Cornmeal in Ann Arbor

Words & Photos By Tyler Sporer

Impromptu shows are always the best. I had been scheduled to work a night shift on this Thursday evening but ended up being let out early. I struggled very little with the decision to head straight for Ann Arbor. Cornmeal was in town and I wasn’t about to let this one pass by. A quick phone call to my pal Andrew and we were good to go. He’s always down for some quality live music.

When we got to the Blind Pig, we were surprised to find it virtually empty. The dimly lit joint had a pretty decent vibe going on with pictures and memorabilia from countless years gone by. Upon discovery that there would be a band playing before Cornmeal, I was somewhat disappointed… each of us had to work in the morning so we were looking to get in as much Cornmeal as we could before we hit our self-imposed curfew. But this was nothing compared to the disappointment we were about to face. Now, keep in mind that writing a “bad” review about a band or artist that I have seen live is something that I try to avoid at all costs. In fact, as a music journalist, I find it hard to believe that you would ever put yourself in that kind of situation intentionally. Sometimes, however, it is unavoidable. I am unaware of the name of the band that opened for Cornmeal and to be quite honest, I think its better this way. To start things out, a man with some sort of bongo-like drum strapped around his neck came up to the microphone and gave a super loud, super enthusiastic countdown that made it sound like the group was going to come out guns-a-blazing. But when he hit four, this totally underwhelming, utterly spineless, trashy blend of folk rock of some sort came pouring out of the speakers. The Tom Petty-looking mandolin player and primary vocalist kept squealing and screeching out these vocals that were well outside of his range while he strummed a very simple, very repetitive and quite sloppy number on his instrument. The bass player, albeit enthusiastic, was playing the same 3 notes over and over with his index finger and that was about it. It got so bad, that Andy and I made the unanimous decision to check out the downstairs bar to avoid the rupture of our ear drums that would have surely resulted in hospitalization. We were pumped to find a pool table downstairs and even though the it smelled like a moldy mixture of feet, armpits, and fish, we shot a drawn out game of pool and then headed back upstairs just in time for the beginning of Cornmeal.

It was so relieving to hear this sound, this Cornmeal sound. This music that is so inspiring. Being relatively new in my exposure to this band, it will be difficult for me to offer any insight on the set list or the song selection. I can, however, attempt to describe this sound and, at the very least, persuade you in any way I can to check these guys out. Cornmeal is some of the most high energy, emotionally exhilarating, and jam-centered blend of progressive bluegrass that I have ever heard. To me, this music exemplifies the term “jamgrass”. It is electrified acoustic instrumentation that cascades over such a wide variety of sounds and dips into such a range of genres that it is impossible to pin down. It begins as a slow paced exchange between banjo, fiddle, and guitar and it slowly gains momentum and transitions into this surge of futuristic experimentation that defies everything you thought you knew about acoustic instruments. With Chris Gangi laying down the foundation on this gorgeous-looking stand up bass and J.P. Nowak manning the drums with extreme tempo, timing, and technical proficiency, the stage is set for these otherworldly science experiments to begin.

When you witness a Cornmeal show, it’s easy for your attention to be drawn to fiddle player, Allie Kral. Usually sporting a pretty dress, tall boots, and a look of seduction, Allie has a stage presence that is hard to deny. But her talent on the fiddle is what really sucks you in. Allie’s fingers are a blur as they dance up and down her instrument with great speed and accuracy. As she bounces up and down to the rhythm of the music, stomping her boots to the sound of the beat, it becomes obvious how talented of a musician Allie really is. To her left stands acoustic guitarist Kris Nowak. Kris is an unbelievably adept musician with a brilliant knack for jamming. With a plethora of pedals and effects at his disposal, the range of different sounds that he achieves with the acoustic guitar makes me question why anyone would ever want to play the electric. Nowak’s improvisational ability at the peak of a heated Cornmeal jam session is something you will not forget. Kris absolutely SOARS up and down the neck of his guitar in a truly psychedelic fashion. He rips and bends and pulls and hammers down on top of his strings, exploring the sounds that come pouring into his mind and then transcribing those sounds to the strings of his instrument. With Dave Burlingame sporting a full-blown Zappa-stache and attacking his banjo with a similar enthusiasm, Cornmeal becomes a jam force to be reckoned with.

With our 1:00 curfew quickly approaching, I tapped Andy on the shoulder and gave him the signal. Everyone in the room, whether they knew it or not, was in full-blown dance mode, thrashing around uncontrollably to the sounds of Cornmeal. They had the jamgrass fever and there was no stopping them now. As we headed for the exit, we heard it… those unmistakable opening lines of a Grateful Dead cover. On this evening it was “They Love Each Other”, a song that Andy instantaneously recognized from the infamous 1977 Barton Hall show. For the next however many minutes, Cornmeal absolutely killed it and converted what had been a great show into an extraordinary one. We left the blind pig grinning ear to ear and not doubting for a second why we had come to Ann Arbor to see this band.


Popular posts from this blog

Livetronica Sampler 3.22.11

Buckethead: Gimmick or Guitar God?

Billy Strings 4.18.19

Shwarma, Cloud Catcher & Kaepora 6.21.24