Music around Every Corner
How Chelsea created a world-class music scene.
by Steve Daut
From the June, 2018 issue
by Steve Daut
The 2018 New Year's celebration at the Chelsea Alehouse Brewery featured the Ben Daniels Band. Everyone got into the dress code, resplendent in worn flannels, with Elmer Fudd hats everywhere. A scruffy-looking derelict wandered in. Somewhere around the middle of the set, he sauntered up to the stage and joined the band.
It was Jeff Daniels, sporting his Frank Griffin look from the Netflix series Godless. Later, Daniels shuffled off into the night, disappearing into the haze of the musical town as his son's band resumed its set. Just another night in Chelsea.
Chelsea, population 5,200, hosts at least 470 musical performances a year. "There are so many people who love and support music in Chelsea, and this, in turn, has attracted many talented musicians," says Bob Pierce, former executive director of the Chelsea Chamber of Commerce. "The musical energy in this city just keeps growing."
Along with the occasional TV character wandering the streets at odd hours, the city abounds in musical venues. Chelsea High School launches dozens of musicians every year, and the city is home to an Emmy Award-winning composer.
A music scene this big doesn't spring magically from the firmament. Many threads have come together to weave this musical quilt.
Musicians have gotten together in Chelsea since at least the 1950s, when bands would jam in the parking lot behind what is now Cleary's Pub. By the 1980s, garage bands were incubating. And in 1994 the scene began to put down more permanent roots with the opening of the Chelsea Center for the Arts.
CCA offered an array of classes and music camps. Though it closed in 2014, its legacy continues. One reason the Chelsea Alehouse has such a lively music program is that co-owner Aubrey Martinson was executive director of the CCA from 2004 through 2011.
"I knew a lot of the students at CCA and loved their energy and talents," Martinson recalls. "When we opened the Alehouse, we wanted
to get them onstage because music brings people together."
Bob Pierce played a part, too. Shortly after he and Nadine Anderson opened Pierce's Pastries Plus in 1997, they decided to invite local musicians to play.
"We wanted to do it at night, but we couldn't work out our schedules, so we had the groups play on Saturday morning," says Anderson. Though the bakery was sold in 2001, many of today's acts cut their teeth over breakfast there, including Bob Skon and Keith Parmentier.
"These musicians formed a core group of talent that helped feed a lot of the things that happened later," Pierce says.
Another piece of the quilt was stitched in 1996, when Jed Fritzemeier started the Chelsea House Orchestra through the Chelsea school system. Within three years the group was performing in Celtic festivals and fairs throughout the region.
Many musicians who started with the CHO went on to form ensembles that now perform around the country. Two examples are Thunderwuede and the Moxie Strings.
Thunderwuede began as a bluegrass quartet and evolved into an improvisational trio that bounces between intricate original compositions, bluegrass, and current hits. The Moxie Strings have been hailed by the Grand Rapids Press for their "top-notch, instrumental wizardry."
Chelsea's biggest musical events, Sounds & Sights on Thursday Nights and the Sounds & Sights Festival, evolved over three decades.
In the late 1980s a music event was added to the sidewalk sales that had been held on the last weekend in July since the late 1970s. The SummerFest began to grow in the 1990s under the leadership of Ric and Penny Sauer. Within a few years, there was a large production stage, and tents were added. The Sauers have moved away, but their creation continues to grow.
Sounds & Sights on Thursday Nights, meanwhile, got its start in 2005. After two years of M-52 construction and the orange barrel blues, Chelsea was ready to celebrate. Craig Common of the Common Grill proposed the idea to the Retail Advisory Council, and the Chelsea Community Foundation provided start-up money through a grant proposal written by CCA director Ginger Sissom. Many performers that Pierce and Anderson had booked at Pierce's Pastries Plus became core acts for Sounds & Sights.
Sounds & Sights combined with SummerFest to create the Sounds & Sights Festival. Today, Sounds & Sights on Thursday Nights runs eleven consecutive weeks and includes musical acts in genres from folk, Americana, and blues to classic rock and jazz. The July Sounds & Sights Festival includes a big top tent and has featured major musical acts such as Whitey Morgan, Jill Jack, and Alan Turner.
"Sounds and Sights has opened
people's eyes that Chelsea has something to say musically," says Gary Munce, who has managed music at the festival for over
a decade and is also
in a handful of bands, including the Cadillac Cowboys, the Bowdish Brothers, and Mo' Easy.
"Today there are literally hundreds of applications for Sounds and Sights annually," Pierce says, "and the combined estimated economic impacts of Sounds and Sights and the Festival reach half a million dollars each summer."
In 1999, Pierce and Anderson co-produced a series of concerts in the historic Chelsea Depot, called Pickin' on the Porch. Four years later another series took over the spot. On the Tracks is the work of Annie Capps, a singer-songwriter who pairs with husband Rod to play songs, in the words of their website, "with a rootsy vibe, a touch of twang, and a soulful groove."
"I just love Chelsea, and I wanted to do something for the community," says Capps. Held every first Wednesday from September through May, On the Tracks focuses on songwriting, with performers sharing the ways they make songs come to life.
"I've had many proud moments with this series," says Capps. "Every show, people come up to me and thank me for another great show. That's what music should do--feed your soul and make you really happy."
While music feeds the soul, audiences feed musicians. "We need a lot of supporters to continue our success," Munce says. "The music scene in Chelsea is incredible, but there are a lot of artists, so any single group can find it hard to find steady work."
Capps is doing her part. She's working with Marie-Ann Fody, owner of Zou Zou's Cafe, to add music there three nights a week, including open mike on Thursdays, with quality local and touring artists on Friday and Saturday. Says Capps, "If you think the music scene is great now, it's about to get even better."
Some musical acts have found an outlet in Chelsea churches. The Hometown Holidays Concert, hosted by the First United Methodist Church, is part of a series that includes guest artists from around the country. A concert in May 2017 featured Brian Brill, a pianist and two-time Emmy Award-winning composer, who has written original music and film scores for PBS television, CBS Sports, and the Discovery Channel. Brill, who moved to Chelsea in 1987, also arranges and produces music for songwriters, and works on his own numerous personal recordings.
The Chelsea District Library has also taken a dive into the music stream. Programs include Sonic Sundays, a music series that includes such acts as Gemini, the A2SO Reed Trio, and Nutshell. Last September, they held the first CDL Song Fest, a three-day event featuring nationally known songwriter Paul Burch in addition to family concerts, songwriting mentor sessions, a songwriting challenge, and an exotic instrument zoo.
One group operates largely hidden from public view. According to Charlie Taylor, a music-loving pharmaceutical and neuroscience consultant who lives in Chelsea, "Hum and Strum is a very informal network of folks organized mainly by Tom and Liz Girard. Once a month or so, they open their home or another volunteer's home to anyone who drops in for playing, singing, or listening of almost any kind of music people enjoy. It's a very welcoming, relaxed and sharing thing, with lots of like-minded folks. Once in a while, they invite a highly talented musician or musicians to lead with blues, folk, or some other related stuff.
"Usually there is lots of food, beer, wine, and soup to share. There is always someone new to meet and talk with."
Aubrey Martinson underscores the time and community that it took to build the robust Chelsea music scene. "Originally, when we started up the Alehouse we weren't planning on having resident artists," she says, "but George Merkel and Wes Fritzemeier were so talented that we gave them control of the venue."
This collaboration led to Sunday Live Jazz with Wes Fritzemeier, Jed Fritzemeier, and Brian Brill and to the formation of Thunderwuede. It also led to the Ben Daniels Band becoming involved--and to the open invitation to Jeff Daniels that brought "Frank Griffin" to the Chelsea Alehouse on New Year's Eve.
More Summer Music
Dexter and Saline also celebrate summer with outdoor music events.
Dexter's Friday night Summer Concert Series kicks off with a Dexter Community Orchestra pops concert on June 15. The free concerts at the Monument Park gazebo continue every Friday through July, then take a break until August 31, when Salmagundi closes out the summer.
Saline's Thursday night Summer Music Series brings area bands downtown for free concerts, starting with the Saline Big Band on June 14 and wrapping up with Hullabaloo on August 23. And on the weekend of July 13-14, the Celtic Festival soundtrack includes everything from harpers to "Celtic rock."
See Community Events for full schedules of these and many more summer events.
[Originally published in June, 2018.]
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