“I don't know,” I shrugged. “It's almost eight minutes long, and there's plenty of lyrics involved...we'll just have to see, I guess.”
As it happened, we didn't get “Boy,” but it wasn't an issue – when you're Ian Hunter, your box of tricks doesn't know any limits. With seven albums from his former band (Mott The Hoople) to consider, plus 20 solo efforts, there's definitely plenty of room to do some cherry-picking.
Then again, being spoiled for choice is a nice problem to have. Unlike many artists from his era, Hunter never got the chance to gather moss on classic rock radio – the odd chart-topper aside, like “All The Good Ones Are Taken” – and, therefore, doomed to having his career reduced to those Handfuls of Hits that they'll never stop hammering through the ground.
While many of his peers are struggling to plug the nostalgia gap – as the wiseguy line goes, new albums are just souvenirs for the inevitable comeback tour – Hunter feels confident enough to air eight of the 11 songs from his latest album, When I'm President, sprinkling them evenly among the obvious (“Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” “All The Way From Memphis”) and less obvious (“The Moon Upstairs”) touchstones that have defined his career.
The opening one-two punch of “Comfortable (Flying Scotsman)” and “Once Bitten” set the tone for what was to follow – two hours of unapologetic, no-frills rock 'n' roll, ably driven home by his long-standing all-star combo, the Rant Band. Guitarist Mark Bosch played with economy and flair, providing the right textures that each song required, while multi-instrumentalist James Mastro bounded from guitar, to mandolin and back again – and Steve Holley, the former Wings drummer, rode shotgun on the backbeat. (The whole band worked together quite well, actually; these were just the folks who stood out, to these ears.)
With such distinctive players, it's hard to put a foot wrong, but there'd be something missing without the unflinching emotional directness of Hunter's lyrics – which is one reason why those of us who've followed the man for this long continue to revisit them. One of the most obvious examples came about halfway through the show, with “Michael Picasso,” Hunter's tribute to his late guitar partner, Mick Ronson, who died in April 1994.
The song's opening lines (“How can I put into words, what my heart feels/It's the deepest thing/When somebody you love dies”) cut to the heart of what it's like to experience such sorrow and loss. As “Michael Picasso” wound down, scattered voices in the crowd shouted about how much they missed Ronson – to which Hunter responded, simply:“We still do.” Those who saw him – as I did in early '90, at London's then-Hammersmith Odeon – have never forgotten the man's impact.
But that was just one high point among many. The show rocketed up a notch when Hunter moved to the piano, which he pounded as his life depended on it through rousing back-to-back versions of “All The Way From Memphis,” and “All-American Alien Boy,” plus a searing, slow-burning romp through “Isolation” (John Lennon) – one of two covers on this occasion, besides the ever-statutory “Sweet Jane,” but a welcome surprise, all the same, and a good showcase for Hunter's raw, world-weary vocal style.
“When I'm President” sounded punchy and self-assured, propelled by a bristling, Stone-ish guitar attack, and a chugging keyboard figure that owes a little debt to the Who's “Won't Get Fooled Again” (at least, to these ears – ask me again in a couple of months). Given the paralysis that's gripped Capitol Hill in recent years, the lyrics may remain true to life for some time to come, but we'll stay tuned (“You hold those truths to be self-evident/When you become president/'Cause something happens to you up on the hill/It's business as usual/How do you want to buck the system?/Welcome to the Pit and the Pendulum”)/.
The show ended with a roughly 15-minute medley that wound through the lesser-heard pastures of Mottdom (“Roll Away The Stone,” “Saturday Gigs”), followed by “Life,” a gem that closes the new album (“Hope your time was as good as mine, you're such a beautiful sight/I can't believe, after all of these years, you're still here and I'm still here/Laugh because it's only life”), and then, the band sprinted across the finish line, with “All The Young Dudes” (as often as this number turns up, does he sing it in the shower?).
Not one for resting on his laurels, Hunter never sounded more relaxed and confident than he did here, hammering his guitar for dear life on this summit of the old and the new, as the crowd sang along with gusto. All in all, a perfect ending to a perfect night, one that passed fast and furious with nary a word from the man – except for a sly joke, just before he launched the encore: “That's the trouble with being good...you've got to come back.”
By all means, Ian, please do – with outings like these, you're welcome any time.
The Sixth Generation's members busy themselves with the routine of tearing down – rolling amplifiers, keyboards and miscellaneous equipment to a truck and trailer that waits nearby, on Port Street. Fans stand in clusters, waiting for some face time with this legendary Berrien County band – who reunited in 2010, after 40 years apart.
The band have just finished a rousing, hour-long set for a packed crowd that mixes well-known '60s nuggets (“I Saw Her Standing There,” “Proud Mary,” “You Really Got Me”) less obvious fare (“Expressway,” “Love Potion No. 9”), and a handful of originals (“Glad I Didn't Die Before I Got Old,” “Rock 'N' Roll Me,” “That Was The Time”) that suggest another chapter waiting to be written.
From keyboardist Ken Hamrick's perspective, the new CD, THAT WAS, THIS IS – which will be released locally on October 13, at the band's CD release party at Orchard Hills Country Club, in Niles – offers the ideal chance to tell a different story. “We've had a lot of articles about our history, the whole 40-year hiatus – but we haven't really had anything from the perspective of our music,” Hamrick says. “Obviously, we have a lot of Baby Boomers, but also notice that the music is also enjoyed by teens, young adults, twenty something and little kids. We had some folks up here in their eighties.”
Singer Fred (“J.J.” or, “Jumpin' Jack Flash”) Bachman – who still lives in Michigan, with bassist Paul “General” Davies, and keyboardist Fred Hulce – seconds that emotion with quiet confidence, saying, “We have a lot to write about, because we have all these life experiences.” (Hamrick, drummer Dave Walenga and guitarist-saxophonist Steve Blevins live in Maryland and Virginia.)
A hallmark of that approach is “That Was The Time,” which Hamrick sees as the beginning of an untapped genre in “Boomer Music.” The title is a direct nod to “This Is The Time,” which Hamrick and Bachman co-wrote in 1967 – and, until now, remained the band's sole recorded original. “When we got back together a couple years ago, I decided it would be really nice to have a song about us,” Hamrick says. “It's basically autobiographical, but I didn't want it to be just about us. Any Baby Boomer can identify with the lyrics.”
For Bachman, his former band's return puts an exclamation mark on a story interrupted in 1970 – when real life just couldn't be fended off any longer, and everyone had to go their separate ways, after coming close to breaking out nationally. “We're probably one in a million bands out there, but we are not one in a million '60s bands. There aren't many people who are gonna write in our style, or the words that we write – so that takes us a little bit out of the crowd,” he says.
Guitarist-saxophonist Steve Blevins agrees. He replaced original founder John Dale, who retired last fall, after the initial reunion activities. “In a way, it's a good time for this sort of band,” Blevins observes. “People can look at it ['60s music] again, see it in a different perspective, or be nostalgic about it, if they like. We're getting a lot of response from younger kids, too.”
There were numerous signs of that phenemonon on this particular night, which unfolded to a packed crowd stretched as far as the eye could see in the curved, bowl-like area of the Bandshell.
At certain points -- such as during "Rock 'N' Roll With Me" -- an all-ages conga line broke out, with no other agenda beyond surrendering to the beat, and losing themselves in the sound as they clapped their enthusiasm aloud.
“What We Been Waiting For?”
Once they separated, the Sixth Generation's members kept music in their lives to varying degrees. Davies, who still lives in Niles, would periodically take out the bass – minus the amplifier that he didn't have anymore – to see what kinds of sounds he wanted to make.
Bachman – who grew up in Niles, the home of yet another '60s favorite son, in Tommy James – manage to blend music and teaching without missing the proverbial beat. “In fact, always played the guitar for the kids,” he recalls, laughing. “We had our own songs that we wrote. Music's always been a part of my life. It's in me. I can't not do this.”
Even so, nobody could have seen reforming on the back of a conversation between Davies and Walenga.
“Dave and I kept close over the years, because he still had family in Niles, and he was there fairly often,” Davies recalls. “One day, we were shooting the breeze about the good old days, and my daughter said: 'Well, why don't you guys get the band back together?' Whoever heard of such a thing?”
Once the word went out, nobody waited to answer the call. “I said, 'What we been waiting for?' Literally, that was the first words out of my mouth,” Hamrick says. “All of us, to the man, were in it all the way.”
Bachman looked forward to finding a new creative outlet – having written numerous songs over the years, “and sending them to different people,” he recalls. “I had a decent amount of attention, but never got a hit to anybody that was able to do it.”
“That's the thing that I'm actually having the most fun with, discovering that I'm a songwriter,” agrees Hulce, who has already co-written five tunes with Bachman. “I'd always noodled around on the piano. Part of that is just that the technology is so much better now. If I get an idea, I can just hit a button on the synthesizer, and it's not lost. Back in the day, we were hauling around a 450-pound Hammond organ.”
“Still – There Was Something There”
Since their return, the Sixth Generation have gotten plenty of reminders – as if they needed them – that other people are interested, too. For this particular night – which closed out St. Joseph Today's summer concert series – a circle of longtime fans made the trip out from Marcellus, and Niles.
Another sign came at the first full band rehearsal, in South Bend, as Davies remembers. “Nobody was supposed to be there, 'cause it was our first time getting together – there were about 25 people!” he laughs. “I don't know how they found out about it, but they were there. They said, 'Well, you guys are not bad...' Obviously, it was rusty, but still – there was something there.”
Blevins joined after reading a Craigslist ad entitled, “'60s Music,” and figured his ship had finally come in. Four years ago, Blevins moved from New York to Maryland, but had only played in three bands. “I wrote and said, 'I think the '60s was the most creative decade in pop music.' They were inventing it as they went along, really,” he says.
The first rehearsals with Hamrick and Walenga proved “a little frightening, because I stood out a lot more, and made a hell a lot of mistakes,” Blevins smiles. “But we practiced in Ron's house, in Virginia, and they said, 'Yeah, why don't you come back?' I said, 'What?' I wasn't expecting that.”
After a few full band rehearsals, Blevins felt surer about his contributions, and the potential that lies ahead. “They're some of the best musicians I've ever played with, maybe the best, as a group,” Blevins declares. “The original tunes that I've heard are damn good. Ron, Dave, J.J. and Fred Hulce are writing all the time. I'm hoping that I can get a tune or two of mine in. We'll see how it goes.”
“This Is A Golden Opportunity”
Walenga, who's focused himself until now on packing away the remains of his drumkit, stops to interject with a joke: “I don't know if he told you about the practices, but they're insane! We'll start at 10 in the morning, and get done by six o'clock at night.”
Blevins returns the punchline. “That's one that bugs me – these guys like to get up real early: 'What the hell is this?'” he laughs.
“Dave and I are up in the morning,” Hamrick nods. “We're probably texting by seven, seven-thirty in the morning – [having] had five cups of coffee by then.”
“People hate morning people, because we're just as good at night as in the morning,” Walenga jokes. “We just keep on a roll, we're like the Energizer bunnies.”
As far as what happens next, nobody's getting into the Muhammad Ali-style prediction business tonight – but, suffice to say, the creative energy has been buzzing sufficiently to generate material for a second CD. What started as a chance to reignite the old camaraderie has grown into a determination not to rest on any laurels – why think about coasting now, when there's so many more worlds left to conquer?
By Walenga's reckoning, the band hadn't even seen St. Joseph's confines in almost 45 years, after faring well in a “Battle Of The Bands” competition at the old Shadowland Ballroom – which now lives and breathes again, only a stone's throw from Silver Beach County Park, in an impressively refurbished white building of its own.
Obviously, with band members living in two major regions, some logistical compromises are necessary, but anything else is fair game, to Hamrick: “We want to take this thing as far as we can take it. I am a CEO of a corporation, so I have a lot of background in how to run a business. We are promoting ourselves everywhere we can.”
“Of course, we'd like to play to more and more people, have people enjoy our music,” Bachman agrees. “But, you know, money isn't the object. It never was. It was the people. Do we enjoy it? Are they enjoying it? That's as good as it gets, because the money means absolutely nothing.”
As far as Hulce is concerned, the strength of those long-standing ties helped the band pick up from where it last left off, so long ago – and why he's eager to see what happens next.
“We really came to conclude afterwards that we'd all been waiting for that phone call for 40 years,” he laughs.
“I think we all had pretty much the same idea: 'This is a golden opportunity we've been handed. Let's not squander it,'” Davies agrees. “Things haven't changed in 40 years...it's been very enjoyable.”
The Sixth Generation celebrated its new CD on October 13 with a release party at Orchard Hills Country Club, in Niles, MI. For further details (and future shows), visit: www.thesixthgeneration.com.
Ever so often, an event rolls around that crosses so many boundaries -- and pools together so much talent -- that it'd be criminal to miss, because it makes hash of all the obvious categories.
For three years, that's been true of the Artpost Gallery's Poetry Marathon -- where all comers read in 15-minute slots around the clock, Friday through Saturday, for 24 hours. Overseen by Kay Westhues and Jake Webster, the event is intended to honor National Poetry Month.
In reality, however, all categories go out the window, depending on who's performing. For myself, I covered all the bases -- which is why I open with "Satisfied" (The Dogs), whose lyrics are excerpted on this website. It's my tip of the punk rock brick --so to speak -- to those who blazed the trail, and the sentiments ("Let me do what I please/Let me what do I like") resonate strongly with me.
Next up, another non-original from my wife, "America Can't Keep The Lights On Anymore," which does what its title says ("Wake up, it's morning: The living room is trashed/The dream is over/America is out of cash"), and -- once I get rolling -- inspires me to add an improv ending ("like Lou Reed's Sally, drenched in methedrine,she can't get herself up off the floor anymore...she doesn't know what to do, because there's no way out, to get out beyond that particular door")that draws a suitably strong response.
Alas, the same can't be said for my politically-charged haikus: a couple of lines draw some laughs -- particularly ones that touch on age discrimination -- but not a massive reaction. That's OK, though...you have to do the difficult stuff, I believe...instead of just recycling old favorites, night after night, to earn a passing grade from your audience.
Fair enough: I move on to "Sister Ray Reflects," which I hadn't done since last summer. This one draws its inspiration from the Velvet Underground, which were part of my high school soundtrack...and reflects on how Andy Warhol's "15 minutes of fame," plus the culture that it inspired, would play out nowadays ("First drag queen sent home signs their name & likeness away for 25 bucks a pop, just like they did in '68!").
My other inspiration came from "Sister Ray" itself, that sprawling, 17-and-a-half-minute epic: "What if Sister Ray were a real person, and had survived the madness of being associated with Warhol's camp? What would he say now?" Between lines, I periodically hum that famous pounding riff, built off the holy trinity of G-F-C, while Lori Caskey-Sigety pounds out a rhythm to match on her tambourine("bum-BA-bum-bum, bah-BUM, BAH-BAH-bum")...
...which helps us to build a truly churning groove over five minutes into a suitably frenetic ending, just like on the original! The whole business leaves my mouth feeling completely cotton dry, but: I've got just enough time for one or two songs on the Yamaha acoustic, a tradition that I've upheld at every Artpost marathon.
This year, it's "What's In A Name (From Santiago With Love)." The song's inspiration came from an NPR story on Chile's Ministry of Education, which ordered the deletion of references to Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in its textbooks...and refer to him as a military leader ("What's in a name, what's the difference anyway?/'Airbrush or whitewash,' that's our critics may say/In a generation or two, it won't even matter").
I couldn't pass up the chance to comment on this phenomenon of Chile not dealing with its dark, post-1973 coup past...so I wrote the song at home, in a frantic 90-minute burst, with a chorus that deliberately recalls some of George Orwell's feelings along those lines ("Who controls the past, controls the future/Who controls the future, controls the present").
I ended up with a Latin punk number that travels a similar road to the Clash's "Washington Bullets"...only one that's more succinct, clocking in around two-and-a-half minutes. Since it's the first performance, a few flubs naturally pop up...but I manage to pull it off, and the resulting appreciation puts a big exclamation point on what's been an eclectic set from yours truly (to say the least!).
That proves equally true of the folks that I see during my three-hour visit -- considering how often the "P"-word (as in, poet) is mocked and left for dead in our culture, I'm amazed at how many people seem driven to express themselves that way, trends be damned...from Matthew Heckaman's rapid-fire delivery ("Wonder what happened to the peace dove? It was devoured by a war hawk, and all we heard was 'squawk, squawk, squawk!'...we ask questions, and are told not to talk")), to Zorina Jerome's declamatory retorts to detractors far and wide, to Pam Blair's a capella interludes when she's not actually reading ("...'cause you are the colors in my rainbow?")...there's no the end to the diversity and talent on display.
And, better yet, this event leapfrogs every genre, from spoken word, to rap, original music and back again -- whether it's done purely with vocals, or accompanied by backing tracks and musical instruments, as I chose to do -- making it one of the best area talent showcases around. Long may it run, and here's to next year!
THAT (DATED) GATED DRUM SOUND
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): You guys actually did record original albums...from what I could pick up on [through the press release], a lot of that stuff was almost done against the odds, wasn't it? Because you never really had much support, in the way of major labels, management companies, or anything like that...
JIMMY WATKINS (JW): You're about right on that, yes. One album was on Whalesville Records, which was started by a couple of executives that had just left Atlantic. But they really kind of ruined the record, I thought, because they came in and told us everything we had to do. I won't bore you with all the details – they said, “OK, every song has to be 110 beats per meter.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
They said, “Well, we've done scientific research...that is the exact beat that sells the most records. Every song has to start with the main melody of the chorus, but instrumentally, and then, in 10 seconds, the vocal has to come in. And you can't do any drum rolls or guitar licks that people don't expect, because people don't like to be surprised.” Every neat little thing we did, that was really ours, that we really felt good about – they took all that, totally homogenized it. It wasn't just us. If you think about it, they homogenized all the music at that point.
CR: Well, just that horrible gated drum sound that has dated pretty badly – to name one obvious example, I guess...
JW: Exactly, the gated drum sound, sure.
FAME IS A HARSH MISTRESS (PT. I: THE '80S)
JW: We were tentatively hired for a record contract by United Artists, and we had to go to Miami to meet some bigwig, sign these papers. This was right at the height of the Bon Jovi, Ratt, Poison [era]...all the bands that were young, skinny, long-haired, good-looking.
The guy told me, and I'm not kidding you: “Look, we'll let you guys record the album. I couldn't put you on the cover, 'cause nowadays, the only bands I'm signing are bands that I could find on a teenage girl's wall, on a poster. Now, what I might do is have you guys give us your songs, record them in the studio, with our producers – and we'll send a band of young, skinny, long-haired guys out to do live appearances.”
CR: And you basically said, “Get lost”... [JW laughs] So, after the fourth album comes out in 1990, that's when things wind down, isn't it?
JW: We started hearing people yelling for MC Hammer while we were onstage,“Funky Cold Medina” started to come up on request lists, things like that. I mean, we did the other trends – we did disco when we had to, for maybe a year – but we said, “You know, we're not about to start talking into the microphone with sampled music behind us.” So I, at least, decided to quit.
Frankly, my guitar player and I had been touring together for 16 years. He and his family, even more than himself, depended on me to always take care of him. A couple of years before I quit playing, he met a woman and got married, a wonderful woman he's still with today. And I could see that if I quit, he would still be well taken care of. He's still into playing music today. In fact, he's in a very good band, from what I recall: Bad Mannerz.
FAME IS A HARSH MISTRESS PT. II (THE '90S)
CR: When you look back, what was the best album that you did, and why?
JW: Our last album was the best. Number one, that was the best band we ever had, the best songs we ever wrote, and the best studio we ever recorded in, the Platinum Post. On the schedule board up there, it said, “Al DiMeola, White Summer, and Judas Priest.” I thought, “Oh, boy, this is pretty good company to be in!”
CR: Yeah, I wouldn't argue with that [much laughter at this point]!
JW: Yeah, if anything, the stars seemed really aligned, just perfectly. Before we started recording, editing and mixing that album, I told myself, “If this doesn't work, I'm going to have to quit, and do something else.” Plus, rock 'n' roll was fading a bit, with all this rap, and sampling, and all that...
CR: So, then, you put this album out, and it doesn't work...
JW: Well, it worked, you know, for awhile. It looked like, “Wow, this thing will really take off!” It went like gangbusters, it seemed, for a month or two, and then it just fizzled right out. It was over.
CR: That had to be a kick in the teeth for you, I'm sure...
JW: The whole thing was a really emotional ride, I tell you. The whole thing. But nonetheless, I decided to hang it up. Everybody else but me kept on playing. They just went out and found themselves bands to play with.
WILL THE REAL WHITE SUMMER (...PLEASE STAND UP?)
CR: You mentioned a couple people using the same name, and they've caused you a little bit of a headache, I guess.
JW: I'm not a real big Youtube guy, but somebody called one day – a good friend, he's kind of laughing: “Boy, you guys really sucked when you were young!” I was like, “Well, what do you mean?” He goes, “Yeah, I saw you on Youtube, playing...” He named some Led Zeppelin song.
I thought back, “We've never played that song. What are you talking about?” He told me how to get there, the exact link – these are young kids, 19 years old maybe, [from] Alberta [Canada], or some place. As I looked further, I found one in Australia that was almost the same – young kids. I mean, they weren't bad for their age, but I sure didn't want them representing me, my band, and my band name, you know?
So I wrote to both [bands], asked if they'd please stop using the name – or at least, change it a little bit – and neither one of them even responded.. I talked to a lawyer friend – I don't have money for lawyers, these days – and he said, “If they're in other countries, you have to have an international copyright on the name. Do you have that?” I said, “Well, heck, I don't even know if we do. As far as I know, I've never heard anything about international in relation to our coyprights, which were done nearly 40 years ago.” So, anyway, it's too bad.
LIFE AFTER WHITE SUMMER
CR: What do you actually do for a living?
JW: I write Internet magazine articles for HubPages. I've got 249 articles on HubPages right now, and three books in the pot. One of them is a history of the United States during my lifetime, which is 1955 till today – I'm really into history. That's my favorite subject.
I'm furthest along on a history of the Christian faith, from the time of Jesus, till today. That one has been sent to an editor, so it may end up being first. It wasn't supposed to be, but it looks like it's just further along. The other one is primarily about interrracial dating and marriage, but it also hits on themes of race in America. The problem, in all three cases, is whittling it down, because I don't want to put out a book of over 200 pages, being a first-time author.
CR: I'm surprised you've never thought of writing about your experiences with White Summer...I think that'd be almost a natural thing.
JW: Well, I actually did write that whole story, from day one, all the way through – and a lot of it's really funny. I've got a lot of really funny things that happened over the years with the band, that I wouldn't put in any family newspaper. But I have written the book you're talking about, and I finally shelved it. I thought maybe people wouldn't be that interested. If I get a book out there that enjoys a modicum of success, I'll probably go back to that, once I have some readers.
WHITE SUMMER'S RETURN
JW: We decided, before very long, that every year we'd do a one-night only concert – in Michigan, or Florida – so that in one week, we'd get together and jam, and also, so our good friends and fans can enjoy a night with us, and us with them. I's worked out to about every other year. I think this is the tenth one [reunion show] we've done in 20 years.
We were up here in, I guess it was, '08. Jimmy and I were I in Benton Harbor for Thanksgiving at the same time. We went to Czar's, and jammed with the band that was there. They recognized us and asked if we'd come up and play. So we played a few of their songs.
[Czar's owner] Tom Jennings came right over and said, “Who are you guys? What's the deal here?” We told him , and he'd heard of us. We told him that we still get together, and he said, “Well, if you do any reunion things, I want you to do 'em here.” So we [first] did it [at Czar's] in June '09.
LOOKING BACK: “IT WAS A REAL MOMENT”
CR: What do you think the highlight [of White Summer's career] was, that sums it all up for you?
JW: I'm not sure I can pick a clear winner. Playing for 40,000 people at Indian River Music Festival could easily be the highlight. You dream about playing for a crowd that size; that's a lot of people. Jimmy Schrader played the Jimi Hendrix version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That was right in the middle of [Operation] Desert Storm. And when he did, all those people stood up – it was a Sunday afternoon, so they were sitting in the grass. They stood up and put their hands on their hearts, virtually all of them. It was a real moment.
But other than that, when our fourth album got airplay on about 100 radio stations – that was pretty big, too, because we heard it lots of times. And boy, that's an exciting thing, when you're riding in your car, turning on your radio, and it's you! I don't know if I can pick between those two – they're different experiences. One's live, and one's on the radio, but those would probably have to be my two highlights.
original writeup of the reunion show, here's a glimpse of what else we talked about during those 45 minutes...in this installment, we look at White Summer's beginnings and philosophy as it roared through the '70s. For additional information, please scroll down further below to James's press release.
THE ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS
JAMES WATKINS (JW): We've got a band, in certain circles, that is very well-known in this area for a long, long time. There's only three of us. We have a terrific bass player [in Randy Brown] from Saginaw, MI, who toured with the band for about five years – and then myself, and Jimmy Schrader. We're both from Benton Harbor originally, although we don't live there now.
There's no question that the blind guitar player [Schrader] is the star of the show. There's no doubt about that. It's not that the whole band is not good, but the guy is just jaw-droppingly fantastic on the guitar. The thing was, he couldn't find a band – because everybody was like, “Well, I'd have to lead the guy around to the bathroom, or on the road...”
But when I heard that boy play in his basement, within less a minute, I said, “You know what? I'll lead you anywhere you need to go, buddy.” And I'm telling you, I've seen all the greats live – Jeff Beck, [Eric] Clapton, Al DiMeloa – and this guy is every bit as good any of 'em. He never made it to the big time, that's true, but a lot of that's luck, as I'm sure you know.
CR: Or, as I like to joke: if you're making a Sweet/glam rock [style] album at the height of disco, don't expect as many people to return your calls.
JW [laughs]: That's exactly it, that's what I'm saying – we had an ugly band during the pretty band days, and a pretty band during the ugly band days! We never could quite get the timing right.
PLAYING LIVE: “HE LIVED IN A WORLD OF SOUND”
CR: At the time you started, what was your original goal, once you found that synchronicity with Jimmy onstage?
JW: Since he was blind, he lived in a world of sound. And I started closing my eyes when I played, which I hadn't done before I met him. But I started closing my eyes when I played, and strictly go into a world of sound only, the world he's in – and we eventually developed such a communication. We did a lot of ad libs, a lot of improvisation. But I always knew what he was gonna do, and he always knew what I was gonna do, after a couple years. This really is a magical thing, when that develops.
CR: Very much so. Well, one of the things I've been listening to a lot lately, is LIVE AT LEEDS – and, of course, that's what that album's all about. So I imagine you were getting pretty much to that level, every night.
JW: Yeah, sure! Well, we wanted to make music. We wanted to write songs, wanted to be artists, and – of course – wanted to make a living doing it, so we wouldn't have to do anything else. That's what our goal was, right there.
CR: In the grand scheme of things, we didn't quite get there – and yet, you succeeded, because we do still talk about you guys, after all this time.
JW: It's strange, 'cause if you look at it from one side of the coin, we were a huge flop. But on the other side of the coin, we were pretty successful, more successful than any other band from around my area, Southwestern Michigan. It's really kind to figure what to make of it, even today.
BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS (...AT THE HOUSE OF DAVID)
CR: I imagine that [playing at the House of David Beer Garden] was an interesting time for you, too.
JW: There was no music at the House of David for a long time. I don't know how many years, but it was quite awhile. And I met a friend, one of my best friends, actually. A friend of his cousin was an ascendant of the House of David, and he took me over there to meet a guy who'd been a bandleader.
He was, like, ninetysomething years old, a real nice old fella...sat down and played the piano for me. And I got to telling him, “We'd like to have some rock 'n' roll shows at the House of David” – because I'd only loved the place since I was a little boy. My dad used to take me there. Anyway, he said, “Well, you know, I like you. You can do anything you want there.”
We put on Blood, Sweat & Tears there, September 2, 1977, and we were the warmup act. I think they played one of their hits first, “Spinning Wheel,” and [for] their second song, they played a 20-minute, slow, jazzy tune. They were great musicians, but it seemed like an odd choice, you know? We just warmed them up with some pretty hard-driving rock 'n' roll – not heavy metal, but pretty hard-driving rock 'n' roll – and the crowd started chanting, “White Summer, White Summer!”
I'll tell you, I was embarrassed by it. I had nothing to do with it, but he [Blood, Sweat & Tears lead singer David Clayton-Thomas] got mad, stomped off, and went down to the dressing rooms – which, if I remember right, were below the stage – and it was heck coaxing him back out there. But he finally did get back out, and resume the show. It took awhile. He was really mad about that, because we were nobody, we were just a local act. So it was an insult to him, with three platinum albums on the wall. I could understand his feelings about it, but...
CR: Hey, that's showbiz, right?
JW [laughs]: Yeah, I guess!
E.C. WAS HERE (...AND SO WAS NEIL)
CR: So, how come, when Eric Clapton said, “This is the best band I've ever seen in a bar”...did any of you ever start clearing your throat: “Hey, Eric, we've got some [open dates]...”
JW [laughs]: Well, you know, I'll tell you what happened: he was surrounded by about 50 people, I think. All I know is, I got offstage, and I saw a mob of people in a circle, or a semi-circle, over near the bar – and I asked somebody, “What's going on over there?”
They said, “Eric Clapton's over there!” I said, “No, he's not!” They said, “Yes, he is! He's sitting over there at the bar.” So I waded my way through all the people, pushed 'em aside, got there to him – and he said, “Oh, you're the drummer?” I said, “Yeah.” And that's when he said what he said [“This is the best band I have ever seen in a bar!”]. Then he said, “Can I come back tomorrow night, and jam with you guys?” “Geez, of course!”
CR: Wow! “Oh, I think we can manage that...”
JW: So that night, I called my mom, my brother, my sisters, my aunts, my uncles, my nieces, nephews, cousins, friends, acquaintances, and probably even a few strangers, to say: “Tomorrow night, Eric Clapton's coming down to sit in with us!” And he didn't show up [much laughter at this point].
CR: What was the encounter with Neil Young like, by contrast?
JW: Well, that was a lot different, and I'll tell you why. Neil Young's mother lived in New Smyrna Beach [FL], and she was on her deathbed. So he came to New Smyrna Beach, which is 15 miles south of Daytona. Not much of a tourist area – it's kind of an area for locals. Very nice, though, beautiful, on the ocean.
Anyway, his mom's dying, and he's here for that – so he's not in the greatest of moods – and the place wasn't that big, either. He was sitting right in front of me, about 15 feet away. This time, I didn't have to ask what was going on, 'cause he was right there, and no one was bothering him. So he was just like another dude sitting at the club, and I sat the whole break with him.
He told me what was going on, and by golly, he sat through whole 'nother set! He got up to leave, right as we finished the second set – and that's when he said, “You know, I gotta tell you, I've never sat and listened to another band play this long.” And I was like, “Wow! That's a great thing to say.”
CR: That almost made you feel like a made guy, didn't it? High praise, indeed.
JW [laughs}: Yeah, it was. It really was, yeah.
OUT OF THE '70s (INTO THE '80s)
CR: And then, of course, you end up having to leave Southwest Michigan, because the drinking age goes up, disco comes in – you're kind of getting hit from all directions, basically...
JW: Of course, Michigan was part of the Rust Belt. It was really slowing down, and Florida was just starting its real boom time, particularly Orlando. Orlando went from a town of 40,000 people to what it is today, two million people. So it's booming, this place is dying, and the drinking age is still 18 down there. We had instantaneous gigs, where we'd just pack up and go. So we did.
THE WHITE SUMMER REUNION CONCERT AT CZAR'S (By James Watkins)
The White Summer band will come together to perform a reunion concert at Czar's, downtown St Joseph, Michigan, November 25 at 10:00pm. White Summer has produced five albums of original material, but they are most famous for their thousands of live appearances that never fail to generate tremendous excitement and large crowds. The many hardcore fans of the band are affectionately called "Whiteheads," and some have been known to travel 1,000 miles to see White Summer.
The story of the White Summer band begins in 1973. The group was formed as a power trio of eighteen-year-olds from Benton Harbor: Jim Watkins (drums and vocals); Rick Lowe (guitar and vocals); and David Wheeler (bass guitar). The boys had been close friends since the sixth grade, when they attended Pearl School together. Early influences included The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, and home-state favorites Grand Funk Railroad. The name of the band comes from a Mayan Indian term, the White Summer plateau, which means the highest level of human consciousness.
The band's first bar gig was at Babe's Lounge. They also put on many shows at high school dances, outdoor festivals, and nightclubs. White Summer performed many times at the old Shadowland Ballroom, and were one of the last bands to play that hallowed venue.
White Summer released their first album in January, 1976 -- the White Album. WIRX played the record in its entirety several times. Les Paul was in the control room during one of the recording sessions at Sound Machine Studios in Kalamazoo and praised the boys' sound.
White Summer was the last band to ever play the House of David Beer Gardens. In 1977, the band performed on that fabled stage in front of 5,000 fans as the opening act for Blood, Sweat and Tears. When the crowd began chanting "White Summer" during a long instrumental song by BS&T, singer David Clayton Thomas marched off the stage in anger. It would be twenty minutes before he could be coaxed into continuing the concert.
In the mid-1970s, there were perhaps fifty clubs that featured live rock bands in Berrien County. But the drinking age in Michigan was raised from 18 to 21, and that combined with the Disco fad killed the live music scene. In 1979, White Summer moved to Ann Arbor before relocating to Florida one year later.
White Summer went on to become one of the top rock acts in Florida. The group traveled around in its signature big white bus and by the end of the 1980s became famous for its classic rock shows, especially in Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and in the Florida Keys. By the end of that decade, White Summer featured a repertoire of 1,000 songs and was known as the "All Request Band," meaning the audience was challenged to try to "stump the band."
White Summer opened for many top rock acts, from the Buckinghams to Black Oak Arkansas. The band developed a reputation as a "Musician's Band"—more musicians would come to see them perform than any other group. Eric Clapton caught a set at Sloppy Joe's in Key West and exclaimed, "This is the best band I have ever seen in a bar!" Neil Young saw two sets in New Smyrna Beach and said, "This is the longest I ever sat and listened to a band."
White Summer performed at Walt Disney World and played for two months at the Hard Rock Cafe in Cancun, Mexico. In 1990, White Summer won a Jammy Award as "Best Classic Rock Band," while Jim Watkins won the award for "Best Classic Rock Vocalist." In 1991, White Summer appeared in front of its biggest crowd ever—25,000 souls—at the Indian River Music festival with Don Henley, Michael McDonald, and Arlo Guthrie. A major music magazine called White Summer's set "the highlight of the day."
White Summer never neglected its Michigan roots. The band did a two year tour of its home state in the 1980s that covered a Michigan map with pins for the cities they had played. Three times the group returned to Southwest Michigan. One of their most memorable performances came at the 1988 Venetian Festival when they played in front of 5,000 people directly on Silver Beach.
In 1984 White Summer returned to play at Chief's Bar in Millburg. That gig started out as a joke as the drummer's sister lived in Millburg and used to dare him to bring White Summer to Millburg. Chief's built an addition for White Summer to accommodate its fans. The group became the house band at the Ramada Inn in Benton Harbor for six months in 1987, during which time it occupied one entire floor of the hotel—24 rooms. In 1989, White Summer lived and played at the Sweet Cherry Resort for six months.
The 1982 White Summer Red Album drew the attention of Warner Brothers. During negotiations for a record contract, one of the three band members—Danny Misch from Chesterton, Indiana—suddenly left the band for personal reasons. That was the end of that.
In 1984, White Summer recorded the Dreams Come True album in Detroit at the old Motown Studios. That record received airplay on over 100 radio stations. The band was nearly signed by United Artists, but the deal was squelched at the last minute by a top executive who didn't like the way the band looked. He said, "If I close my eyes, White Summer sounds as good as any band in the world." This was during the big-hair-band days. Video killed the radio star.
The last White Summer album was recorded in 1990 at the Platinum Post Studios in Orlando, in between sessions by Al Di Meola and Judas Priest. There are many videos of White Summer's music on YouTube but one has to be careful as two other groups are on YouTube that have stolen the name. Both are young kids, one group from Canada and one from Australia. They have been asked to cease and desist using the name "White Summer" but have ignored these requests.
White Summer has featured many different lineups over the years. The constants have been drummer/singer Jim Watkins (since 1973) and virtuoso guitarist Jimmy Schrader (since 1976). Two former members, Jeff Aldrich and Ron Rutkowski, are deceased.
Jimmy Schrader was born sightless in Benton Harbor and attended the Michigan School for the Blind in Lansing. Jim Watkins needed a guitar player in 1976 and a fellow musician told him about Schrader. He said, "I know a fantastic guitar player but he is having a hard time finding a band. He was born blind, and refuses to use a cane or a guide dog. So, if you hire him, you will have to lead him around everywhere you want to go and everywhere he needs to go." Watkins went to hear Schrader play his 1957 Fender Stratocaster by himself in his basement through a double-stacked 200 watt Marshall—turned wide open (on 10). It was as loud as a freight train. Within one minute Watkins knew that Schrader was his man.
For a long time, Jimmy Schrader was simply called "the blind man" by rock music fans, and White Summer "the band with the blind guitar player." But by the mid-1980s, Schrader had been given a new appellation: The King -- as in the king of guitar. He is truly the star of the show and a world-class guitarist.
For five years in the 1980s, bass player Randy Brown from Saginaw toured with White Summer. He is such a powerful player that his nickname is "The Jimmy Schrader of Bass Players." No higher compliment could be given. Brown had previously toured the world as a trumpet player in a jazz-rock group.
White Summer disbanded after 1991. Jim Watkins retired from the music business and got a real job. Today he writes internet magazine articles on HubPages. Jimmy Schrader never stopped playing and today is in a top-notch Florida band called Bad Mannerz. Randy Brown lives in Vero Beach, Florida, and plays in his church and occasionally in other venues.
Since 1991, the White Summer band has come together every other year to do a one-night-only Reunion Concert, either in Florida or in Michigan. The lineup for these shows is always Jim Watkins, Jimmy Schrader, and Randy Brown. Adam Watkins—Jim's son—plays a set on the drums while Jim goes out front to sing. The last such show enthralled a jam-packed house at Czar's in June, 2009. The "Whiteheads" are getting ready for the sets that will be all classic rock—Jimi Hendrix, ZZ Top, Robin Trower, Montrose, Pink Floyd, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent, and Stevie Ray Vaughn (and others). A White Summer show is always a party. Be there!
Thankfully, local bands have a different dynamic, one that's focused around the joys of playing those favorite songs one more time – 'cause there sure as hell isn't any big money changing hands, right? Still, had luck and timing run their course just a little differently, many of these outfits could have crossed the finish line to everlasting fame 'n' fortune.
At least, that's how things panned out for White Summer, who roared out of Benton Harbor in 1973, and built a formidable live following – built around the pyrotechnics of blind guitarist Jimmy Schrader, and the deft drumming of Jimmy Watkins – who remained the band's mainstays during its original run. Along the way, White Summer recorded four platters of original material – beginning with WHITE ALBUM (1976) – and garnered praise from the likes of Eric Clapton, and Neil Young.
In many ways, White Summer's story reads like a movie, but not one that attracted support from management companies and major labels. Weary of that same-old, same-old phenomenon, White Summer called it quits in 1991. Inevitably, though, the boys couldn't stay away forever, and began to regroup with bassist Randy Brown, who toured for five years with the band during the 1980s.
The shows happen in Michigan, or Florida – which Brown and Schrader now call home – and have typically gone off about every other year, which is how I found myself catching White Summer's latest get-together at Czar's 505, in downtown St. Joseph.
Due to various boring tasks that invariably commandeer my attention, I don't make it down until the second set – but it's not too hard to figure out what's happening, as Dave Carlock makes clear to me outside, on the sidewalk: “Do you hear that? Jimmy Schrader's just killing it!”
Indeed, he is: I can hear those gut-wrenching strains of feedback and sustain floating off the main floor, up the stairs and outside, just long enough to hang in the air, and ring out into the night. On the main floor, the traffic is packed, as Watkins fronts the band – while his son, Adam, deputizes on the drumkit, something that he'll periodically do throughout the night.
The song happens to be a Doors classic, “Roadhouse Blues,” and the elder Watkins doesn't miss the opportunity to lead the crowd through a tradeoff on those telling lines in the last verse, the snapshot that Jim Morrison saw fit to offer his fans back in 1970: “Wellll, I woke up this morning, and I...”
Back comes the answer: “GOT MYSELF A BEER-AH!”
“Well, I woke up this morning, and I...”
“GOT MYSELF A BEER-AH!”
One, two, three, four: “Well, the future's uncertain, and...”
“...THE END IS ALWAYS NEAR-AH!”
All in all, not a bad start for my night, although my ears are taking a real old- fashioned mauling – because I've staked out a spot on stage right, under one of the speakers. However, when you've got a standing room only crowd, you hug that particular corner... because it may not be there when you get back.
I pray that the Feedback Gods will be kind on this occasion, and concentrate on click-click-clickin' away, as the band winds through its second, then third set, which focuses heavily on Hendrix territory. Schrader naturally gets lots of room to stretch out on well-worn showcases as “Red House” (for which the crowd sits down, because it's not a danceable number, per se), “The Star-Spangled Banner” – segueing into “Purple Haze,” Woodstock-style, of course – and “Fire,” with Randy Brown's fingers running nimbly underneath all the fretboard fireworks.
But that's half the fun, naturally: however much these songs got pounded into the ground via too many Classic Rock stations, whose formats carry the stink of mothballs and long-ago-discarded Rolodexes left by the umpteen different program directors who passed through their portals...
...White Summer brings them alive with a conviction that's impressive, as if they'd written these well-known numbers themselves. That's half the battle of interpretation, right? Close your eyes, and you can hear what kept the folks coming back to all those countless holes-in-the-walls, fourscore and so many nights ago.
We also get one-off raids of nuggets from ZZ Top, and Stevie Ray Vaughan (“Cold Shot”), and – to round out the night – Billy Idol's 1982 mega-smash, “White Wedding...y'know, the song that effectively punched his ticket out to Beverly Hills, generatin' oodles of cash 'n' cover versions that seemed a long way off to a certain W. Broad, back in certifiably fallin' apart late '70s-punk-era Swinging London...
...only tonight, the song is provisionally re-dubbed “White Summer,” as in: “It's a nice day for, a...WHITE SUMMER!” The bodies are back in force on the floor, roaring their full-throated approval, especially when they get to the punchline: “Well, it's a nice day to...STAAAAART AGAINNNNN!”
Last call is creeping around the bend as usual, but everybody seems bound 'n' determined to wring one last chord or two out of the boys onstage before the night slips out the back door..as it should be, eh? Here's hoping that we don't wait long till the next time, and that the Feedback Gods are kind to me once more. Time will tell.
“OK, so Bernard and Peter won't exchange Christmas cards for awhile? I still hang my bass near my knees, just like Hooky did in 19-eighty-somethin', when I saw 'im at Par For The Course, or was it the Dog 'N' Duck? Eh, I just wanna hear the tyooons, man, the tunes...”
THE UNCHARITABLE VIEW
“God, he's still overdriving that Clone Pedal, twanging those high strings, dragging that back catalog on his back? He's charging...how much? He's gonna sing all the songs? He couldn't carry a tune in a basket! Eh, think I'll pass on this one...”}
Mind you, I'm only paraphrasing, but I suspect the above-named comments constitute a fair representation of the dueling thoughts on Peter Hook's latest venture – in this case, returning to America and playing Joy Division's second album (CLOSER) in its entirety, plus selected nuggets from the band's back catalog.
One person's nostalgia is someone els's golden opportunity. Gary “Mani” Mounfield evidently forgot this principle in abusing his Twitter account last fall to swear off hanging with “talentless nostalgia fuckwit whores” – such as one P. Hook, whom he accused of “dragging his mates cadaver round the world getting himself paid.”
In fairness, Mani eventually apologized, but even those testy pronouncements didn't prevent him from rejoining his former cohorts, the Stone Roses, for a series of shows that should presumably pay a bit more than minimum wage. The moral of the story? Never believe what musicians say publicly, because business is business, and rock 'n' roll has no pension plan.
Going into this gig, however, I had few qualms. Hook was one-quarter of Joy Division, so he has as much right to play those songs as anyone (including old cohorts Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris, whose latest band, Bad Lieutenant, also played Joy Division and New Order songs live). I mainly wondered...how's he going to pull off the vocal bit, since he's not exactly known for that sort of thing?
The answer came quickly, after the surprise opening blast of “Incubation,” a rare Joy Division instrumental – followed by the darker pastures of “Dead Souls,” where Hook effectively channeled Ian Curtis's angry-young-man-vocal persona. This trend held up well through a pair of obscure Warsaw nuggets (“Autosuggestion,” “From Safety To Where?”), and the CLOSER set, where drummer Tom Kehoe really came to the fore – surging across the tom-toms during “Atrocity Exhibition,” cracking the snare for “Isolation,” and deftly steering the churning tempo changes in “24 Hours.”
Hook and his bass-playing son, Jack Bates, meshed well together as a duo – it was impossible to tell where one began and the other left off (even if dear old Dad doesn't sing and play at the same time – which strikes some observers as annoying, but is charming to me, having dealt with the issue as a novice low-ender). Keyboardist Andy Poole fought to be heard at times, but stuck all the atmospheric flourishes in all the right places (notably on “The Eternal,” one of my favorite later-era Joy Division songs). Guitarist Nat Watson channeled his inner Sumner on “Colony” and “Disorder,” which bristled with a ferocity only hinted on their original recorded incarnations.
As promised, former Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan came out to lend his trademark nasal sneer for powerful surges through “Transmission,” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”; had the night ended there, the crowd would have gone home with a smile. However, Hook and company trotted out for one more encore (“Atmosphere”/”Ceremony”), that closed the gig on a high note, since the latter song bridged the transition from Joy Division to New Order. (Hook couldn't resist poking fun at his colleagues on that score, telling Bates: “You'd better get your shit together, mate, or you might have to take that bass playing job in New Order.”)
While the band stuck to the recorded versions, they brought enough of their personalities to the proceedings – enabling songs like “Isolation,” “A Means To An End” and “Decades” to sound larger than life in this smallish setting. This wasn't some paint-by-numbers set, but one with enough nuance to make it memorable on its own terms. For the punters who plunked down their money, this night was about as close as they'll ever get to seeing the original Joy Division, whose 1980 American tour – as Hook reminded us – was due to begin in Chicago.
This night also marked the band's final American gig, which added an edge (as opposed to the “mushy middle” of a tour, when that sense of collective energy sometimes seems to flag). Where Hook and his crew go from here remains to be seen – even if that means eventually moving on from the past, since Joy Division's career was so brief. This lineup is definitely tight and proficient enough for the task, so we'll just have to see what they end up doing. (Hook has spoken of doing other album shows, such as New Order's first effort, MOVEMENT, which suffered from a half-baked Martin Hannett production; I'd like to hear what he does with that!)
On this night, however, everything seemed to fall together in the right place, but I couldn't leave without having the man sign my copy of Monaco's first CD – my favorite Hook side project, hands down – and his memoir of the Hacienda, HOW NOT TO RUN A CLUB. I couldn't help but tell him: “You know, I was involved in something like that – we made every fuckin' mistake that you guys did, and then some!” As you can imagine, we shared a good laugh about that one.
Incubation/Dead Souls/Autosuggestion/From Safety To Where/The Atrocity Exhibition/Isolation/Passover/Colony/A Means To An End/HeartOn & Soul/The Eternal/24 Hours/Decades/Digital/Disorder/Shadowplay/Transmisson/Love Will Tear Us Apart/Atmosphere/Ceremony
Which makes it something of a dicey issue when bands do this.
I remember listening to a radio personality talk about going to a Steely Dan "Album" concert. He was looking forward to it beforehand - but afterwards only complained about how a bunch of songs with disturbing or menacing meanings were all neutered into "Smooth Jazz" by the way the band ended them (somehow do-do-do-do-do-waaah doesn't do them justice, but then this was a Steely Dan concert, so draw your own conclusions).
Then there's the band that has to do everything EXACTLY LIKE IT WAS ON THE ALBUM. That's why I didn't go see Rush when they did their MOVING PICTURES tour - their live releases show them trying their damnedest to exactly replicate their album music. This is as limiting as lack of talent; why not show some different takes on the songs?
So...what makes a good Album concert? The same things that make a good concert – a reasonable fidelity to the music, with enough of a stamp from the band to keep things interesting. We're not looking for perfection (that's what Studio Albums are for), but for a good translation to a live show.
Thankfully that can be said of Peter Hook and The Light when they played the whole of CLOSER in Chicago on September 23rd. The songs were faithful enough to the album (right down to the two "slow-down-and-stop" endings), but the live experience gave a different light to some of the songs -- “Isolation,” loosed from its tight, confined production (even for a Martin Hannett), actually took on epic, triumphant proportions, and “Decades”' ending flew off on its own towards the end, filling the theatre with sound instead of closing in on itself (as it does on the album).
The band also played a number of other songs, from the Warsaw tapes to [material from] UNKNOWN PLEASURES to the “Ceremony” cut that was meant to be a Joy Division release but was released by New Order. While one can't help but wonder how much of it was people living an alternate past – especially those who looked like they were balding and/or graying (Joy Division's first show in the States was scheduled in Chicago), overall it was a good night.
Whether they just dropped by the neighborhood, or spent the whole weekend, the first Harbor Vision Festival offered something for everyone during its three-day run (August 12-14) at the Dwight P. Mitchell City Center on the corner of Main Street, and Pipestone Avenue. Featured activities ranged from dance groups, to youth talent contests and performances by local artists like Charlene Jones-Clark, and Johnnie Edwards – and, on Sunday, a five-hour “Gospel Extravangaza” to close the proceedings. For Harbor Vision Festival Chairman Kareemah El-Amin, everything fell together exactly as she and her organizing committee anticipated – having had only three months, a fraction of the lead time that such major events require.
"It's like a big block party downtown. There's so much love in the air,” El-Amin said Friday, during Jones-Clark's set. “It's about engaging people, and bringing people together under a common cause – which is to bring back this city. Look, it's nine o'clock at night, and kids are playing basketball – they can do that anywhere, but they want to do it here.” El-Amin estimated that about 500 to 600 people per day would have passed through the festival site by the event's conclusion. “I think we hit a home run, because so many people didn't think it would turn out as well as it did. We've already shut everybody down who thought that this wouldn't happen,” she said. (The committee closed up shop for 2011 with a final sum-up meeting on August 23.)
Livery co-owner Leslie Pickell is well aware of the challenges – having spent six years on the Coming Home Coming Together Concert Committee., and also as a key organizer of the venue's Artoberfest event. “This is my third time over here today, actually,” Pickell said. “I think it's got great potential – I honestly we wish could do this every weekend. It's hard work doing this, to get people really inspired around the vision of what you're doing, and I think Kareemah has done a great job. That's why it's happening.”
Friday's lineup proved a case in point, with Jones-Clark and Edwards taking turns to front a four-piece house band – with help from by DJ James Sims, on turntables, and Marcus Robinson, on guitar – through R&B hits like Michael Jackson's 1979 breakout smash, “Rock With Me.” The band also improvised reggae and funk moods behind an hour of local spoken word artists from the “Xpression Session” – which El-Amin hosts monthly at the Livery, in Benton Harbor, and is now in its third year.
FULL DISCLOSURE (CHAIRMAN'S LOG...) For me, the best part involved being able to float (vocally speaking) over the house band, whose crack musos included Marcus Robinson (guitar), and Johnnie Edwards (bass). I could simply leave the guitar playing to someone else, and just get down to the business of...
...(ahem)...representin', as they call it sometimes. I just had to project, and let the band take care of business, which they did...the minute I heard that slinky l'il reggae groove slithering out of those speakers, I felt like I Knew exactly what to do, and it wasn't too long before I flew from simple recitation, to freeform toasting and improv-ing off my own words.
I managed to do two numbers, including "I Was A Teenage Subversive," my self-described "political monster movie" ("I was a teenage subsversive when I saw the siren song of sex for profit being touted on billboards, serving up another blonde on the end of a fork...and I realized, this equation need not include me..."), and: ..."A Revolution Of The Mind," which basically states that we will never change our conditions, until we get past that "it's always been done that way" mentality ("Enough! Let us be done checking stocks & shares, divided among the propertied classes like so many dried-up old rotten apples...what & where the hell did it get us? Nothing!").
...AND NOW (BACK TO THE JOURNALISTIC BIT)
The festival's sounds and sentiments proved pleasing to St. Joseph residents Greg and Andrea Szczotka, who grew up in East Detroit during the height of '60s-era Motown, and recently marked their 44th wedding anniversary. As longtime Michael Jackson fans, the pair couldn't resist a quick dance during Edwards' version of “Rock With Me.” “We like to dance – we just like to go out and enjoy that (kind of thing). I saw them putting up the stage, and we said, 'Let's drive down tonight, and see what's going on,'” Greg Szczotka said. “We spend a lot of time in Benton Harbor.”
Heavy rains and thunderstorms halted all proceedings at about 3:30 p.m. Saturday, but the festival resumed by 7 p.m. with more competitive dance activity, and finished strongly with Sunday's gospel music show – spearheaded by Bonita Mitchell, who served on the festival's entertainment committee. El-Amin had originally budgeted $50,000 for this year's event, but the final number ended up closer to $13,000 or $14,000 – bolstered by a lot of in-kind contributions, she said.
Those contributions came from local residents and committee members like Tim Johnson, for example, who handled all the festival's electrical work, and helped bring its site layout to life, El-Amin said. “The in-kind (contributions) probably made it (the final amount) more, but what we actually had in dollars – a lot of it was, people actually did things for us. So we made a lot happen on a lot of determination. We had lots of different skill sets that came to the table,” she said.
Johnson worked from a Google map of the area to help create the site design, which changed two or three times, El-Amin said. “I got a bird's eye view of it, and then I just wrote on the map where everything was going to go – from what Kareemah said,” he said on Saturday, during the rain delay. “I said, 'Wait a minute, why don't we get a picture off the computer? Sure enough, it printed it out, and it printed out a good picture.” Such help makes or breaks events like Harbor Vision, which also made the final design so important, El-Amin said. “It was very intentional. That was the whole point – it (the layout) allowed them to come through vendors, allowed you to see the main stage, and get to the other things, as well.”
Concerning next year's event (scheduled for August 10-12, 2012), El-Amin wants to start organizing in January, with a $100,000 budget as the starting point. That will allow a longer lead time to land corporate sponsors, recruit more vendors and build momentum to help the festival grow, El-Amin said. “What we'd like to do, ultimately, is maybe give some scholarships out, and give really good prizes for talent – there's so many talented people. That's the opportunity that we can provide, but we have to be able to bring some of those dollars back into the festival. We can do that corporate sponsorship, and also, through people paying to be vendors, and things of that nature, so we can provide a platform to launch people's careers."