Saturday, March 4, 2017

Belle Isles, Lo & Behold, and beyond

Belle Isles: Richie Wohlfeil, Deb Agolli, Connor Dodson, and Nichole Hartrick

Richie Wohlfeil and I are on the couch in the shop... A shelf of paperbacks stand over our heads and I look around at the bins of records before I tell him that Lo & Behold Records & Books is a magical little place...

His eyes scan the entire couple thousand square footage of the modestly-yet-radiantly decorated rectangle-shaped retail space and one of the most genuine smiles I've ever seen any human emit starts to curl his mouth before he says: "...I like to think so, too... I hope so..."

This Sunday night, Wohlfeil will welcome one of the godfathers of indie-rock, Calvin Johnson (founder of K Records and leader of Beat Happening) to bring his Selector Dub Narcotic project to perform inside the Hamtramck vinyl/pulp shop, along with Best Exes and Wohlfeil's own band, The Belle Isles. 

Calvin Johnson of Selector Dub Narcotic

Now I'll warn you..., before this blog post goes on much further...., that Mr. Wohlfeil was deep into a moment of something close to existential crisis, if not, just a bout of pretty dense doubt... Because....

...Because I forget how easy it is to merely admire a man from afar for all that he does and not appreciate what that actually takes. And in Richie's case, it's being an intrepid luminary of the arts, music & culture scene around Hamtramck and Metro Detroit by way of serving as proprietor of a charming, strange, sweet little store that doubles as a community center. And I never appreciate, just as most might not consider, how hard that will get to be on a guy after six years: day in, day out, running the whole show all by yourself. Sure it might be easier if Wohlfeil were a cutthroat capitalist-type, sharp in the strategies of shameless self-promotion... But, no!

No! This guy's a poet! He's a drummer. He's a dancer. He likes playing guitar and helping out his friends; he likes reading books and feeding his cat. He likes learning about classic recordings and preserving local culture. He likes designing things. He likes writing things. He loves playing music with his friends. He's not a boss or a business professional. He just runs the best book store in town...even if not enough people know it yet, after these years.

"Was it a goal all along to make this more of a community space?"

"I really don't now what the goal was," says Richie. "I think I just wanted a workspace, and a place people could come in to, if they wanted to engage. Mostly...," he gestures around at instruments, cables, speakers and a laptop...  "'s a workspace."

While I want you here on this page to listen to the Belle Isles..., the quartet's smoky, sweaty send-up to 50's R&B, early 60's Motown, and sax-splashed surf-rock..., I also want to give Richie the chance to talk. Just talk....

"For every beautiful thing that happens here..., there's a shitty person who can come and counteract it, somehow. Which is frustrating. It can get me down a lot, 'cuz I'm real emotional about that kinda stuff. There are days I can just have a couple Crazies come in all threatening and I ask: 'What am I doing? I should just close and be done...' It's a battle every day.

I tell Richie that, as I've suspected all along, he's vulnerable, or at least easily influenced, by the emotional waves around him: that can mean he's the true spirit of any party when things are hopping, but it also means his empathic side can wither when the dark clouds gather. "It's too taxing. I just don't know if I'm equipped for it now..."

Because right now, he'd rather be recording with the Belle Isles. Right now, Belle Isles are his meditaiton.

"Belle Isles are saving my life, right now. It's my favorite thing and I want to just focus on that and almost stop everything else..."

I tell him this, and I might as well tell you, because it's as precise of a testimonial as I can give: The Belle Isles' music is a party I never want to end. They could play a full two hour set and I'd want more....

"That makes me happy to hear... We could play for two hours. We can play 28 songs at this point, that we're comfortable with..."

Comfortable, I tell him. You guys are comfortable with each other.

"Yeah, we all really care about each other and we like hanging out. Some bands you practice with and just go home. Other bands you enjoy having beers with, afterwards...and you're friends. But the Isles are beyond that, transcended just friendship. It's the most of any band that I've ever been in where hanging out together is as great as playing together."

If you've ever heard the choice tunes spun by Richie at any of his sporadic DJ events, spanning soul, R&B, funk and classic rock 'n' roll, then you'll easily see the connection to Belle Isles. This band is basically his record collection. "It's something I've wanted to do since I was a kid."

But Richie is in so many bands. The firestorm soul and locomotive garage rock of The Potions, the throwback blues, roots and folk-rock of Danny & The Darleans, the spazzed-spacey-amorphous-noise-adventures of Rainbow Milk.... The list goes on!

"The more you, as a musician, can experience different facets of music, you're just broadening your communication..."

I tell him that I've thought, recently, how that's what makes the art and music I love so impactful... that it can communicate something to me. Even as primal as the way I feel united with people I'm in a room with while the Belle Isles are performing. Like we're all at that same party...

"...and I guess that comes from me sorta being angry when I hear artists say they 'do it for themselves.' Or it's 'art for art's sake...' No, you're choosing to present this into a public sphere, which means you now have a social obligation to the public that engages with that,... People disregard the importance of that. I know Potions are a weirdo band, but the Freaky Deaky's still need love too!"

I tell him we all need love. And he agrees... Then he reemphasizes that that was why he helped out with the recent Passenger Recovery project to provide sober spaces for recovering touring artists. That spreading of love is the same reason he lets out the store to a knitting group, or to the meetings and events of the Seraphine Collective.

"You should always be engaged with each other. Engaged with your audience. There's a place for all of it, whether it's confrontational punk or heartfelt bedroom pop or weird droney noise, there's a place for it and there is exhange there... If I'm gonna be in a band and in a room engaging with people, I want it to be fun for everybody and I want us to share something. That's part of the Belle Isles ethos. That's why we avoid playing on a stage. I want us to be accessible and humble and break that barrier."

Breaking another barrier would be to invite you into a book store for what's essentially a sober show. Over the last year, Richie has hosted lots of concerts in his space to defy "bar culture" or "liquor culture," where the music and the musicians become secondary to the bar tabs. Shows at Lo & Behold buck that trend of paying musicians with beer tickets.

But maintaining the shop is starting to take it's toll. "There are so many things I wanna do... I find myself asking: 'Why am I mopping this floor right now? I'd rather be recording or painting..."

I try to tell him what he means to this music scene. I try to tell him how the very existence of this place, this store, gives me this strange sense of pride, local pride... That this dude might be an earthly muse.

"I appreciate that. But there's something happening now, to where me extending all that kindness is biting me in the ass somehow. People using it against me. That's what makes me want to shut the whole thing down, sometimes... So, what do you do? What do you do?"

I have no idea what to tell him. But I remind him that he is independent--to the point where he should make any decision that he feels is right, whether that's closing the shop entirely, or even just the gesture of taking the shop off of the lineup of host venues for this year's Hamtramck Music Festival.

"It was sad seeing people I care about and respect, not only being polarized against one another, but how it was creating a dividing line in the scene... even while the answers seemed really apparent, that the right thing to do was right there but it wasn't being done... And yeah, with social media, everyone can be quicker to judge and I have sympathy for those who were publicly shamed during it, but it was like, I'd just rather not engage.... But the longer they let the situation fester, then the resentment built up. Why let it get that far? The cloud of the issue became bigger than the actual problem, in a way and then there was this ripple effect. Just....bad energy...."

Hamtramck Music Festival is winding down, and Lo & Behold, along with several other bands and the Seraphine Collective, stayed by their decision to back out of participating. But for Richie, I can see it in his eyes, how complicated it is for him, decisions like this.... Decisions of what to do next. Decisions of what he wants....

I take a deep breath and just think for a second. This bad energy, I say, is likely erupted further from the terrible tremors of our current political climate...

"I ask..." says Richie... "should I remove myself from an Internet presence and do special orders only? But I couldn't make enough money to keep the shop open. Any money I make goes toward other things, like helping out Laura Grimshaw with her recent project of prints... I'm more interested in that, and in fulfilling the neighborhood for as long I can...."

That's what we love about you, I say.

"But it doesn't sustain me living a habitable normal life, and it doesn't sustain the shop. I feel like I'm spread thin with all the bands and other stuff. I don't want to sit on these 30 Belle Isle songs any longer... I want to record. I want to hammer them out, here, and soon. So...."

"So, what do you do? Belle Isles are where my heart is at right now. That's all I wanna do..."

There's this look in his eyes. It's fragile. But it's also coiled in this way - the expression of an acrobat before he grabs the swinging trapeze. It's more than that. Maybe I'm projecting mystical powers on to him because that's just the way I regard Richie, but he's gazing ahead, beyond the walls of the store, almost beyond a horizon or a far off mountain. He's physically in one place, he's in the store, right now. But his thoughts are everywhere. And his heart? His heart's with the Belle Isles. Right now.

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