Jeni Lee Richey
by Chris Berggren
Jeni Lee Richey and lead guitarist Fred Beldin first met and became friends in the mid-1990s, while working together in East Lansing. Beldin tried to convince Richey to sing in one of his bands, but she was too shy to do it, and the two eventually drifted apart. Beldin moved to Seattle, where he continued to be involved with bands, and Richey finally built up the confidence to give singing a chance, performing in the country duo Bone Orchard Revival.
Flash forward to 2009: Beldin returns to Michigan and posts an ad for a lead singer. Richey responds, and you've got the conception of Jeni Lee Richey and the Great Tribulation, plus a pretty good story. Drummer Cory Snavely and bass guitarist Tom McCartan complete the band at the moment, though they've previously had a pedal steel player and hope to again.
The band describes itself as both country and electro-acoustic, and that's accurate. Richey mostly sings in a beautiful sleepy voice, reminiscent of Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, and plays acoustic guitar. At times the musicians overwhelm her voice--though it remains audible, many of the words are lost. That's not to say she's incapable of singing loudly, but her soft, sultry, almost longing vocals do seem to fit the mood of the music perfectly. Beldin sits--yes, sits--slightly behind Richey to her left and adds the electro to her acoustic, while Snavely and McCartan play farther behind Richey. When I saw them, Ryan Racine, who headlines a band of his own, sat in on accordion to make up for the absent pedal steel--and while it was just a temporary solution, it did add a really intriguing element to the band.
Richey and Beldin are both songwriters, though they write separately, and most of the material the band performs is original. In "I'll Be Here," one of Richey's compositions, Richey sings: "I heard somewhere through the grapevine that you were getting out, headed home / I heard voices whispering
about your broken heart, sweetheart / Come home to me / I'll be here." And they do play some covers, including an interesting pair at the concert I attended: Donna Fargo's 1972 hit "The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A." and "Swordfishtrombone," a 1983 Tom Waits song.
Richey says the band has been recording and hopes to have an album out by spring. Until then, the music of Jeni Lee Richey and the Great Tribulation is available exclusively online and at a venue near you--including Goodnite Gracie on Saturday, May 7.
[Originally published in May, 2011.]