F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "There are no second acts in American lives." Possibly that's true for some lives, but fortunately not for all. Ann Arbor's Khalid Hanifi recently opened — more accurately, reopened — his third act. In the 1980s and 1990s Hanifi toured widely and released critically acclaimed rock/pop recordings, first with Map of the World and then with Kiss Me Screaming. He formed the Maypops in the late 1990s and recorded the band's first CD, Spirits of Agnew, in 2000, and then, for various personal reasons, took a five-year intermission from music. Now he's back with a new incarnation of the Maypops. Before a packed house at the Firefly Club recently, Hanifi and the band rocked through two sets showcasing material from Spirits of Agnew ("Yes, that Agnew!" as Hanifi said during the show) as well as older and more recent songs.

The years away from the stage have not slowed Hanifi. Both as performer and songwriter, he's still firing on all cylinders. The Maypops offers no pop posturings, bizarre costumes, or pyrotechnics. Instead, the fireworks are in the well-crafted, intelligent lyrics; the often surprising yet never capricious harmonies; and Khalid's straight-ahead, John Lennonesque, what-you-hear-is-what-you-get singing. The Maypops back all that with vigorous grooves by longtime bassist Oni Werth and muscular drumming by Jim Carey. Guitarist George Bedard — no stranger to the limelight himself, having fronted the Kingpins and other bands for years — excels in a supporting role.

But Hanifi's lyrics take center stage. At the Firefly his vocals were appropriately mixed out in front of the music, so we could clearly hear and enjoy wry, tragicomic lines like "Stuck in first, goin' downhill / This is my worst favorite thrill" and "I pictured you a star in my homecoming feat / Naturally in the backseat." And there are extra gems to be discovered from reading the lyrics on the CD insert: clever wordplay like "Ernest Klaun / Sat me down; / I needed some jokes — / He's got the most."

The unrecorded songs that the Maypops played at the Firefly were also memorable. "Everything Is Fine" found Hanifi spitting that hook in sardonic syncopation. "Pig (Mr. and Mrs.)," like a number of other Hanifi songs, doesn't end on the tonic chord — so it has an unsettled, suspended, not-neatly-wrapped-up-with-a-bow conclusion, perfect for its complex subject matter. "I Want to Call Up the World and Tell It I'm Sorry" uses copy from a box of McCormick hot pepper flakes and a bottle of Jergens hand lotion for its verses. Trust me: it works.

The Maypops, who return to the Firefly on Tuesday, January 24, are working on a new CD, and Hanifi's not even planning to put these songs on it. That's how confident he is of the quality of his other new songs. That bodes well for a long run for this latest act of his.

[Review published January 2006]