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Wednesday, August 28,2013

All-American mutt music

Lansing's Mosaic Music Festival is no purebred, but this hound can hunt

by Lawrence Cosentino
Purity, in breeding or music, isn’t an American thing. We like to mix it up and guess whose child is whose 10 years later.

Lansing’s Mosaic Music Festival, this weekend at Adado Riverfront Park, has a unique formula for showcasing all-American mutt music in its ever-changing grit and glory.

At night, there’s a varied slate of country, rock, roots and Americana bands. In the afternoon, there’s a smor gasbord of ethnicflavored music, including Indian, Celtic, Klezmer and Brazilian ensembles.

The fun is in the blending. The rockers (North Country Flyers) go country. The Celts (The Lash) rock out. Even the Indian group (Sumkali) fuses traditional music with jazz and funk. Don’t dress up. This is going to get messy.

“If you’re a metalhead or a jazz aficionado, you’re not going to be very happy,” festival booker Smitty Smith said, naming two notorious hotbeds of purism. “If you like anything from rock ‘n roll to folk to country, you’ll be very happy.”

The festival is produced by the Michigan Institute for Contemporary Art, an Old Town nonprofit organization that also puts on JazzFest and BluesFest. The Greater Lansing Labor Council is a major underwriter.

One thing at the festival is pure.

All of its sights and sounds, from the Texas twang to the Aztec dancing to the Brazilian beats, will be produced by Michigan artists.

“It’s not like we had to bring in some big name from Nashville,” Smith said. “Nothing against Nashville. I know a lot of great artists from Nashville, but that wasn’t the focus here.”

You wouldn’t guess it from the afternoon lineups of multi-cultural ensembles Saturday and Sunday. The far-flung homelands of Fantasia Ballet Folklorico (native Mexican dance), El Ballet Folklorico Estudiantil (Aztec dance) and Sumkali (Indian music) are unpronounceable only if you can’t say “Lansing,” “Ann Arbor” and “Grand Rapids.”

The Klezmer group (Slivovit) and the Brazilian troupe (Bridges to Choro) are based at MSU.

Igor Houwat, a Lansing-area musician who booked the afternoon acts, knows a lot of people in Michigan’s world music community. Houwat plays the oud (Middle Eastern lute) in his own band, Wisaal. By design, he closed Sunday afternoon with wild Irish-rock pioneers The Lash.

“I tried to slowly transition into more American-sounding music, whatever that means,” he said with a laugh.

Most of the ethnic ensembles at Mosaic mix things up a bit too much to play at a carefully curated folk festival, but Houwat said that’s the way the world is going.

“America was always a melting pot, but even in the rest of the world, there’s no such thing as a pure tradition where somebody in Afghanistan decides, ‘This is the music we’re going to play for centuries,’” Houwat said.

Mosaic’s evening slate plops down a deep bucket of music from Detroit’s Americana-country scene this year. “That scene is pretty vibrant but not well known to a lot of people,” Smith said. After hearing them, some folks may want to head to Detroit’s Park Bar or Corktown for more.

It’s a varied bunch. John Holk’s country rock blend includes the sad twang of Hank Williams and the euphoric jangle of The Byrds. Lewis writes and sings with a forthright, tolling urgency that recalls Bob Dylan on an articulate night. She came up in Detroit coffeeshops, bars and flea markets and also has a strong presence in Chicago. Another Motown mainstay, Ryan Dilliha, deploys a nasal honk lifted from Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” period to sing a hybrid country rock he calls “Detroit Americana.”

Even the non-Detroit acts owe some thing to the Motor City. The North Country Flyers are mid-Michigan guys who grew up on Motown and Bob Seger — what lead singer Brian Cole calls “sturdy stuff.” All their influences pile into an Alabama-meets-Eagles country-rock ride lubricated by yearning harmonies a la Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Jen Sygit, arguably Lansing’s premier singer-songwriter, will play Sunday with longtime collaborator Sam Corbin, but she’s more than a performer at Mosaic. Knowing many of this year’s Mosaic bands aren’t familiar to Lansing audiences, Smith cited Sygit’s appeal as a touchstone for the whole festival.

“You can use Jen as the barometer,” Smith said. “If anybody’s into her music, they’re going to be into all these bands.”

It’s Sygit’s first time at the Mosaic festival, and she’s pleased with its focus on local musicians.

“I don’t need to listen to a national pop star,” she said. “There’s plenty of good stuff going on right in my neighborhood that is just as good, and maybe a little better.”

Sygit said music festivals like Mosaic are also great for gathering new ideas and striking up new collaborations.

“I definitely want to check out some of the other acts,” she said. “I’m actually not familiar with some of them, and if you’ve been playing for a long time, it’s kind of exciting to find stuff you haven’t checked out before.” And that’s how the next litter of all-American mutts is born.

Michigan Mosaic Music Festival

Aug. 31-Sept. 1 Adado RIverfront Park Michiganmosaic.org (517) 371-4600


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