Tuesday, 30 June 2015 10:06

Kalamazoo Scene Report: A Beginner’s Guide to the Zoo’s Musical Landscape

Written by  Dwayne Hoover
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A few years ago, the Martin Prosperity Institute released a study measuring the country’s most active music scenes. As one would expect, cities like Nashville, New York and Los Angeles claimed the top spots. But there was one little blurb that caught the attention West Michigan locals:

“Other smaller metros that do better than expected are Kalamazoo, Michigan (the former home of the Gibson guitar factory, founded in 1902, and the site of some major classical music festivals) at 8th overall...”

Better than expected?  Maybe to the rest of the country, but if you actually play a part in Kalamazoo’s music scene, you probably thought it was about damn time outsiders acknowledged it.

To be sure, the music scene in the Zoo waxes and wanes. Bands peak and then disband — new venues pop up after your favorite one closes shop. It can be a vicious circle. Nostalgia will always have you convinced that the current scene can never measure up to what it used to be. But it’s always done that and not even its cyclical nature can stave off its vibrancy.

A large part of the reason for Kalamazoo’s sonic success lies in the many festivals it hosts throughout the year. Classical music events like the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival and the Stulberg International String Competition are staples in the community. Add to that the Kalamazoo Fretboard Festival and the various summer events at Arcadia Creek — including the Kalamazoo Blues Festival and Irish Fest.

Not in the mood for classical or world music? Catch a bluegrass performance at Concerts in the Park, listen to an amazing jazz vocalist at Epic Theatre, enjoy a late night of dueling pianos at Monaco Bay, or throw back a few while experiencing a new niche rock genre at your favorite watering hole.

The true pulse of the Kalamazoo music scene can be found at the multitude of venues hosting live music all year long.  Whether you want to take in a performance from a nationally recognized act at the wonderfully historic and aesthetically pleasing Kalamazoo State Theatre, or bang your head to the best in local rock at Kalamazoo’s oldest bar, Louie’s Trophy House Grill, this city has you covered.

While the metal scene isn’t a prominent force in the Zoo, the traditional roots music scene is. Bell’s Eccentric Cafe draws nationally recognized talent which has included the likes of The Steel Wheels, Run Boy Run and legendary blues guitarist Larry McCray. Across the street, Old Dog Tavern opens up its stage to a variety of artists.

“Having an audience that was interested in what you were playing — I didn’t know how to react,” said Jake West, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist for area string band The Alabama Spanking Machines, reflecting on the group’s first performance at Old Dog. “The beer-soaked wood, the stage — it’s my favorite venue in Kalamazoo.  I’ve seen everything from old time string bands to hardcore punk there,” West said.

There’s a lot of room for rock, punk, garage and jam bands as well, with venues like Shakespeare’s Lower Level, Papa Pete’s and Louie’s Trophy House Grill welcoming both local and touring outfits — there’s also the Entertainment District with its outdoor music space, District Square.

If you’re looking for a hyper-local taste of the Kalamazoo music scene, while browsing for vinyl take in a show at Satellite Records or try to find your way to the semi-underground network of house shows in Kalamazoo’s Vine Neighborhood put on by DITKalamazoo.

But you can’t have a vibrant, healthy music scene without quality bands and artists to support it.  Fortunately, Kalamazoo has just that.

The Hex Bombs have been dominating Kalamazoo’s punk scene for some time, with a few albums to their name and a faithful following stretching down to their “second hometown,” Chicago. Another band making waves in the hard rock category is BoneHawk, the band released its second album, Albino Rhino, in late 2014 and has gigged regularly across the state.

Jake Simmons, former member of The Implodes and Dead Scene Radio, has come in to his own with his band the Little Ghosts.  The group released its new LP, No Better, earlier this year, put out a music video for their song “All My Friends Are Dead.” In May the band toured the east coast and hit the road again this month, traveling as far as Texas.

Other notable Kalamazoo music scene veterans include the shoegaze sextet Glowfriends who released an album in 2014 and coordinate the annual Kalamashoegazer Festival.  Blues rockers Fly Paper continue to impress audiences not only in West Michigan, but across the country, including a show at the world famous Whisky a Go Go in West Hollywood. Folk-rock group Branden Mann and the Reprimand continue to be a Kalamazoo fixture and just released a live album, recorded at Bell’s.

Some new blood is preparing to make their mark in Kalamazoo, too.

“[The] biggest up and comer is Honeydew Squeeze,” said Sean Micklin, general manager of Shakespeare’s Lower Level. The band is a reggae/funk-rock group.  “They haven’t been on the scene long, but they have gotten quite a bit better musically in the last year and their draws continue to grow,” Micklin said.

Another group that has been turning heads recently is Sexy Toxins, a disco-punk band made up of a husband and wife duo — both former members of Kids With Cobras. “Sexy Toxins [have] an act that is certainly worth catching,” said Amy Smith, co-owner of Old Dog Tavern. “It’s a chick drummer and her husband — they have a great stage presence.”

A couple of other regular bands in and around Kalamazoo, Pleasant Drive and That Freak Quincy, also look poised to really break out in the thriving jam scene.  The Red Sea Pedestrians and Who Hit John? keep wooing roots crowds and fans of old-timey tunes. 

This was just a nutshell — there are plenty more not mentioned here. The scene is enormous and constantly evolving in Kalamazoo. Did we miss someone? Feel free to contact Revue with any tips on emerging local musicians.

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