Sunday, November 30, 2008

Good "Friends" on a Saturday night

Jeff Daniels and Friends, Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, November 29:

Thirty-three magnificent musicians and one baby sharing a stage — that was the final song after two and a half hours of uptempo, feel-good folk music intended to raise funds for one of the country's few remaining historic theaters and to help a sold-out audience forget that, as Jeff Daniels said, "There's a lot of bad crap going on in our world right now."

Yes, that Jeff Daniels — the actor who'll be forever immortalized for his unforgettable "OMG the laxatives have kicked in" scene in Dumb and Dumber, but who also has created and run the Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea, Michigan for the past eighteen years. And between the acting and the theater supervision, he writes songs and sings and plays guitar, too — not like other occasional novelty/vanity "musicians" e.g. Russell Crowe and Keanu Reeves, but often, and well. The historic theater in question being the Michigan, this show featured six home-grown acts (including Daniels):

• The Ben Daniels Band (yep, Ben is fils to Jeff's père), featuring intricate and artfully mumbled lyrics and a surprisingly prominent role for acoustic bass; reminiscent of Adam Duritz in early Counting Crows, but also eerily similar to Everlast's best work.

The violin-led Ragbirds, who acknowledged the holidays with a magnificent congo-and-mandolin rendition of "Little Drummer Boy" and a roof-raising "Tarantella" (aided by the extreme sure-footedness of violinist Erin Zindle dancing nimbly over several miles of instrument cables strewn all over the stage).

• Ann Arbor's own legendary boogie-woogie piano maestro Mark "Mr. B" Braun, showing how Jerry Lee Lewis can only dream of playing the ivories, while also managing to make rocking piano blues function as the "quiet" segment of the show.

• Bluegrass/Appalachian/folk masters Steppin' In It, doing what they do best — dazzling the audience with steel slide guitar artistry by Joe Wilson and the incredible versatility of Andy Wilson on harmonica, flute, and accordian.

• The Brothers and Sisters in Christ (B.A.S.I.C.) Gospel Choir, appearing toward the end of the evening to show how praise and celebration are handled by folks who bring joyful thanks, not somber guilt, to Sunday morning meetings — and how to do it with bass and drums instead of church organ.

Along the way, emcee Jeff Daniels tossed in a couple of solo tunes (including a hilarious "State Trooper," with red-and-blue house lights flashing during each chorus) and mixed things up with Mr. B on piano and Andy Wilson on harmonica behind his guitar. Daniels' final sentiment of the evening, to counter his opening note about negative world events, was that "It's a Good Life (and Somebody's Gotta Live It)," accompanied by every musician who'd performed that evening. (There's really nothing quite like a band with four bass players, four drummers, six guitarists, twenty-two vocalists... oh wait, yes there is: Slipknot. But the masked metalheads from Iowa don't have a gospel choir, a honky-tonk piano, or a baby cradled in a female vocalist's arms.)

A final note: WB has endured numerous half-hour, 45-minute, and even hour-long set changes at shows between opening acts and headliners. Every instrument, every cable, every guitar pick is folded up and taken off stage while a new set of replacements is wheeled on. The mics that worked perfectly for the first act are removed and replaced by new ones, which now need their own soundcheck rituals. But on Saturday night, Jeff Daniels and five other acts showed how to get off stage and enter it in one flawless movement — with no set changes. There was one drum kit, courtesy of the Ragbirds. One array of microphones (lots of them). One set of amps and monitors. Even the bulkiest components of the show — the upright bass lugged around by Steppin' In It's
bassist Dominic John Suchyta, and the fifteen members of B.A.S.I.C. — got themselves and their gear on and off stage quickly and cleanly.

With our next scheduled show being a January concert by Metallica, Lamb of God, Machine Head, and the Sword, we're hoping that just a little of this fast set change might happen between four big-league metal bands in Detroit as well. If not, we'll be posting a review of the January 13th concert sometime around January 17th....

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