their potential and overcome obstacles to fulfill their lifelong dreams.
Deep synths, bright guitars and dramatic drum taps nicely echo Petty’s larger-than-life vocals – “In the sky there’s a lullaby/And you cannot hear it until you close your eyes/These are the dreams that are waiting for us/When you sleep there’s a melody/It will play in you the way it plays in me/These are the dreams that are waiting for us.”
“The first one was based on words that my daughter said to me. She’s just the coolest kid, and she inspired me like crazy. I love where the song came from,” Petty said. “I don’t write a lot of optimistic songs, not that there’s a lot of optimism in that song, but it just feels very uplifting to me in some way. I love the instrumentation, and it’s kind of rocking on some weird level.”
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.”
The folk rock duo will demonstrate their sonic superpowers live Thursday night before an intimate crowd at Lake Orion’s 20 Front Street. It will be their first time captivating fans there together.
“Billy and I have a ‘Vulcan mind meld’ on stage where we can follow each other effortlessly and know what direction to go in when we go off-piste and improvise instrumentally,” said VerLin, a U.K.-based singer-songwriter, violinist and multi-instrumentalist. “When we play and write together, we rub against and wear away each other’s rough edges to get a sound blend that neither of us gets on our own.”
The enchanting pair will share timeless tales from their latest release, “Are You Listening?” – a magical 10-track odyssey that includes Shakespearean characters, ghosts, emperors, dystopian worlds and whales. Magical acoustic guitars, violins and mandolins whisk listeners away to a stunning sonic world beautifully constructed in their minds.
“‘Are You Listening?’ took about two years to complete. When I was here in Detroit a few years ago, I said we should go in the studio to record. We had a few songs that had not been recorded yet so we started with those,” said VerLin, who originally hails from Trenton.
“Billy had written a song called ‘Sailing Away,’ and coincidentally and separately, I had written a song called ‘Sailing Away.’ A completely different feel but in a similar key, so we combined them into a two-part song.”
Released in 2018 via Drum Dancer Records, “Are You Listening?” also unearths another folk rock treasure, “I Wish I Knew,” which includes a splendid picking arrangement of a melody Brandt wrote and envisioned as part of a monotone vocal accompaniment.
Back in July 2011, VerLin wrote the lyrics during a trip to Chamberlain’s Ole Forest Inn in Curtis, but couldn’t pair it will the right melody. Six years later, Brandt’s guitar melody formed the perfect marriage for the song.
Upon arrival, they’ll hear the refreshing and comforting indie country rock sounds of the Judy Banker Band with special guest Mike Gentry.
The Ann Arbor quintet of Judy Banker (vocals, guitar), David Roof (drums), Tony Pace (guitar), John Sperendi (bass) and Alan Pagliere (pedal steel guitar) will headline “Friday Night Live” at the historic theater and preview new material from Banker’s forthcoming “Buffalo Motel” album.
“It’s our last band show before the end of the year, so we want to introduce people to the new album,” said Banker, who will release “Buffalo Motel” in January. “We’ll also be playing some cuts from other albums, and Tony and John are going to take the lead on a song. Playing in a band with five of us can be really intimate, and we just have this creative energy all around us.”
Banker will share that creative energy with the Farmington Civic Theater audience and include flavors of Americana, roots, country and rock music throughout the band’s eclectic set. For “Buffalo Motel,” Banker has evolved into a country rock sound with heavier electric guitars and driving drum beats compared to her acoustic-oriented predecessors, “Devils Never Cry” (2016) and “Without You” (2014).
“The sound we’ve created for ‘Buffalo Motel’ is more layered and complex, and it’s a bigger sound with a higher volume that has more percussion and is bass-driven,” said Banker, who teamed up with son Ben Sayler to produce the album. “It’s nice to play the new album in segments, and a theater feels perfect for that.”
Banker is putting the finishing touches on “Buffalo Motel” with Roof, who will master the album at his Rooftop Recording studio in Grand Blanc. Along with Roof Sayler and her band, Banker has created a strong sonic signature for each track on “Buffalo Motel” and taken creative inspiration from established indie rock acts like Beck and The National.
“You have the same instruments and the same band playing on the songs, but each song has such a clear identity – more confidence, more integration,” she said. “I like my old songs and albums, but there’s a more confident and sophisticated approach with this one.”
The Ann Arbor infectious global groove group has taken flight with a new band moniker and migrated toward new music wrapped in breathtaking melodies, vocal harmonies and improvisational elements.
Previously known as The Ragbirds, the quartet of Erin Zindle (vocals, violin, mandolin, accordion, banjo), TJ Zindle (electric/acoustic guitar, vocals), Shannon Wade (bass, vocals) and Loren Kranz (drums, vocals) is now Erin Zindle & The Ragbirds.
“The name change sends a very clear message that this is different from what we’ve done before. This is different enough that we feel like it needs a new name,” said Zindle, who formed the band in 2005. “Also, there’s the sense of me stepping up and really taking ownership of the role that I have played in the band this whole time. My bandmates are just so amazing. I’m so proud of my band right now, and they’re the best guys I could possibly ask to work with.”
Throughout the band’s 14-year history, Erin Zindle & The Ragbirds have maintained a passionate grassroots fan base by continually reinventing themselves with an evolving sound while remaining rooted in the high-energy sphere of world-based folk rock. Today, they’ve shifted their sound to include more melodic components along with uplifting vocals, edgy guitars and groovy rhythms.
“We have less going on in the percussive world, and in the rhythm section, it’s a little less busy. And it’s interesting how that happened at the same time as I was having this natural shift toward developing my voice and stepping forward as a singer and writing songs with stronger melodies as I improve as a songwriter,” Zindle said. “I’m just getting much more honed in my craft so that I can write songs that are more vocal forward and focus on the melodic elements.”