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Westside Weekend Festival 2017: Grand Rapids, Mich.

Westside Weekend Poster

–Westside Weekend Festival: Aug. 11th-14th, 2017. Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill, Grand Rapids, Mich.  

There’s something innately special about local music. Whether it’s feeling the excitement of seeing your friends and neighbors performing live, or experiencing the adrenaline surge while playing onstage with your own band, local music enriches our lives tenfold. The musicians shed their blood, sweat, and (likely) many beers in the practice rooms, bars and clubs for little of the glory and a fraction of the pay of national acts. Yet, the musicians, promoters, club owners, and listeners do what they do because they enjoy it, and this pursuit is noble. Now, obviously every major city has its own unique music scene, and one scene is not inherently better or worse than another. But Grand Rapids is my hometown, and local West Michigan music is therefore what I’ll intermittently be choosing to focus on for Kollnot Rock’n’Metal Reviews.

Now that I’ve already overused the phrase “local music scene,” let’s dive right into the Westside Weekend 2017. This festival is the brainchild of Grand Rapids-based musician Joe Henry, vocalist/guitarist for several bands, including The Holy Warheads, The Westside Rebellion, and American Zombie Inquisition. Henry has teamed up with Ted Smith of the Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill to create the inaugural four-day music festival. Westside Weekend showcases music from a diverse array of genres, but the overarching focus is on bands from West Michigan. That said, Henry also invited a few out-of-town bands to represent different regions, such as Red Stone Souls out of Detroit, Kalamazoo’s Drugs in the Carpet, and Tail Light Rebellion from Nashville, Tennesee. Westside Weekend also is geared especially towards blue-collar music fans, so cover charge was kept at a very reasonable $5-per-night, with the Monday Wrap-Up show being free.

Disclaimer: given that I couldn’t attend all four nights, and that my primary musical interest and focus is rock and metal music, unfortunately I’m unable to review every band that performed over the course of the weekend. I only will be reviewing Day 2: Saturday, August 12th, as well as the Monday finale show. However, I will be including Facebook/web links for all the bands I missed at the end of this review.

Westside Weekend Day 2

-Day 2: Saturday, August 12th, 2017: Vox Concussio/ The Alien Dogs/ Lucy Ernst of the Truffle Pigs/ The Holy Warheads/ Red Stone Souls/ Slumlord Radio.

It’s not exactly a secret that the heavy rock/metal scene here in Grand Rapids has been seriously hurting the last few years. With the demise of WGRD’s “Heavyweights,” competition, the relative dearth of rock-oriented venues, a reduction in the number and quality of national acts passing through, and top bands breaking up or relocating, finding good head-banging music in Beer City U.S.A. can be challenging. That’s not to imply that the scene is dead; in fact, many great bands are still jamming — and fighting valiantly for survival — beneath the surface. Westside Weekend gathered some of the area’s best punk and hard rock bands at the Tip Top for Day 2, and the billing proved to be an invigorating shot of sheer rock-and-roll power.

Kicking off the festivities at 8:35 p.m., local punk-rock quartet Vox Concussio played a short 20 minutes (tops) set. These guys (and gal singer) play a mostly mid-tempo brand of punk that is catchy enough, if a bit rough around the edges. But with more practice and live experience, Vox Concussio should make an impact with punk fans.

Up next was The Alien Dogs, a great band name if I’ve ever heard one. This trio of very young musicians warmed up the growing Tip Top crowd with an exuberant set of high-energy punk. Their sound was rugged and pristine, the tempos brisk but always controlled. As for well-known references in their music, I am no punk expert, but I hear a blend of Pennywise, early Offspring, Green Day, Sex Pistols, and yes, the almighty godfathers, the Ramones. The Alien Dogs are a fun time, as one might expect canines of the alien persuasion to be.

The music of Lucy Ernst is a bit enigmatic. Ernst, singer and guitarist of local rockers Truffle Pigs, teamed up with drummer Brent Riva of The Holy Warheads to form Truffle Sandwich for a special one-off appearance at Westside Weekend. Ernst’s music defies categorization: her guitar riffs are jagged and quirky, yet undeniably rocking; her voice blending the snarly grit of a Joan Jett with the introspective melody of a Chrissie Hynde. Song-wise, while the angst-fueled attitude of classic punk is certainly present, there’s also a nod to the hard-rocking grit of British Invasion bands, Motörhead, and perhaps even Crazy Horse-era Neil Young. Truffle Sandwich didn’t seem to lose any power due to the lack of a bass player, and Ernst’s smiling, gracious stage demeanor belied the irreverent rebelliousness of her music. She made an instant fan out of me and many others crowding the Tip Top stage this night.

One of the most anticipated acts of the weekend, fest organizer Joe Henry’s band The Holy Warheads always pack a nuclear-scale wallop. The band plays groove-based hard rock with a strong, gritty grunge influence. These guys sound like a blast from the early ‘90s Seattle scene, as if Soundgarden married Black Sabbath and then gave birth to some Dio-esque vocal melodies. Henry, with his long, blond deadlocks and serpent-like stage movements, is clearly the focal point of the Warheads’ shows. His unique voice captivates with his resonant, low-register tones and fantastic vibrato. Bassist Kevin Keefer, also of the outstanding instrumental trio Knives Are Quiet, lays down the straight-ahead grooves with confidence; he also possesses the most powerful and dirty bass tone in the area (see Dug Pinnick of King’s X for reference). Guitarist Ivan Hannah’s riffs sweeping riffs are a bit dissonant without sounding discordant; it all contributes to a mesmerizing atmosphere of equal parts aggression and melodic hypnosis on songs like “Telling Me Nothing” and “Slaves Unto the Master.” Judging by the energetic reaction of my fellow fans upfront, The Holy Warheads are gaining a holy following indeed.

Bands that plow the stoner rock/metal fields nationwide seem to be a dime a dozen. That is, discovering the best bands in that genre can be like finding the proverbial needle in that haystack (not to imply those bands are farmers, though there obviously would be nothing wrong with it if there were). Thankfully for Michiganders, we have one of the best stoner-metal bands around in Red Stone Souls. Months back I saw the Detroit quartet perform at Mulligan’s down the road in Eastown, and they blew me away. Saturday night’s show was no different; just after 11 p.m., we fans were greeted by a wall of sonic power and flying, head-banging hair. Red Stone Souls feature the weighty, blues-soaked, Sabbath-like guitar riffs and soulful vocals (of typical of the genre; what’s not so typical is the sheer quality and memorability of their songs. The harmonized guitar interplay and dynamic contrasts in the songs only contribute to the intensity of their performance. Their seamless, professional performance clearly earned them more fans this night, and deservedly so. Red Stone Souls are the real (full-meal) deal.

Finally, well after midnight and with endurance levels reaching their bending points, the mighty Slumlord Radio took the stage. This quirky and highly-entertaining heavy rock quartet always presents a fun show, with plenty of smiles and a few good laughs on hand. Introducing themselves, as usual, as “We’re Slumlord Radio from Stockholm Sweden,” by vocalist/guitarist Tommy “Capt. Hollywood” Erickson, this Grand Rapids-based band promptly launched into their inimitable brand of heavy punk/metal/power rock, er, whatever. If there is a band out there that sounds exactly like Slumlord Radio, then I promise to get my hearing aids switched out. These guys have the bludgeoning heaviness of Sabbath (another theme this weekend), the exuberant speed and catchiness of punk, and the tasty guitar wizardry of classic metal. They also know how to vary a setlist via an enjoyable mix of originals and covers. For example, when they brought a female fan onstage to sing Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” the whole floor of the Tip Top was head-boppin’ and rolling. Likewise, when they played a rousing, audience-enhanced version of the Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right to Party,” for the penultimate song of the night, there was nary a non-singing pair of lungs in the place. Don’t miss seeing Slumlord Radio if you get the chance. They’re the best Swedish band not from Sweden you’ll ever get to hear.

Whew, what a night! When the ears are still ringing afterwards despite the earplugs, it’s a successful night of LOUD, heavy rock. But there would be more to come for Westside Weekend.

-Monday, August 14th, 2017. Westside Weekend Wrap-Up Show: Rust Bucket/Abram Gunther and The Bear-a-Tones/ Emma Loo/ JOE.

By the time Monday night rolled around, the Westside Weekend had already had nearly 15 bands hit the Tip Top’s stage. Those devoted faithful who stuck around for all of the first three days deserve some props and envy. Unfortunately, this fan needed some recovery time from Saturday night’s debauchery. So, trying to make Sunday’s matinee show featuring another of Henry’s bands, The Westside Rebellion, was not in the cards for me. Thankfully, we were given one more chance to celebrate with the Wrap-Up show on Monday evening. Many of us fellow musicians, fans, and open-mic family members were there to relax and see out what was a successful inaugural Westside Weekend.

Musical diversity was the unofficial theme for this show, beginning with the alternative-folk duo known as Rust Bucket. Rust Bucket is led by the singer/songwriter Acid Wizard on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, along with another young man accompanying him on banjo. Dubbing Acid Wizard’s music as “eccentric” would be the understatement of the year; he sings with an extremely nasally tone, his songs are simple to the extreme of including only one or two chords (I think I counted five chords as a maximum in one song), and his lyrics deal with zany reckneck sort of themes such as wrecking cars, as well as superheroes, riding bicycles, future societies, etc. Yes, Rust Bucket’s music may be unique, bizarre even. But it certainly is entertaining in the live context.

Abram Gunther has been steadily making an impact on the G.R. scene over the course of the last few years, including a recent stint as the Monday house band at the Tip Top. I had seen him and his band the Bear-a-Tones several times in recent months, and each time his music grows on me more and more. Generally speaking, Gunther’s mellow brand of bluesy, soulful rock (or rocking soul) is a bit too low-key for this angst-ridden, humming-bird heart-rated crusty rocker. But his beautiful songwriting and soul-fueled, Joe Cocker-like voice can melt the musical heart of any skeptics. Like always, the Bear-a-Tones — drummer Brad Golden, bassist Tyler Harry, and guitarist Eric Yoder — were joined by onstage by multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Sam Kenny on violin, trumpet, and backing vocals; their performances of the original material as well as their slow funk version of Supertramp’s “Breakfast In America” were rousing and locked-down tight.

Emma Loo Ancient

Those who have been paying attention to G.R. music in the slightest over the last few years should know about Emma Loo. Not only did she win two local Jammie awards this year, she and her boyfriend/musical partner-in-crime Sam Kenny perform frequently, not only in West Michigan, but on tour across the country. The lovely and talented keyboardist and singer/songwriter possesses an incredible voice with a powerful range, but that’s just the tip of her musical iceberg. Her style is unique, eccentric, and otherwise undefinable, though avante-garde rock/pop may best fit the bill; her lyrics and life philosophies and fashion are creative and mind-expanding. In short, Emma Loo is a one-of a-kind artist.

On this night Emma Loo was performing as her solo project, as opposed to her more folk/Americana-based project with Kenny, Emma Loo and Sam. Still, as always Kenny lent his sundry talents to many of the songs, alongside DJ and frequent Emma Loo contributor Dan Wall. Supporting Emma’s excellent 2016 debut album, Ancient, the trio provided an extra lushness and depth to such album standouts as “Cocaine in My Boots” “Poison,” and “Abduction.” Other tunes, such as the emotive new anthem “Westside Angels,” thrive alone on the strength of Emma’s plaintive synthesizer chords and gorgeous vocal melodies.

In a humorous moment later in the set, Kenny and Wall drew a curtain/blanket across the stage so Emma could make a costume change from her white dress. She emerged wearing a black one-piece outfit with a hood; more notably, she had fake blood dripping from her mouth and neck, Gene Simmons-style. She then launched solo into her 10-minute-plus, improvisational epic, “Bitch Ho,” which is always hilarious  and thought-provoking, in equal measures. The set concluded with Emma rapping over Kenny’s incredibly accurate beat boxing, all the while with Kenny, ever the proverbial Energizer Bunny, ducking back and forth behind Emma, then sidestepping rapidly across the back of the stage like a sixth grader who had consumed a few too many Pixie Stix. It was a phenomenal end to an absolute highlight set for the Westside Weekend.

JOE, the band formed by singer/songwriter Joe Rodriguez, appropriately wound down the fest with a literally winding down in a musical sense. A veteran of the open-mic scene, Rodriguez formed JOE back in 2014 as a full-band showcase for his plaintive and often somber songs. His voice is rich and full of vibrato, similar to a higher-ranging Eddie Vedder; his songs revolve around a simple-yet-catchy structure, with lyrics often dealing with lost relationships, emotional pain, regret, and also small peeks at hope: “What it means to be a kid/what it means to be a kid/to play in the rain” is one of my favorite lines and vocal melodies from his songs. JOE’s set was, as expected, mellow and melancholy, but it also was pleasant and necessarily relaxing after a long weekend of energetic and flamboyant music.

That’s it for Westside Weekend 2017. By all accounts, it was a rousing success for an inaugural festival, and Henry said that so far he is optimistic about his chances for putting it on again next year. It certainly featured the musical diversity and quality that appeals to a wider audience, but also had the concentration of heavier rock bands that this city so desperately needs. The good sound at the Tip Top and affordable cover charge, as well as the overarching theme of inclusion and tolerance in these incendiary times, really made the Westside Weekend a worthwhile festival. Here’s to all the Westside memories, and (hopefully) more to come soon.–Jonathan Kollnot

–WW Day 1 Bands: Head, EPCYA, Drugs In The Carpet, The Bitters, All Night Tigers.

–WW Day 3 Bands: The Westside Rebellion, 78 RevolutionsPerMinute, Bet On Rats, Tail Light Rebellion.

 

 

 

 

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~ by jonnyboyrocker on August 20, 2017.

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