Writing music reviews is much like eating oysters. A lot of bands are worth a little hot sauce, but rarely do they offer up a pearl. And then comes Back Forty. This all-white, all-male Michigan band is not just good local talent. These musicians are just plain good, as in record-contract good.

The trouble is how to promote them. They describe their sound as "down-home funkgrass." That covers some of it. Young Colin Murphy's wicked breakdown fiddle on top of Jeff Friesen's resonant walking bass creates a potent stew, while elder statesman Dan Ripke's classic country compositions and warm, throaty singing easily transport us to a back porch in rural America.

But there's some serious rock 'n' roll here, too. Ripke and Andy Benes both play solid rock guitar — complete with wah-wah moments — and the whole band can jam somewhere in that Allman Brothers-Grateful Dead space. Even new wave, reggae, and world influences are obvious.

What holds it all together is the deep talent of each individual. They all play impressive solos and have something to say. They know their instruments well enough to let loose and see where their eclectic mix will take them. They don't always mesh seamlessly, but the jams never devolve into a mess. Sometimes they're downright transporting.

Benes often swaps his guitar for an electric mandolin, which he can coax way beyond bluegrass into punk and soul. Murphy's fast fiddling shines every time, though it is not quite as beautiful on the slow numbers; his sound is a little bright and tinny for romance. Ripke knows what oldsters like me enjoy — classic rock riffs that keep the younger musicians rooted.

Meanwhile, the rhythm section is no throwaway. Friesen puts the soul food in the mix, and drummer John Yax is thoughtful about how to create different moods. Yet he can be too sparing. I usually opt for plainspoken drumming, but he can afford to run a few stop signs in this tight traffic.

Almost all of them write original numbers, and they trade off lead vocals. Lyrically, the songs are unpretentious and universal: "Someone tell me how I'm supposed to be. I can't find anyone quite like me." The band is also unabashed about its Michigan roots, with songs like "Lake Erie" and its references to zebra mussels and Ypsilanti, and the beautiful "Sideways Daydream," set under the Michigan moonlight with Stroh's beer. Ripke in particular has a gift for moving and memorable tunes. He is responsible for the band's signature track, "The Back Forty," which is basically an invitation to a party I'd like to attend.

At a recent Ark show they played almost all originals from their 2006 CD and from their brand-new Big Orange Tent. But when they started into a slow, heartrending performance of Hank Williams's "Kaw-Liga," my esteem grew further. I've never much cared for that corny song about the wooden Indian, but Back Forty almost got me crying for him.

I hope these fine musicians, who are at TC's Speakeasy on Saturday, May 3, will soon be laughing all the way to the bank.

[Review published May 2008]