ON THE MUSICAL RADAR
So you don't need to be a rocket scientist – or a flatpicking banjo whiz – to see that the folk and bluegrass revival that's swept the nation in recent years has gained steam. This month, Michigan's The Crane Wives and Appleseed Collective (which has a new album on the way) will join internationally renowned stars Iron & Wine, Neko Case and Patty Griffin at the prestigious Ann Arbor Folk Festival Jan. 30-Feb. 1. Add to that all those festival-friendly jam bands and progressive bluegrass outfits – aka, jamgrass acts – such as String Cheese Incident, The Infamous Stringdusters and West Michigan's own Greensky Bluegrass.
As a result, traditional forms of the music are thriving, too: I was floored by the exuberant throngs of "Wheaties" numbering in excess of 10,000 who flooded the rural Wheatland Music Festival site outside Remus, Mich., for the 40th annual celebration of traditional American music and arts last September. Tots and 20-somethings joined retirees and baby-boomer hippies in wishing each other "Happy Wheatland," while embracing roots diversity: banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, the gospel of the Northern Kentucky Brotherhood Singers, the contemporary folk of Grand Rapids' Bennett, workshops for devotees of fiddles, dulcimers and dance.
That's made the annual Winter Wheat a fast-growing phenomenon, too. The fifth annual, day-long fundraiser for the Wheatland Music Organization (and its drum kiva/all-performance stage) invades The Intersection in Grand Rapids on Jan. 11, with acts spanning old-timey folk to blues on two stages, and jamming taking place this year under a third "Side Show" tent outdoors: Red Tail Ring, Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys, The Oat Bran Boys, An Dro, Fiddlefire, The Blue Water Ramblers, Kirk Jones & The Benzie Playboys, Badenya, Jukejoint Handmedowns, Black Jake & The Carnies and Blue Molly are on the bill.
Last year's event drew nearly 1,000 people, pleasing longtime folkie and Winter Wheat organizing committee member R.H. "Bear" Berends of Grand Rapids' Blue Water Ramblers.
"Our goal is try to get it packed out within a reasonable time frame," Berends says of Winter Wheat, which raised nearly $4,000 last year.
He attributed its growth, in part, to the next generation of pickers and folkies.
"They've taken it to the next level," he said. "There certainly is a more aggressive vibe that they use within their interpretation of the same music. ...We're just happy that the next generation has picked up the tradition and made it their own."
The addition this year of a heated outdoor tent – with food vendors and room for a drum circle and jamming – should give Winter Wheat a celebratory festival flavor not unlike Wheatland itself.
LOCAL CD RELEASES
Can't Contain It
When you've been Mustard Plugg-ing along for more than two decades, but haven't released a new studio album in a half-dozen years, let's just say there's a mammoth pent-up appetite for something fresh. Well, the Plug has finally popped loose and what's gushed forth is a buoyant bunch of zesty tunes. This is ska at its absolute finest, so much so that it landed the Grand Rapids band a deal with one of the kings of punk labels, Florida's No Idea Records. David Kirchgessner and the boys announce on the opening track that, "We Came to Party" (a new anthem worthy of supplanting the Beastie Boys' "Fight For Your Right") and they keep revelers reveling for 14 tracks with titles such as "The All-Nighter," "Burn It Down" and "Shakin' It Up," flaunting plenty of punk-guitar muscle along the way.
The Star Darts
Shooting Star Darts
This is the tale of a Grand Rapids punk band that got radio airplay from Miami to Phoenix to Denver before it had ever played a single gig — or, for that matter — before it "officially" released its first album. Talk about hitting the bullseye. Born as recording project of singer-guitarist Todd Long (Molly, Dutch Henry) with buddies Ryan Goldner on bass (Dutch Henry, The Storied Life) and Brent Nowak on lead guitar (Jim Jones & the Kool-Aid Kids), The Star Darts' seven-song debut recorded at Grand Rapids' Studio 84 and being released worldwide this month, is good old-fashioned, pop-splashed punk with snappy hooks. And it has enough attitude and enough snarl to get your attention.
Music critic and entertainment writer John Sinkevics comments on the local and national music scene at LocalSpins.com, spotlighting artists at 10 a.m. Wednesdays on Local Spins Live at News Talk 1340 AM.