Steppin’ In It and friends, May Erlewine & The Motivations moved a Bell’s Brewery crowd while Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers funked up Old Dog Tavern in outdoor shows. Review, photo galleries.
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Sunshine. Oberon. Fresh grass. A beautiful new stage and walkway. Train whistles sounding just beyond the gates.
The very best of Michigan music.
It must be garden season in Kalamazoo again.
As Bell’s Brewery flung open the doors to their upgraded beer garden Friday night for yet another summer, smiles were everywhere one looked.
Old friends reunited and shared laughter, dancing space and hugs as two of Michigan’s finest at-times-Americana acts took to the stage: May Erlewine & The Motivations got the party started and Steppin’ In It brought the festivities to full steam.
Erlewine exuded positive energy from the get-go, with original Motivations’ cuts such as “Get Right” and “Like Moses (Malone),” a funky cover of Vulfpeck’s “Back Pocket,” Motown favorites including “Natural Woman” — with Erlewine’s Sweet Water Warblers’ bandmate Rachael Davis guesting on vocals — and a take on The Talking Heads’ “Naïve Melody,” which put into perspective everything the garden opener is supposed to be about.
“Home, it’s where I want to be, but I guess I’m already there …”
SOME ‘VERY TALENTED MUSICIANS UP ON THAT STAGE’
The only thing brighter than the sun during the garden’s first set of summer was Erlewine’s smile and energy as she fronted an all-star band made up of guitarists Phil Barry and Eric Kuhn, keyboardists Mike Lynch and Joe Hettinga, bassist Max Lockwood, drummer Michael Shimmin and phenomenal horn section of Terrence Massey on trumpet and Brandon “El Brandino” Porch on saxophone.
“That’s a lot of very talented musicians up on that stage,” one fan was overheard saying.
That amount of talent only increased as the night went on with headlining act Steppin’ In It “officially” welcoming in summer at Bell’s.
Fronted by Joshua Davis, the Lansing-bred band, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, took over the garden stage for the first of three shows scheduled for 2019 — including one Saturday night (June 1) at Otus Supply in Ferndale and a July 20 gig at Interlochen Center for the Arts later this summer.
Lynch, the lone leftover on stage from Erlewine’s set, shined brightly on keys throughout the night as the revered “Wilson Wingmen” — twins Andy and Joe — revved up the crowd on trumpet, trombone, harmonica, accordion and dobro. Each of the brothers even picked up two instruments apiece during a stellar rendition of Davis original, “Goodbye Betsy Brown.”
And despite bassist Dominic John Davis watching the bridge on his standup fly off during the second song of the night, the band never missed a beat as he reached for his electric and successfully held down the rhythm with drummer Geoff Ian Lewis all night long.
A FAMILY AFFAIR AND ‘A BEAUTIFUL NIGHT’
In true Steppin’ In It fashion, it was a family affair, featuring special guests throughout the evening. The band welcomed back Erlewine and Rachael Davis to the stage for Rachael’s “Sweetwater Sea,” and also brought up vocalist Jen Sygit of Lansing on more than one occasion, including for a version of Sygit’s “Sugar High.”
“What a beautiful night to be up here with y’all. I couldn’t dream of a better time to share this stage with these guys,” exclaimed Joshua Davis at one point.
“And what an amazing sight to see these incredible women here fighting through this patriarchy, that is not only prevalent everywhere we go in this country, but in the world of music, too.”
From classic Steppin’ In It cuts such as “Dustbowl Overtures,” “Midnight Ghost,” “Ghost of Richard Manuel,” “Silver and Gold,” “Miss Moline” and “Candyman” — and even a “Happy Birthday” to longtime friend and Bell’s employee Amy Richards — the band was on point throughout the evening, laying down a trademark blend of Zydeco, Americana and rootsy soul.
The band then sent the crowd off into the remainder of the night — amd some across the street to catch more music — with a lighthearted and groovy cover of The Coasters’ “Let’s Go Get Stoned” with all three female vocalists back on stage.
OLD DOG TAVERN GOT IT GOING OUTDOORS, TOO
Playing an hour past the conclusion of Steppin’ In It across the street at the Old Dog, it was quite a different scene as a younger crowd welcomed the summer with Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers.
After opening sets from The Hacky Turtles and Michigander drew positive reviews from showgoers, Hertler and the Seekers ignited the audience — turning the Old Dog’s earthy lawn into a pulsating dance party. Lit-up, flashing hula hoops floated around waists and bodies at the back by the soundboard and bubbles filled the air near the stage as sunflowers bobbed up and down like rage sticks throughout the crowd.
Celebrating release of their fourth album, “Paper Castles,” which came out earlier that day, the ever-flamboyant Hertler and company preached positivity and sent good vibes out into the night, playing the bulk of their new release in the first set and sprinkling in classic cuts like a second-set closing “Old Love” throughout the evening.
As May morphs into June, the “unofficial kickoff to summer” continues throughout Kalamazoo this weekend with Boston-based funk band Lettuce taking over Bell’s Beer Garden tonight and The Crane Wives, Barn on Fire and more hitting the Garden stage on Sunday as part of a new-this-year, all-ages “Sunday Funday.”
The Kalamazoo County Fairgrounds will also be transformed into the annual Grassroots Hippie Fest Saturday afternoon with music on multiple stages, tie-dye stations, a vintage hippie car show and more than 150 bohemian vendor booths. Bands at the fest include Dixon’s Violin, Magic Bus, Drew Phoria and more.
VIDEO: Steppin’ In It with Rachael Davis, May Erlewine and Jen Sygit: Sweetwater Sea
PHOTO GALLERY: Steppin’ In It, May Erlewine & The Motivations at Bell’s
Photos by Derek Ketchum
Photos by Derek Ketchum