Thursday, 23 May 2013 12:20

Sink's Spins on Music: A look at live music in the great outdoors

Written by  John Sinkevics
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There's nothing quite like it, as Michigan's ultra-vibrant summer festival and amphitheater concert scene has demonstrated again and again.

And a decade into its run as Grand Rapids' premier outdoor venue, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park has again upped the ante in terms of sheer numbers and breadth of genres represented: a record 29 concerts this summer, with high-profile names in rock, blues, pop, jazz, reggae, folk, soul, country, swing and bluegrass in the jam-packed lineup, which kicks off June 3 with the ageless B.B. King.

As impressive as that roster might be, it's the garden-powered atmosphere that sets the 1,900-capacity venue apart. Take it from Mark Smith, who's attended at least a half-dozen concerts at the amphitheater every year since it opened in 2003. "It's such an attractive place and a comfortable way to see a concert. This gives you an opportunity to essentially replicate hanging around in your backyard and enjoying top-notch talent at the same time," said Smith, an attorney who's also a volunteer programmer at WYCE-FM (88.1). "It has lent some magical moments. When John Hiatt was there singing 'Lipstick Sunset' when the sun was literally turning ruby red and casting shadows over that big horse (sculpture), it was the perfect juxtaposition of sight and sound and feeling. It was stunning."

Perhaps just as stunning this year: a series that will deliver first-time venue performances by Sheryl Crow, Harry Connick Jr., Michael Franti & Spearhead, Grizzly Bear, John Butler Trio, The Beach Boys, Owl City, Michael McDonald, Smokey Robinson, Montgomery Gentry and Old Crow Medicine Show, with much-anticipated return concerts by Steve Martin, Gov't Mule, Peter Frampton, Wynton Marsalis, Umphrey's McGee, Grace Potter and more. Granted, the average price for a Meijer Gardens show continues to creep upward ($58.46 for non-member tickets), but one-third of the concerts still boast ticket prices of $45 or less. See the full lineup and ticket details online at

Embracing sun-splashed musical performances also was the theme of last year's outdoor Buttermilk Jamboree. Organizers of the third annual musical celebration taking place June 14-16 at Circle Pines Center in Delton (about halfway between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo) have high hopes the outdoor festival will continue to grow: It drew more than 1,000 people last year, with bigger crowds expected for 2013 due to the addition of a national headliner, rock/world music band Rusted Root from Pittsburgh.

"We wanted to bring in bigger names this time to draw a little more attention," Center Director Tom VanHammen said of the jamboree that will feature more than 30 diverse regional acts, including Drew Nelson, Root Doctor, The Crane Wives, Funktion, Blue Molly, Red Tail Ring and Grupo Aye. "Part of what we wanted to do was bring people together from different cultures ... creating cultural connections. We're trying to invite artists from all different genres so they attract all different types of crowds." A family friendly event, the jamboree also boasts on-site camping, a beer tent and workshops. Get the lowdown at


Who Hit John?
Whistle on the Rail

The old-timey train that chugs out of this station makes some curiously infectious stops, with rollicking New Orleans horns, back-porch rootsiness, Tom Waits-style storytelling and even a Latin-flavored detour. This eclectic five-piece Kalamazoo string band has churned out its finest album yet at La Luna Recording & Sound (Ian Gorman is the mastering engineer), with harmony- and fiddle-hued tales of riverboat gamblers, crooked trails, June bugs, digging graves and crying "when you're daddy's gone."

Pop Evil

Change can be good and necessary, even if it doesn't always feel that way while the upheaval takes place. West Michigan hard rock mainstay Pop Evil knows that pain and growth with a recent shakeup in its lineup. To the credit of singer Leigh Kakaty and crew, Onyx, the band's latest 12-track project – recorded in Chicago – erupts from the opening track with a melodic, grab-hold-by-the-throat-and-don't-let-go ferocity that's at once familiar yet refreshingly edgy – and destined for active rock radio airplay.

Chain of Lakes
Softer Sticks

Creating an astral mood and captivating milieu are paramount for this indie-folk ensemble led by Grand Rapids' Kyle Rasche (liner notes list seven West Michigan musicians, including Mat Churchill, Jeffrey Neimeier, Paul Geoghan), wrapping melancholy beauty around smartly arranged songs. Recalling shades of Simon & Garfunkel, The Decemberists, The Jayhawks and The Head & The Heart, "Follow," "Your Day," "Cool Down" and "The Heart of It" build to gorgeous crescendos with layered power.

Music critic and entertainment writer John Sinkevics comments on the local and national music scene at (Spins on Music), spotlighting artists at 10 a.m. Wednesdays on Local Spins Live at News Talk 1340 AM.


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