Saturday, January 30, 2016

River Street Anthology (pt. 1 of 3): the Kalamazoo Sessions (chapter 1 of 2)

The Go Rounds

When I walked out of the First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo, after seven hours observing (and interviewing) Matt Jones during his recording session for his River Street Anthology, I felt like everything made sense again.

I forgot the sting of cynicism, jaded thoughts evaporated... Not that this was any kind of Hallmark swath of saccharine sentimentality...We didn't have any kind of movie-moment inside that church; this was ineffably authentic. It's inevitably a feeling that won't be done any justice by my anxious scrambling for adjectives or smattering of vivid connotations...

But everything that you want to believe about a music scene, all of the good and the sincerity and the camaraderie that your darkest sides are certain of being just a myth or a matter of lip-serviced rhetoric emptied of true intention.... I saw it, like Sasquatch or a freaking unicorn, on full display, in the faces and in the voices of every artist who shuffled past the Altar to contribute their songs to this ever-growing posterity project (in the spirit of Alan Lomax' famous field recordings). The legacy of (our modern) Michigan music scene is being captured, documented, paid-tribute-to, celebrated....with The River Street Anthology....

Matthew Borr, Lisa Moairey, Andrew Whiting 
And, I have to say, for me to travel to all the way over to Kalamazoo  from Detroit and still feel a supernatural sense of familiarity, is saying something; that I was instantly at home, welcomed. And, at many moments, I was downright captivated with the signature blend of solidarity and easy-going alliances crackling like an inviting bonfire out there, toward the west side.... I'm...well, I was speechless.
G'Itis Baggs 

Now, with more on's Anthony Roth....

"I never lived in Michigan until 2006, when my wife and I moved to Kalamazoo. I have always loved live music, so we started searching out where to go. I remember paying three dollars to see Steppin In It in the Bell's beer garden, having no knowledge of the band before then, and being completely blown away by the quality. I kept having similar experiences all over Kalamazoo, which led me to have conversations with many of the musicians that I was watching. So, we started making a lot of new friends who happened to be musicians. Who Hit John? were the first good musical friends we made here. Their culture of care and openness were crucial to our understanding of the community. The Go Rounds are also slightly newer great friends. Both recorded on Sunday.

My wife and I left Kalamazoo for a little less than two years in 2009 and 2010 when she took a job in another state. We moved back to Kalamazoo pretty much because of all of the friends that we had made here. We bought a house with a third floor loft apartment and we generally make that available to touring musicians or musicians who are recording in Kalamazoo for a few days, usually at La Luna with Ian Gorman. 

Northern Fires 
The overall vibe that we are aiming for is probably that of Seth Bernard and Harvest Gathering: love, respect, inclusiveness. We and Paul Janson started a monthly event at our house that ran for a few years called "Songshop", which basically covered any aspect of songwriting and was welcoming to people of any skill levels. We usually had a special guest who was an expert, so to speak. Those experts have been Seth Bernard, Jay Gavan, (both recorded with the RSA so far) and many others who were kind enough to donate their time. A friend of ours is picking up the tradition this Saturday and the expert is G'Itis Baggs, who recorded on Sunday, too. The Northern Fires recorded Sunday with the RSA and I believe that Noah and Laurie met at a Songshop. At least I hope they did. They are so good together.

Outside the snare drum in the grade school band, I never played an instrument until my wife bought me a guitar for Christmas in 2009, when I was 39 years old. The musical community in Kalamazoo is so welcoming and encouraging and collaborative that I found some of the most talented, experienced and skilled musicians encouraging me. I certainly haven't been everywhere, so I hesitate to say that the Kalamazoo music scene is unique. I do not hesitate to say that it is rare in its focus on encouragement, collaboration and cooperation as opposed to competition. There is certainly competition and I certainly do not know every musician in Kalamazoo, but I never would have guessed that such a welcoming culture would also include so much excellence. 
Roth recently performed with
Perilous Cats at Louie's Back Room;
a fundraiser for the Pat Carroll Foundation.

I could make a long list of just Kalamazoo-based musicians that meet this description. Megan Dooley is a great example. She is talented and skilled (not at all the same thing). She works very hard and recently released a really nice record under less than ideal circumstances. She’s not rolling in dough, but she brought coffee and donuts to the RSA on Sunday just to show her appreciation. She runs an open mic locally that has resulted in skill level and confidence increases in lots of people like me, at least in part due to her encouragement and her own experience as a younger musician being encouraged similarly.

Really, all I wanted to do was learn a new skill (guitar) that would be fun, but it has led me to experiences I never thought I would have. I have now played guitar and bass on stage in front of people, mostly at benefits. I have written songs and I sing them. I have recorded with the River Street Anthology. I think Matt had only recorded maybe 30 people when he asked me to record. I refused, confused as to why he would want me on there, but he also refused to stop asking. I could not understand why anyone would want me to record a song. I think it was probably Seth Bernard, the great leveler, who set me up for it with Matt.

Patrick Carroll was a friend of mine and his story and his music are a huge part of all that I do musically. I find this project of Matt's to be something that Pat would have thought was really cool. Pat was one of the very best people I have known, along with one of the very best musicians. I would say the same about Matt. I think that Matt has maybe learned as much about himself as he has learned about the musical community in this project. 

The fact that (Jones) is giving so much of himself through this project makes him one of the most important players in the community, I think. It is just this sort of example that keeps the river flowing. I use the metaphor of a river whenever somebody tries to say that we started any part of this in Kalamazoo. I certainly didn't start anything, but I am involved in enough music-related stuff that people who don't know better can be confused trying to figure out how we fit in. I feel like I simply stepped into the river that was already flowing right through here. Musical communities like this don't have a single starting point and they have to be fostered by a whole bunch of people regularly in order to keep it flowing. I think we are continuing a tradition. I think that's what Matt is doing extremely well. Laurie Laing called it a Framily (friend family), and that is right. There is a lot of mixing of band members and it seems sort of impossible for anybody to stagnate in the big Framily.

When I recorded in Matt's basement, it was transformative. I had spent about two weeks really working hard on what I was going to record and, although I have not heard the recording, I believe it was the best I could do at the time. But since then I have had many more opportunities to play in front of people, including playing in the barn at Harvest Gathering at the insistence of Seth Bernard (he's all through this narrative, to nobody's surprise). I am certain that if I had not recorded with Matt I would not be anything like the musician I am today, which is not to say that I am particularly skilled. But I am much better than I was nine months ago and the project has energized me in the direction of musical endeavors. I feel like some of what you noticed happening on Sunday is the same sort of thing happening to many of the musicians who recorded. 

(The RSA) is certainly special, but it also makes people feel special and that makes them try hard and think of giving of themselves as Matt has. His example makes people try hard toward building community, which is probably the key point that I would make. The caring musical community keeps getting larger (and more skilled) because of what Matt is doing."


Anthony Roth is a musician and singer/songwriter, but he prefers the identifier of Participant, when it comes to elucidating his connection to- and role within- not only the Kalamazoo music scene, but the greater Michigan music community.
You can read more about the River Street Anthology in an upcoming Detroit Free Press feature.
For now, here are some joyful images.

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