Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys have been playing all over the state during the last year or so, and they’re coming in April for three Ann Arbor shows in one week: at the Circus on April 11 and April 18, and at Wolverine Brewing on the 14th. The band plays a quite a bit of straight bluegrass, minus a fiddle. With the sweet memory of Dick Dieterle of the RFD Boys in mind, it’s heartening to know that, for the first time since that band’s heyday, you can often now hear traditional bluegrass songs “Shady Grove” and “Can’t You Hear Me Callin'” two or three times a week in Ann Arbor, and that the music is now in the good hands of talented young people.
The Flatbellys started out as an all-male college bluegrass band in Lansing, where after graduating they were given new direction by the arrival of Lindsay Rachel Petroff at an open mic night at Dagwood’s Tavern. Her experiences included growing up in the U.P. in a musical family where, she says, she “started performing for anyone who asked no later than she had learned to walk and talk.” She did a term as an undergrad in Ecuador and studied at Interlochen, and all these experiences left marks on her music. She’s got a clear, agile voice that can handle the tricky female bluegrass falsetto register as well as belting in the lower ranges. She writes songs in Spanish from time to time. And as a leader she has the elusive ability, often bred in the family, to seem to be shaping what’s happening on stage even when she’s not singing.
“I married my mandolin player,” Lindsay Lou explained when I saw the band recently at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo. Since becoming Lindsay Rilko, her songwriting has taken a turn toward the romantic, but she also writes about a moonshine-making ancestor, a female bank robber, and more, and the band mixes these up with not only bluegrass classics but also songs by John Hartford and Gillian Welch, two figures that loom in the background of today’s vibrant bluegrass revival.
The show hangs together thanks to Lindsay Lou’s voice, the overall musicianship, and the appealing quality of these young people who are discovering the classics of rural American music for themselves. Whether they can take it to the next level depends on whether they can integrate the traditional bluegrass with Lindsay Lou’s songwriting, which connects with bluegrass but takes off from it at a kind of idiosyncratic angle. The new songs I heard in Kalamazoo showed her wrestling with ways to do just that, and the effort from the members of this hot Michigan band ought to provide an interesting look into the dynamic between music and marriage.