Artist, musician and visionary Rick Beerhorst has witnessed a multitude of changes in Grand Rapids’ music community over 30 years. And in this Spins on Music guest column, he makes it clear he likes what he’s seeing now.
EDITOR’S NOTE:This Spins on Music guest column is one of a series of essays giving a voice to West Michigan musicians on topics dear to their hearts — assessing the musical environment, in their own words.
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It comes down to a few daring people making a place at the table for the weird, the new and the misfit.
That was the case when Grand Rapids’ punk scene was getting on its feet during the early ’80s in West Side labor halls and it remains true of the current cultural explosion of ArtPrize, The Pyramid Scheme and Wealthy Theatre.
I discovered the local music community in the 1980s. At that time there was a small group that called themselves the New Beat Club, putting on New Wave and punk shows in Polish halls on the West Side. Back then, venues like The Intersection didn’t want anything to do with that kind of music. The bands around town at that time who were playing alternative music were Gina & the Modern Men, Nice Lawn, ADC, Top Down, at least those are a few that come to mind.
Of course, there was the U2 concert in 1981 at Fountain Street Church I went to almost by accident and had my life changed as a result. I was in my early 20s and just coming out of Calvin College. There was a ton of cool music pouring out of England and NYC in those days that was just beginning to hit the Midwest. At those New Beat shows, I always ended up right next to the stage soaking in the raw energy coming out of the amplifiers.
When a friend played a new Violent Femmes record for me, I went right out and bought a $35 guitar and started making my own music as best I could. A year later, I moved to New York City and then to grad school in Illinois, and back to Grand Rapids around 1987. In all those wanderings, I always had a cheap guitar in a card board case among my very few belongings. All this time I was building my visual art career with music as a passionate hobby.
In 1993-94, as I was playing music with friends, a band evolved that we called Garden Party. We began to do shows in a coffee house in Eastown called The Vineyard Cafe in the old Trolley Barn building where The Intersection was in those days. It was church-affiliated and bringing in all kinds of really good local and not so local bands. One of those bands was Marzuki, the band with (now acclaimed singer-songwriter) Sufjan Stevens and Shannon Stephens. They were already amazing in those days and a very hard act to follow. Garden Party made a three-song cassette tape and then quietly disbanded.
Ten years later, I went down into a basement music studio with Rick Devon (Rick had been the drummer in Garden Party) and began work on “Seamless Life,” which was to be my first CD. It had 11 tracks, 10 of which were my originals. A year later, our family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., just as Rick and I finished up recording “Seamless Life.” Rick finished up the last details and sent it on to me and I had it mastered in NYC by Gene Paul.
After a year of playing coffee houses (including the CBGBs downstairs Gallery stage), our family moved back to GR. After a few years back home, I put together The Wealthy Orphans which put out “A Little Piece Of The Pie” in the spring of 2011, followed by “Throwing Glory” in November 2012. The Wealthy Orphans is a four-piece with Adam Thompson playing bass and vibes, Michael Schaeffer on accordion, and Levi Gardner on drums. I sing and play guitar. Our sound wanders around between early punk sounds of Jonathan Richmond and Lou Reed to the off-kilter milieu of Tom Waits. Sometimes, our music sounds like what you might hear around a gypsy campfire if the Carter Family were there, too.
I will always think of myself as a visual artist first and a musician second. I am always looking for ways that music performance and visual art can intersect, whether that means projecting video behind the band, adding professional dancers on a song, singing through a Victrola horn or making cool letterpress posters. I am always looking for ways to build layers and depth into our performance events beyond. I want it to be more than just getting up and playing a set of songs.
And these days, that approach has a spot at the table because the Grand Rapids music scene has grown a lot since those early days when I was just getting out of college. I feel like many of the exciting and creative things that are happening in our city today are direct result of the daring actions of people like my old friends in the New Beat Club. They were the kinds of people willing to make room for new things to happen whether many people came out to see it or not. It was about creating that place to try something new and then seeing where it might want to go from there.
That makes me wonder and get excited about where we might go from here. I remember stumbling out of my first experience with “Trip The Light” at Wealthy Theatre a few years ago completely overwhelmed. Amy Wilson’s Dancers working with the live bands in a beautifully restored historic theater had created an experience that hit on so many sensory levels all at once.
It is in moments like those that I suddenly see what I always knew Grand Rapids was capable of growing into.
About Rick Beerhorst: I once described Rick Beerhorst as Grand Rapids’ “rootsy Renaissance man,” an intriguing blend of visual artist, musician, philosopher, community activist, environmentalist and innovator who leads “the artist version of a circus family.” As his guest column points out, the Calvin College alum has released a few CDs over the years and each one exudes a distinctive, inspiring quality unlike anything else on West Michigan’s musical landscape.
The Wealthy Orphans’ latest, “Throwing Glory,” has a melancholy, Eastern European folk-rock vibe exploring life’s struggles, aging, failed dreams, and “pushing through to the other side of hardship.” You can purchase the CD through Amazon.com. Learn more about Rick and view his art at his studiobeerhorst.com website.
Copyright 2013, Spins on Music