Acoustic sounds rule the summer.
Every summer there's one band that seems to appear everywhere around Washtenaw County, and if you wanted to track the youth zeitgeist you could start by making a list of them. Right now an old bluegrasser like me can take great pleasure in the crest of enthusiasm among young people for acoustic roots styles: for the first time since the early 1970s, you can go to a bar in Ann Arbor and hear and dance to acoustic music on a regular basis. The trend has found its local representative in the six-member band Dragon Wagon, which I've seen at Woodruff's with several dozen twenty-somethings bobbing happily in front of the stage, and in a more sedate show at the Ark that showcased the players' chops and tight ensemble work.
Dragon Wagon is everywhere at the moment. In August you can hear them at the Michigan Roots Jamboree (August 5), the weekly bluegrass night at the Circus (August 10)--where they've already appeared three times this summer--and the Wolverine State Brewing Company (August 11), as well as at several other Ypsilanti and outstate dates and an August 3 appearance to be announced. They recently returned from a tour that took them from the inaugural Electric Forest festival up north down to St. Louis, evidence that the local roots scene, mostly Ypsilanti-based, is gaining some national traction.
Dragon Wagon proclaims that they offer "Bluegrass Folk-Rock with a Shot of Irish Whiskey." Their instruments include banjo, mandolin, fiddle (from the ebullient Diana Ladio), guitar, bass, and drums--a clear sound, but rhythmic enough to dance to. The variety of styles referred to in the motto is accurate, and better still is the band's ability to read the audiences' moods: a crowd that's out for a rowdy time will get a stringband cover of a Hank Williams III song about a little bit of smoke and a whole lot of wine, but the band also plays some mellow originals just made for an outdoor
show on a warm Michigan summer night.
At the core of the group's repertoire, though, are traditional pieces like "Shady Grove" and "Whiskey Before Breakfast" (which, it's true, could also fall into the rowdy category). Except for the drums, the performances of these tunes would have been recognizable to musicians of a hundred years ago. In the long run, it may be that music, along with other aspects of human productivity, will be made increasingly within grids of electricity and computing, but for now the substructure is holding, and the pleasures of wood and wire rule the summer.
[Originally published in August, 2011.]