Back to the future
Six decades of Detroit music in the now!
Published: June 15, 2011
If you think about it, we're living in a time and in a city where you can actually go out and see six decades' worth, or more, of Detroit music performed live by the original performers. Things happen to be aligned in such a way that kids in need of a Detroit-style music education can actually get one in the flesh, with a beer in hand. (You can start in the 1940s and '50s jazz and blues with Alberta Adams and Alma Smith, cap it with rising stars such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. or Danny Brown.)
And think about this: Detroit is one of few places in the Western world where, for the most part, it's perfectly acceptable for a musician to age, where old cats are respected, revered even, by the kids with instruments coming up.
It's that overall mind-set that helps career resurrections in these parts, which often equals hipster gold: Look to local godheads such as Rodriguez, Death, Andre Williams, Dennis Coffey, Black Merda, Melvin Davis, Johnnie Bassett, Nathaniel Mayer (RIP), the Rockets and even Bettye LaVette, and lots of others, for that dictum. A few aforementioned got their livelihood jump-started from young and respectful Detroit musicians, who backed them on stage or produced their albums, such as Matt Smith, Jeff Meier, Dave Shettler and others.
Because this town doesn't exactly worship youth it flies in the face of the fleeting tastes in the mainstream. That's a beauty of Detroit.
The city's riotous history has shown us how great art rises from burning buildings and wretched, and how scary times can produce incredible soundtracks.
Detroit is a historic anomaly like New Orleans or Memphis in that it upholds traditions of music regionalism — which is a kind of authenticity — and that informs our contemporary music.
So for a town that appears to be dying on the vine, the music only expands. For example, between emcees and DJs such as, say, Phat Kat, Dez Andres, Derrick May, HouseShoes, Elzhi and Invincible, it'd be difficult to tally the '60s soul and gospel song — from the tiny labels that dotted Detroit like dirty laundromats — that inform their styles.
Jaye Thomas of dance-indie trio the Rogue Satellites agrees. "While I doubt that most of our greats from the '50s and '60s are contributing much in the way of new work, each has a relevant legacy," he says. All the new music worthy of your ear is informed by those legacies. Detroit artists with respect for their roots and an eye on the future have a tremendous well to draw from. I think Iggy Pop will be a vivacious gyrating maniac well past his autopsy!"
What's fascinating is the city's class of newer artists aren't, for the most part, rooted or limited to one particular genre and would excel on any mixed bill, country, jazz, hip hop, blues, jazz, pop, metal, folk, punk, electronic, whatever. Not that we'd ever see it, but Internet hip-hop star Danny Brown could easily split a bill with electro-popsters Lettercamp. And who couldn't share a stage with alt-country's Whitey Morgan & the 78's?
Tom Bahorski of the Ashleys, a new rock 'n' roll band with a decidedly garage spirit, digs Detroit for that very reason. "What separates Detroit from other towns and 'scenes' is how consistently diverse and consistently amazing the art that pours out of here has been for over half a century," Bahorski says. "There's something in the water. I was once told it was mercury. A little mercury never hurt anyone."
Lettercamp lass Liz Wittman sees the authenticity in the city's soundscape, and says the new breed of Detroit musician has all but abandoned any dreams of mainstream adulation.
"In the grand scheme of things, Detroit is not the first city that labels and the like are looking to for their next big payday (even though it should be)," Wittman says. "And I believe Detroit artists know that, and so what you end up getting from a Detroit artist is honesty and an authentic approach to creativity. We don't write songs and play shows with the expectation that we will be rich and famous. We play because it's who we are. That in itself breeds longevity and the perseverance to see it through. I think that is why you see Detroit artists from the '70s and so on still present today and still with an audience. In the long run, I believe honesty is what keeps people's interest and gives them something they can relate to. And really, that is what you are gonna get from Detroit musicians."
Of course, it ain't perfect here, and we've our fair share of assholes. Some digging reveals that Detroit burns bright when city lights are low, and there's lots of beauty here, musical or otherwise. Those who've lived elsewhere know the score that we are luckier than we know. For my part, reviewing music in England, L.A. and New York isn't nearly as thrilling as it is here; for one, because there isn't nearly as much talent.
Local indie mainstay Ryan Allen sees the area's history as a double-edged sword: "I have mixed feelings about this," he says. "When you see Iggy's weird, baseball glove of a body writhing around on the American Idol stage, it's hard not to think of it as a bit comical and almost embarrassing. On the flip, it's pretty awesome to watch a sixtysomething Iggy Pop writhe around on the American Idol stage and still be able to freak everybody out. No matter what you think, music is in his blood, and it's in the blood of all the other legendary pillars of Detroit rock 'n' roll. Should they hang it up? Well, nobody — and myself for that matter — wants to be the aging hipster. But the more I think about it, it seems as often as the kids get it right, sometimes, they seem to get it wrong. A little rust and wear on people is actually pretty attractive to me, and the new batch could learn a thing or two from the old guard. Detroit, right now, seems to be meeting the eternal 'old versus young' discussion somewhere in the middle, and thirtysomethings like myself can simultaneously feel old and out of touch, as well as fresh and new, just by comparison alone. Regardless, music streams through the bloodlines of this town — young or old — and most of us just can't help it. We've just gotta play — whether we actually fit into our skinny jeans, or are just trying to. As long as you're not dead in the ground, nothing else should stop you."
With this weekly City Slang column — along with daily music blogging at blogs.metrotimes.com — my aim will be to document the oddballs, geniuses, workhorses and the dipshits who inhabit and recharge this incredible musical landscape No genre or era shall go untouched.
This is your city, so feel free to send in your kudos, quips and rants. We look forward to it.
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