First of all, my wife did not want to go. We were new in town, still unpacking, wondering what life in a "small town" was going to be like after we'd spent eleven years in Chicago. "I've never heard of any of these people," she said, looking at the listing for the Yellow Room Gang at the Ark. "It's a gang. That can't be good," she went on. She's like that.
In fact, the Yellow Room Gang is a very good gang — a militant cadre of eight songwriters from the Ann Arbor and Detroit areas who have been getting together for a couple of years in the home of David Tamulevich, a local songwriter who also runs a booking agency for folk artists and conveniently has a yellow room. The point, it seems, is fellowship, encouragement, maybe even a little ruthless criticism — and every songwriter I've ever met needs that. That and dinner.
It was our first visit to the famous Ark. We expected mikes and instruments on the stage, but not a big old shabby couch covered with grinning, wisecracking, backslapping songwriters. They didn't all fit on the couch. There were also chairs. The Gang — David Barrett, Jim Bizer, Annie Capps, Kitty Donohoe, Michael Hough, Jan Krist, David Tamulevich, and Matt Watroba — stayed onstage all night as each singer took center stage, sang a song, and sat back down. Everyone seemed to know every song, and they backed each other up with harmonies, hot guitar licks, and egg shaker.
I wish I'd taken notes; this all took place sometime last winter, and my memory of precisely who sang what has been softened to a series of memory flashes: a hauntingly beautiful song about a river, a funny song about love and togetherness that had me and the missus smooching in the back row (where we always like to sit for that very reason). There was a beautiful sing-along. It was a great, warm evening, filled with laughter, stories, reverence, cool songs, and terrific guitar slinging. We went home with the group's brand-new, self-titled CD, which has two songs by each artist. We play it a lot and have been back several times to see a few members in their own solo shows, or with their own bands.
The whole evening made me happy and a little jealous of all the fun they were having up there on the couch with their guitars. Best of all was witnessing — and feeling a part of — these ultratalented people's creative chemistry. My wife often reminds me that I can't carry a tune in a bucket (she's like that), but that night I felt like one of the gang.
The Yellow Room Gang returns to the Ark on Friday, January 5.
[Review published January 2007]