The 2nd Annual Michigan Roots Jamboree

Words & Photos By Greg Molitor
August 6th and 7th
Riverside Park – Ypsilanti, Michigan


Friday, August 6th:

After a short trip from Jackson, my friend Tim and I arrived in Ypsilanti for the Michigan Roots Jamboree. Before the festival began, I had no clue what to expect from the weekend. I had seen performances from many of the Jamboree’s performing artists, but the majority of talent scheduled was fresh to my musical conscience.


When I saw the festival grounds walking into the park, I was surprised to see how much festival space was actually allotted for attendees. There were also many more vendors and volunteers hangin’ out than I would have previously guessed. As I walked the grounds for the first time, everything seemed to be in order --- an abundance of vendors, a multitude of clean port-a-potties with wash stations, tons of open space for the crowd, a Kid’s activities tent --- the individual running the Roots Jamboree did a fantastic job delivering the basics while building a solid foundation for a successful weekend to come.


Friday was a beautiful day and night for an outdoor musical experience! Here the acts I saw on Day 1 of the Michigan Roots Jamboree…

Mr. Shz.

Mr. Shz. was the band chosen to get the music rollin’ at the Roots Jamboree .The five-piece jam/funk outfit from Detroit had some issues during their set but pushed on with a joyous enthusiasm throughout. All five members carry a single-letter stage name derived from their acronym group name (named “M”, “R”, “S”, H”, and “R”, respectably). It’s comforting to see a band that can still laugh at itself, not take the gig too seriously, and simply have fun. Member “R”, the saxophonist, impressed me with his inspired licks for the majority of the set. When the band was creating their best, the other members let “R” lead with his vibrant sax work, each holding back his sound when appropriate. Mr. Shz. won’t blow your socks off with mind blowing technical prowess, but the band certainly succeeded in their role as a relaxing, comfortable festival opener.


Theo Katzman

After a cheerful dinner with some old friends I hadn’t seen in ages, I returned to the stage area to catch some of Theo Katzman’s set. Katzman was a founding member and guitarist for Ann Arbor-based My Dear Disco before deciding to take control of his own musical path. This was my first time seeing Katzman perform his personalized style of music, and it was undeniably entertaining. His tunes were a blend of R&B, Soul, and Pop, and contained many of those ‘hooks’ one might get stuck in his or her head if heard often enough.


The songs were not only catchy but also contained a spirited sophistication…Katzman did not hold back. Singing lyrics as truth, his enthusiasm spread across the entire crowd while lifting the music from every day commonplace to something profound and deeply moving. Near the end of his set, Katzman’s guitar amplifier stopped working, but as a true performer would, he completely owned the moment improvising comical lyrics, refocusing the band, then crushing the rest of the song vocally. It’s a sad admission, but I cannot remember the last show I attended that featured such a stellar and complete performance by a front man… what a breath of fresh air! Seemingly every captivating characteristic today’s singers ought to possess but generally lack, Katzman owns with supreme authority. If Friday’s set is any indication of things-to-come for Mr. Katzman, there is much success ahead for this young man.


Dragon Wagon

Dragon Wagon is an Ann Arbor-based Bluegrass group led by Michigan Roots Jamboree Director Don Sicheneder. Don deserves loads of praise for his passion and drive to create this charitable event for the people of Ypsilanti; what he has done is a truly a labor of love, and I give him nothing but deep respect for all of his hard work and dedication. You have proven your character to be one filled with compassion and love…thank you for the Roots Jamboree!

Don has proven that he can run and direct a well-organized festival, but I wasn’t feeling his bluegrass band, Dragon Wagon. By nature, bluegrass is a demanding style of music to play. Bluegrass players need to carry a sufficient level of playing speed and technicality for its fast-paced style, and to play the style correctly, a bluegrass musician should be just as concerned with his or her bandmates’ notes as he or she is with their own. There is a strong possibility that the band played an uncharacteristically uninspired show, so I want to see Dragon Wagon again to see if the down show was a fluke.


Smokestack

This was a very special show. Billed as the first official Smokestack show in four years, the mere anticipation of the show was making some individuals emotional prior to the show. Although I am not too familiar with their previous work, I had heard many good things about the ‘glory days’ from a few years prior. When the band stepped onstage and began their first performance in years, even I could hardly contain my emotions. This band obviously made many people happy for a long period of time, and when that feeling is returned, even just for a brief moment, it’s impossible not to feel something!


From the start, one could tell the years apart did not affect how Smokestack communicated musically one bit. A sit-in from former member and current Macpodz bassist Brennan Andes was icing on the cake for all interested parties. The show was a complete success! There is no talk to more shows to come at this point, but based on the reactions I saw from both the fanatical fans and the Smokestack members, there will be talks of another show somewhere down the road. It is undeniable.

One Set - Dreams We Dream, Tunafish Sunrise, Kid Charlamagne, B-Mac’s Groove*, Hippo*, Unknown Song, Make Believe, Leg and a Foot

* with Brennan Andes (bass)


The Macpodz

I’ve seen The Macpodz many times, and they’ve never disappointed. Their set at the Roots Jamboree was shorter than the usual experience but contained that undeniable energy that makes The Macpodz so unique to the music scene. In a world of guitar-driven groups, The Macpodz have no need to conform to the norm. They roll with a proper confidence; truly believing what they are doing is righteous, The Macpodz have no regrets with regards to how they are making music. They shouldn’t either because what they are doing is serious and commands respect. And although the music is held in the highest regard, The Macpodz’ aim never changes as they constantly strive to get the hips shakin’ and the party started.


The Macpodz threw it down at the Roots Jamboree. Their set became the biggest dance party at the festival as the crowd immediately responded their Disco-Bebop sound. Many in the audience echoed afterwards that they wished the set had been much longer, but that is the nature of the music festival. Thankfully, The Macpodz tour constantly, so one who wishes to see them never has to wait an extended period to catch them again. And since they continue to bring fun-filled and lively performances, The Macpodz are worth seeing many times over.

One Set - You Got Me, Gimme The Heat, Six Dollars, High St, ‘Unknown Song’, Mary Jane


Ekoostik Hookah

Ekoostik Hookah was the last group to perform Friday at the Roots Jamboree. I had been underwhelmed during my only prior experience with Hookah a few years ago, so I wasn’t expecting to be wowed at the Roots Jamboree performance. As the band took the stage and began performing, however, their attitude and energy was entirely different than what I had seen in my previous encounter. What the band brought shocked my senses in the most wonderful ways possible while providing Friday’s most entertaining set.


A few Hookah fans told me the band had gone through a few lineup changes recently. From all indications, the changes have been good to the band. Hookah brought some serious moments of tension and release as the biggest crowd of the weekend got more and more into show as the set progressed. For those who aren’t familiar with the group, guitarist Steve Sweney is an absolute monster at his craft. Reminding me much of Jimmy Herring at times, Sweney carried the band during the set with his nasty chops. The explosiveness in his playing was met with responsive playing by other bandmates… the depth in their music had me questioning whether or not Ekoostik Hookah was actually the band I saw before. Regardless, the band I had once written off is now back on my radar. If this sort of performance is what I can expect in the future, count me in!

One Set - Breathe, Slipjig Through the Poppy Fields, Don't Change Horses, Life is Good, You'll Never Find, My Sweet Own, Backseat, Sheepdog, Loner


Saturday, August 7th:

Tim and I returned to Ypsilanti around 1:00 on Saturday for another glorious day of music, laughter, and friendship. Our plan was to stop by a friend’s house nearby for a brief moment before walking to Riverside Park. A brief moment turned into a brief minute, and that brief minute turned into a not-so-brief multiple of minutes. We wasted a good chunk of time early Saturday afternoon by doing nothing for all the right reasons, and it was everything I hoped it could be.


One of the more unique elements to the Michigan Roots Jamboree was the amount of fresh live art throughout the weekend’s performances. Live artists were changing places literally as often as the bands were setting up and tearing down. Each piece of art created on-the-fly during a performance was on sale to attendees immediately after said performance. All proceeds from the Jamboree as a whole were to be reinvested in the Ypsilanti Parks and Recreation fund. It’s a wonderful thing when different parties with similar goals come together and share their individual hopes and dreams for humanity, and it is all of our best interest to keep that spirit of togetherness alive and purposeful.


Rootstand

As I arrived to the stages to enjoy my first musical offering of the day, Rootstand was finishing their set. Since I didn’t catch most of Rootstand’s set, I lost my opportunity for a review. As I initially approached the stage during Rootstand, however, I noticed the majority of Saturday’s crowd grinning from ear to ear, swaying to the music, and looking beautiful.


Dick Siegel

Dick Siegel is a living legend whose material remains largely a mystery to the general music-loving population. Featuring a trademark vocal delivery and unconventional songwriting, Siegel earned the admiration of his listeners as a key player in the folk music scene for decades. Critical success has followed suit…Siegal is a member of the Detroit Music Hall of Fame and was also named in WDET’s list of the most important and influential artists in Detroit’s history alongside the likes of John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder.


Before The Michigan Roots Jamboree, Dick Siegal and his successes were a mystery to me, as well. Well…I get it now! It’s tough to describe Siegal’s songs as anything but quintessential folk music because telling phrases rarely portray its object as perfectly or precisely as ‘quintessential’ does with Siegal’s craft. Folk music has long been popularized by individuals who carry a powerful, poetic voice. At Michigan Roots Jamboree, Dick Siegel carried the same freewheeling attitude seen amongst his stylistic predecessors, but also showed an appreciation for the avid listener. Constantly extending his thought-provoking words to the audience, Siegal gave all attending the gracious gift of the human experience…even skeptics will be hard-pressed to find any contrived elements or disingenuous statements in his music.

Wayward Root

Wayward Root was the most professional sounding string band at the Roots Jamboree. Each member gave their heart to the performance as musical communication was flowing freely. Wayward Root reminded me of the traditional bluegrass artists I love…Bill Monroe, Earl Skruggs, Del McCoury….Wayward took their foundation and put their own twist on the timeless mountain music I cherish. Wayward Roots is as authentic as any string music one could see in 2010, so go see this group if you get the opportunity!


Tree of Life Drum & Dance

The Tree of Life Drum & Dance performance was a much needed change of pace after Dick Siegel’s heartfelt but down-tempo folk set. Rooted in the nearby town of Chelsea, The Tree of Life Studio Cultural Arts Studio teaches eager students the intricacies of various drumming and dance disciplines through classes and exhibitions.


Saturday’s Jamboree performance featured multiple drum sections with accompanied dancing. Such a blast to watch!


Black Jake and the Carnies

As I was returning to the main stage for more music, the next group of performers, Black Jake and the Carnies, dove into their set. What transpired over the next hour remains somewhat of a blur in my memory…I partially contribute my haze to the breakneck speed at which the group feverishly transitioned from song to song, but most of my confusion was a result of the insanity-infused performances given by the Carnies… you can’t have a circus without Carnies!


The bluegrass/folk/insanity theme works really well for these Carnies! Black Jake and Carnies was hands down the most energetic, wild, and flat-out enjoyable set of the entire weekend. I was a skeptic at first, but as soon as I saw the first Carnie jump from a 10 ft. speaker to the stage WITH HIS INSTRUMENT, I was sold. Sign me up for the next circus please!


The Ben Miller Band

Featuring one of the most unique sounds at the Roots Jamboree, The Ben Miller Band was the highlight of the weekend for many. Imagine a cross between Tom Waits, John Popper, and The Smiths…that should provide a small glimpse into the makeup of the one-of-a-kind Ben Miller. The Ben Miller band traveled from Missouri to play the Roots Jamboree and also performed a late night show at a nearby local bar each night. His festival set was raw, gritty, and to-the-point. The highlight for most was Ben’s stirring rendition of the Nirvana classic, “Heart-Shaped Box”.


Laith Al-Saadi

I’ve been seeing Laith for many years around Ann Arbor. He is a ridiculously-gifted multitalented performer that recruits the best local musicians available to perform by his side. A true pro’s pro, Laith gigs anywhere he wants...weddings, musical orchestras, bar gigs…you name it, and I assure you he’s been there twice. Saturday’s Laith Al-Saadi band was a Rock & Roll power trio that gracefully cruised through Laith’s soulful solo R&B work as well as a good ol’ fashioned cover or two. His set was top-notch musically and was well-received by the audience. He closed with an insane Whipping Post > Gilligan’s Island Theme > Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald > Whipping Post that sent me and many others into any absolutely frenzy…RAGE!


The Ragbirds

The Ragbirds are a Celtic/Americana folk group from Ann Arbor. Over the past few years, the band has become a regular on the Midwest festival scene through dedicated, relentless touring. Musically, the group is not on my list of favorites, but I wholehearted endorse the positivity they spread with their message of love and compassion to all. Guitarist Laith Al-Saadi’s sit-in performance during “Enemy” proved to be the most successful artist collaboration of the weekend as fiddle player Erin Zindle and he traded notes and fed off one another’s energy. It was a rare and thrilling opportunity to see the two momentarily combine voices while completely submerging themselves in the moment.

One Set - Panoramic Camera, Tarantella, Tell Me Ma, Ypsilanti Song, Little Things, Enemy*, Jump In The Line, Book of Matches, Good, Right Here Right Now, Brave New Beat, Onyame Kokrokoe

* with Laith Al-Saadi (guitar)


Ultraviolet Hippopotamus

Ultraviolet Hippopotamus was the last band to play Michigan Roots Jamboree 2010. It also happened to be the group I came to see. A progressive jam juggernaut from Grand Rapids, Ultraviolet Hippopotamus is poised to make big leaps in popularity not only in the Midwest, but across the entire US. What’s so promising about this group is their dedication to evolving their sound and songwriting into a unique musical package that is entirely their own creation. A pillar of consistency, UV Hippo unleashed another classic show on Ypsilanti. If the band was looking to close the festival with authority, it most certainly did the deed in their trademark not-so-subtle fashion.


Each member of the six-person group has tremendous chops for playing their respective instruments, but rarely, if ever, does the band let their own personal talents trump the collective goal of making wonderful music with one another. The show consisted of one short set similar to every other Roots Jamboree performer, but I would have preferred the show to have raged all night! To compensate for a lack of stage time, the band cut a few tunes of its set list in order to focus on a few extended jams. This strategy paid-off brilliantly as UV Hippo squeezed some seriously impressive moments of intense tension during the brief slot it was provided. It may have only been a small sample of Hippo, but I thoroughly enjoy the anticipation of seeing the band soon… there is ALWAYS room for more UV destruction in the future!

One Set – DNT > Georgie > Run Rabbit Run > Square Pegs, Round Holes > Zelda > Cheshire Cat > Choral


The Michigan Roots Jamboree is the only event of its kind in Ypsilanti, and this year was a relative success. With Friday’s attendance nearly doubling in comparison to the previous year, the future is bright for the young festival. If the promoters continue to improve the quality of the performing artists, the Michigan Roots Jamboree will undoubtedly grow in the years to come. There are a few items that need to be addressed, but this isn’t uncommon with most if not all festivals in their infancy. Keep improving, young Roots Jamboree, for you will eventually reap what you sow. Thank you for an unforgettable experience, and see you next year!

www.rootsjamboree.com

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