A Decade’s Diary in Local Music

. November 22, 2019.

A Recounting of One Writer (Fan’s) Decade In Review

Here’s an expansive Spotify Playlist containing many of the artists mentioned here, as well as others who are listed in this month’s Print version of this article. However, there’s exclusive streams embedded throughout this article, for other artists who have material on Bandcamp.

Looking back on a decade spent listening to local music. I’m throwing this diary-like column into a sort of ether, not knowing how much any of it hits home for you. Because maybe you’ve seen or heard of some or all of these artists, maybe you’re only just starting to dip your toes into the music scene and have no frame of reference to my experience, or perhaps your familiarity with the ongoing stories and artists in this community precedes my own by far and is even broader. This is just one person’s rhapsodic memories of the artists that caught my ear over these years, and the profound emotional connections with their music that inevitably resulted.  

Just to run down a few notable releases and developments:  Fred Thomas collaborated on the loop-laced experimental noise-pop of City Center with Ryan Howard before putting out One Kiss Ends It All with Saturday Looks Good To Me in 2013–one of my favorite albums of the decade. Groups like Chit Chat would dig into a new kind of pop-punk fusion, Scissor Now! unleahsed a performative post-punk/noise-rock, synthesizer enthusiast Charlie Slick would release his final two albums, and Blue Snaggletooth revitalized a proto-heavy-metal sound for fans of Sabbath and Hawkwind, with its singer/guitarist (Chris Taylor) eventually starting up the annual Fuzz Fest summit for guitar-centric groups on the vanguard of voluminous rock n roll.

Beyond much of the aforementioned folk, indie, or hard-rock groups, local hip-hop would flourish with artists like Jacoby Simmons, Kyle Hunter and Evan Haywood forming Tree City, and they’d soon be followed by artists like King Milo, DAG, Approachable Minorities, and many more, including Louis Picasso, who would spearhead the Hiiigher Minds collective, with artists like CJ Rene, Chris Guru, Saint Jerome, AP and $pecs. 

We would say goodbye to alternative venues like The Halfway Inn in the East Quad Dorm on the U-M Campus, and not long after that, the hive of rehearsal spaces for local artists known as SPUR Studios would shutter. The Elbow Room in Ypsilanti, as noted, also came to a close, but one of its driving forces, Andy Garris, hopped over to Depot Town to oversee concerts and bartending at Woodruffs. Woodruffs was home to a handful of memorable and rollicking Mittenfests and several other events and local shows before closing in 2014. All the while, The Blind Pig and The Ark consistently hosted local artists and high-profile touring acts throughout the decade, with the former blending all genres, from electronica to hip-hop to rock, and the latter remaining a stalwart sanctuary for roots, Americana, bluegrass and folk. Along with that, there was The Dreamland Theatre in Ypsilanti, still operating today, a non-profit puppet theatre started in the early 00’s that sporadically hosts live local concerts.

Local labels started operating, like ARBCO, and Shelley Salant’s Gingko Records. The aforementioned Salant would host WCBN’s ‘The Local Show’ and curate numerous exclusive in-studio live performances, some of which featuring bands already namechecked in this column. And along with labels and venues, you had recording studios with top-notch engineers at spots like Ann Arbor’s Big Sky Recording and Jim Rolls Backseat Studio. Roll would bring his ears for audio mixing over to Willis Sound, another space that helped capture several local releases, located in a renovated 19th century church just outside of Ypsi. 

In terms of albums, Frontier Ruckus (an Ann Arbor/Detroit neo-folk-rock group) releasing ‘Deadmalls & Nightfallls’ in 2010, and Chris Bathgate would finish the ‘Salt Year’ LP in 2011, what was then a long-awaited-follow-up to his breakout ‘A Corktale Wake.’ Timothy Monger’s solo  album ‘New Britton Sound,’ Misty Lyn & the Big Beautiful’s ‘False Honey,’ and Matt Jones & the Reconstruction’s ‘Half-Poison, Half-Pure’ all came out back in the earlier half of this decade, with the aforementioned Louis Picasso and Little Traps started putting out releases after 2015-2016.  There were also exquisite releases from singer/songwriters like Kat Steih, Joanna Ransdell, Chris Dupont, Mike Vial, Mike Gentry, Jen Sygit, Mark Jewett, and more.

There were works that were less easy to categorize, like the 2016 Starling Electric album, Electric Company–a kaleidoscopic-pop follow-up to a breakout 2008 album (Clouded Staircase). Minihorse was the dreamy, whispery, heavy-hitting shoegaze shred-pop outfit led by Ben Collins (of Lightning Love), and they put out their first EP just about halfway through the decade. Oh, and then there was Zzvava, another Swiss-army-style 4-piece that switched up instruments, switched up songwriters, and essentially switched-up styles (variations of indie-rock and psych-punk). But I can’t forget Dani Darling, the neo-soul/trip-rock singer/songwriter who leads a versatile four-piece, and even further eclectic and atmospheric works by Electric Blanket and solo efforts by Evan Haywood

My ears were reopened to a redefined style of jam music, with groups like Chirp, Desmond Jones, Act Casual, Stormy Chromer, Honey Monsoon, and Liquid Thickness. These groups fused everything from funk to rock to soul to jazz, and adventurous songs in their live sets as well as the tunes they captured on their recorded albums could very easily glide past the 7 minute mark, but their acrobatic arrangements really ignited something in me, and I admired the close-knit community-like nature of the rapport they established. The latter, Liquid Thickness, even started curating its own music festival (Groove On Up in South Lyon) towards the end of this decade. 

There were break-out moments from artists who were studying music right here on the campus of the University of Michigan, like Jeremy Malvin, a.k.a. Chrome Sparks, whose come along way since 2013’s Sparks EP, and has since signed to major labels and appeared regularly at numerous music festivals (currently based in Brooklyn). The visionary producer Tyler Duncan also launched from U-M, having gone on to work on several albums with an impressive roster of talents, but also remembered fondly for his time leading the eclectic dance-pop ensemble My Dear Disco. A couple contemporaries of Duncan’s were Theo Katzman (singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, creator of several indelible pop-jams) and Jack Stratton (who would go on to lead the inimitable funk operation known as Vulfpeck). 

Vulfpeck very recently had a huge moment by-way-of selling out Madison Square Gardens, but there were also big moments for esteemed and hardworking singer/songwriters like Laith Al-Saadi, who rose to national acclaim during his time on NBC’s The Voice, and would continually perform a series of memorable local shows in the years that followed, including an outdoor set in 2017 that kicked off the 10th season of the Sonic Lunch series, Bank of Ann Arbor’s wildly popular curation of summertime street concerts.

Along with Sonic Lunch, and the other venues we’ve already mentioned, there were new spots that popped up where local musicians could find a home and an audience, such as the most recent addition to downtown Ann Arbor, the magenta-turquoise splashed lower-level hideaway known as Lo-Fi Bar. There were also plenty of wonderful live music experiences hosted at Cultivate Coffee in Ypsilanti; also in that city, rising to effectively take the place of the aforementioned Woodruffs, was Ziggy’s, opening in the late Spring of 2018 and occupying the former community arts space known as Lampshade on Michigan Ave.

Matt Jones, mentioned earlier in this article, started up the River Street Anthology to capture as many of the stories (and songs) of local artists as was humanly possible. He would eventually travel all over the state (into the Keweenaw Peninsula) and wind up collaborating with Michigan’s State Archivist to preserve these precious recordings. And then Grove Studios, a multi-purpose creativity hive and rehearsal space with fully equipped production rooms for local artists, which got going from grassroots efforts in collaboration with community organizations at the tail-end of 2016, is now now providing space to create, centered in Ypsilanti on Railroad St.  

First Friday’s opened local venues in an art-walk style that threaded together live performances in Ypsilanti, fortifying a sense of community. And speaking of community, I should mention the northwestern Michigan contingent from Earthwork Music who often stop through this area, as well as the bands from the Grand Rapids area who regularly roll through the Ark and the Blind Pig… 

There’s just so much to mention and so much to recall. I just can’t capture it all in one article, and it makes my heart about to burst with undeniable joy to look back and appreciate how much has happened on these streets and in these venues and in these basements and in these coffee shops, and how many amazing musicians I’ve been privileged to meet and to help write their stories. I’m out of page space here, so maybe I’ll just have to write a book. Let’s make 2020 just as magnificent. Happy New Year, everyone.

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