Archive for July, 2011

Cosmic Knowledge by Knowledgeborn07

Cosmic Knowledge by Knowledgeborn07 is a straight up hip-hop masterpiece. It is the musical equivalent of someone turning on a light switch in a pitch-black room that contains the missing essence of hip-hop. Lyrically in some ways it harkens back to the grass roots era of hip-hop that gave us great MC’s like KRS One, Guru, Kool Moe Dee, Rakim, the Native Tongues and Chuck D who pushed knowledge of self as a pillar of the hip hop mindset. Like these founding fathers, Knowledgeborn07 has something worth saying and inventive ways of saying it. The lyrical flow here is densely packed with thought provoking content. Sharp social commentary along with spiritual themes of accountability, peace, non- violence, self-awareness, and living with purpose infuse this album in a genuine and sincere way. This is music I think Bob Marley would have dug. In fact the distinct reggae influence here merges with hip-hop and catchy pop sensibilities perfectly to form a powerful and unique sonic trinity.

The musicality of this album is striking. It has an infectious tunefulness and melodic approach driven home with stunning production and remarkable skill. Knowledgeborn07, co-creator Johnny “Cosmic” Gray, and their creative cohorts have crafted a fresh take on music that is both modern and rootsy, earthy but spaced out, underground yet accessible. A gang of talent is present here laying down rhodes, guitars, synths, percussion, backing vocals, guest rhymes, etc. Stylistically the collective sound reminds me a bit of Michael Franti and Spearhead though “Cosmic Knowledge” would also fit right in on the excellent Quannum label, home to conscious West Coast hip hop artists like Blackalicious.

Maintaining vibrant idealism and spiritual optimism in the face of suffering and injustice is the mark of true Soul. Soul is precisely what flows so vibrantly throughout  “Cosmic Knowldege”. An album this actualized in terms of vision, heart, and execution is a rare bugged out happening. Knowledgeborn07 has given birth to a classic work of truly divine and inspiring art and it should not be missed. Like many of the best things in life, this album is free and available for download at

The Electric Forest Festival in Rothbury, MI.

The magical Sherwood Forest looms in the distance at the Electric Forest Festival in Rothbury, MI

It is like an unbelievably fun surrealistic dream. The beautiful woods you find yourself in pulsate with a plethora of inspiring musical sounds. Genre warping electronica music, New Orleans funk, reggae, classic, southern, progressive, and jam based rock, soul-jazz inflected boogaloo, hip hop, it is all here thunderously reverberating through the cathedral like forest. As you explore this realm, new possibilities leap into existence. You could saddle up on a horse and ride into the sunset or board a shuttle to the massive water park. Perhaps a round of golf on the beautiful 240 acre golf course calls or you can take a dip in the nearby lake. You could just relax, watching hilariously playful people while you lounge in a heavenly hammock. At night the surroundings transform into a shimmering luminous vortex of light and sound. It is as if you had stepped into a dimension where everything was alive and resonating with the joy of its own existence. Thank goodness the price of admission included camping, because you don’t want to leave. You’re at the Electric Forest music festival in Rothbury, Michigan.

Hot on the heels of their incredible Rothbury Festival, jam band moguls Madison House Presents return to the beautiful Double J.J. Resort in Rothbury Michigan to bring you the Electric Forest music festival. The list of musical artists who have signed on for the June 30th to July 3rd event co-produced by L.A. based Insomniac is pretty jaw dropping. “We’re excited, the line up is amazing. It is the kind of event where I am excited not just to play but to hear everybody else and get to hang out and just see what the vibe is like” says tenor saxophonist Karl Denson whose band Tiny Universe is a featured act. He adds “Jam band festivals are some of the most interesting for me because they are so wide ranging, you get so many styles of music in one place and if you like music you will definitely get something you didn’t expect.” Other featured acts include Shpongle, Galactic, Bassnectar, Pretty Lights, J.J. Grey and Mofro, REO Speed Wagon, and the String Cheese Incident.

Asked what his own notoriously fun packed band brings to the table Karl says “We try to hit hard and be big punchers. I come from a serious jazz background but also love dance music. I try to listen to everything and continue to know what is out there”. Denson’s eagerness to push the boundaries and incorporate new elements is indicative of the jam scene that will be in full bloom at Electric Forest. These days the scene even incorporates elements of electronica music, a development that is featured at Electric Forest. “They did a great job of mixing in the whole jamtronica thing that is going on right now” says Karl. “It’s a jam band contribution to the electronic scene, it has a little bit from what we have created over here but with DJ’s from this side of the table.”

If boundary pushing music, spectacular natural settings, mind blowing visual production, and positive vibes are your scene, you would be hard pressed to find a better summer getaway than the Electric Forest festival in Rothbury, Michigan.

Down home soul: The feel good groove of Soul Track Mind

Soul Track Mind in Action

Witnessing a Soul Track Mind performance is like stepping out of time and space. Their recent show at Mishawaka’s Midway Tavern felt like a great party onboard a funky time machine. The 8 piece band took the crowd back to the classic era of 60’s soul music, a time where hungry artists with something to prove stepped out of Gospel churches and brought spirituality, passion, polished performance, and ingeniously crafted songs to stunned and inspired audiences. Like soul archaeologists, Soul Track Mind dug deep to unearth those forgotten ways and lost rituals and brought them into the present. Their horn driven show was a vivid exposition on just how joyous live music can be. “We have been able to build a shared feeling between the audience and us. Sharing that kind of relationship almost has a spiritual effect. It’s high energy, passionate, sweaty, emotional,” says front man Donovan Keith, a graduate of Penn High school who now lives in Austin Texas.

Soul Track Mind and Keith’s ability in particular to inspire and entertain the audience was striking. When asked about this gift for connecting with the crowd Keith says “So many people can sing well but they can’t put on a show. It’s an element that has been missing for many years. We use that element to try to distinguish ourselves as a band that can really put on a great show. It’s helped us stand out in Austin. There are better singers out there and there are performers with more energy but I won’t let anyone out sing and outperform me. I won’t let anyone beat me at both.” says Keith, exuding all the confidence and enthusiasm of someone born to front a band.

When asked about the evolution of his unique performance skills and onstage antics, Keith offers a surprising answer. “The Showmanship came from my theater days, theater and comedy specifically. I did improv. I did stand up. I have always been very physical in performing. Chris Farley was always a big comedy influence. If you look at my comedy or musical influences they always have a big physical presence.” Keith cites musical inspirations like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke as particularly strong influences as well. “Sam Cooke for the songwriting and vocal phrasing and Otis Redding for his live show” says Keith.

As for why he became a soul singer, Keith says “I liked other music but would always keep coming back to soul. It is probably the most uplifting music when it is played correctly. Something about that energy level and that kind of spirituality was very appealing to me. The music is more gospel based than blues would be and the singer has to have a good voice to pull it off.” When asked to define soul, Keith offers an insightful answer. “There is soul music as its own genre of music, then there is soul as a term where someone sings with soul or has a soulful voice and I don’t really link the two. I think people who sing with soul are being open, honest, simple, and expressive. If you take those things and match them with soul music you have the best combination.”

Not content to simply imitate, Soul Track Mind seems determined to forge its own sound. At their Midway performance the band captured the audience by relying on original music, adding infrequent but perfectly timed covers. “We have our own voice now and we are writing the music and the words and it doesn’t sound like anything else because it’s our own completed ideas”. This fact is apparent on the band’s impressive debut CD “Ghost of Soul”. It is a great debut crammed with inventive arrangements and crowd tested songs. The CD manages to sound like fresh new music that could have come out on Memphis’ classic Stax label circa 1971.

As Soul Track Mind’s Midway performance proved, seeing a great soul band is a truly uplifting experience. “Our shows are where people who havn’t danced at all or havn’t danced often come to dance.” Says Keith. “So many times we have had people come up to tell us that. A woman came up and said “My husband hasn’t danced with me in 20 years and he finally danced with me.” He continues “Then this metal head guy said “I just want to let you know I’m a metal head, I never dance when I see a show… but you guys made me dance!” says Keith. He seems to thrive on channeling such inspiration. He adds “The performance aspect, being in front of audiences, the rush of sharing your voice and music with the audience and having them reward you with their energy, there is nothing else like it”.

Living Room by Ali Baba’s Tahini

It is a rare and enjoyable thing when a CD can evoke nostalgia and sound fresh at the same time. Such is the case with the new Ali Baba’s Tahini CD “Living Room”. This is a CD that harkens back to 60’s psychedelia, 70’s Jamaica, roots country, classic rock, childhood innocence, and better times. It does so without getting trapped in any of them. Instead of molding their songs into a given genre’s format, Living Room tends to draw diverse elements from different eras to fuel the bands songwriting. Unlike some bands, they don’t let the on going musical sight seeing overly distract from the journey to good songs. The strength of the material makes it all work, and over the years they have in fact become quite good songwriters.

Once one of the hottest original bands in the area, original members Jake Cinninger, Karl Englemann, and Steve Krojniewski parted ways in 2000 and Cinninger’s career took off with Umphrey’s McGee, leaving this band behind. They kept in touch though, stayed friends, and had a reunion and CD in 2005. What has kept the project going over the years and what really shines through on this CD is just how good these guys sound together.

The band members are a natural fit for each other musically and clearly have a blast together. Their musical chemistry has aged quite well and even improved over the years. They clearly brought all the outside experiences from their other bands into this CD. Where as once they sometimes sounded contrived to my ears, the musical flow here is quite nice, even polished. Occasionally the vocals can grate in an overly strident REM like whiney hillbilly way, but usually they anchor the songs well. There is something almost pop about how catchy this CD sounds. Cleverly constructed songs, talented musicianship, socially conscious lyrics, and exceptionally creative production all shine here. With the demands of the member’s other full time bands I was expecting a hastily recorded reunion CD of half finished songs. Much to the bands credit this CD obliterated those expectations in the best possible way.

“Living Room” is a real achievement for the band. For all practical purposes I had thought Ali Baba’s Tahini had peaked in the summer of ‘98. Was I wrong! This CD is likely the band’s creative zenith to this point. This is musical eclecticism on a grand scale done by seasoned musicians who sound really great together. “Living Room” is like a musical bike ride that stops by a variety of musical eras gone past while taking you somewhere fun you have never been before. It is a place definitely worth visiting.

South Bend’s got talent: Alligator Blackbird

On their impressive self titled debut, Alligator Blackbird lay down a sound all their own. They have a mellow but catchy acoustic based style that deftly draws from reggae, pop, and folk. Their stripped down approach serves their music well and allows the individual elements to stand out well in the mix. Fabian Guzman has a well-developed vocal and guitar style and is really beginning to come into his own as a singer. The bass playing of Chris Keck is extremely tasteful and anchors the songs with impressive musicality. Cory Miller provides the percussion with a subdued and inflective style that propels the tunes nicely. There is a catchy energy to the rhythm though it is a restrained one. The overall group chemistry is impressive and very musical. This is a very pop sounding album, though Alligator Blackbird falls firmly into the more rootsy end of the pop spectrum. The highly crafted tunefulness here brings to mind artists like G Love and Special Sauce, Jason Mraz, Ben Harper, and Jack Johnson. All pop artists that have maintained a degree of individual identity despite the cookie cutter SoundScan based “artist development” the majors have foisted on us the last 20 years.

So what’s not to like about this CD? Well this is not the most challenging, interesting, or innovative music, but this fact bodes well for the bands career potential and perhaps the average listener’s ears. Also there are some overly forced and clichéd sounding Kravitz derived vocalisms. Then there are the autobiographical accounts of youthful awkwardness those listeners past the age of 25 will likely find non-relatable. The lyrics at times reveal a young and inexperienced perspective, one that will likely mature over time. Honestly, how many weed references does one need to cram into a CD before it gets stale? This band seems determined to find out. At the same time there are many times where the lyrics really shine past the bands age and paint a bright future indeed.

It is great to hear art like this coming out of South Bend, especially from a band making their debut. This CD is the most ear-friendly and polished CD I have reviewed in a while. I could easily see their music ending up on the radio at some point. As catchy as this CD is though, it leaves the impression that some more time and life experience for this band could produce an even better one. The bottom line though is that a group that can combine such catchy song writing with equally impressive musical chemistry is a rare and beautiful bird indeed.




Hip Happenings in Michiana

Niles Bluegrass Festival

In its 9th year at Niles’ beautiful Riverfront Park, this free bluegrass festival features 2 stages of bluegrass and Americana music and is held June 2nd through the 5th.  It specializes in non-traditional bluegrass that has elements of rock, country, and blues. Festival booker Tom Majerek says “the bluegrass genre of music has evolved in many directions and is broader than people think. One of the reasons we keep the festival free is we want people to experience that.” National, local, and amateur acts all share the stages, and people who attend can participate too. Confirmed performers this year include touring acts Kenny and Amanda Smith, Audie Blaylock and Redline, Special consensus, The Roys, as well as festival torch bearers like Lonesome Meadow and Goldmine Pickers. There is a workshop tent where people can meet the artists and get musical instruction. Arts and crafts vendors sell their wares on site as well. Oh and don’t forget the food. According to Majerek “there are plenty of food vendors with lots of options, a whole parking lot full of vendors. You can get elephant ears to a full meal.” Then there is the location itself, which features affordable camping for the event. “It is one of the most beautiful places to watch a concert, it’s open air with the St. Joseph River right by your side.” says Majerek.

On July 31st the Shady Grove festival in Berrien Springs will bring together a unique combo of locally grown food and live music. In its 12th year, it is held the last Sunday in July each year. The festival features roots music and traditionally oriented rock, jazz, Irish, old-time country, and bluegrass. Entrance to the event is free, and local farmers donate food that is sold there to pay for the event. Festival patrons can enjoy sweet corn picked the morning of the festival, organic beef burgers, and freshly picked local fruit. It is an all day event with music workshops and instrumental contests where players from far and wide compete for cash prizes. It is held in beautiful Grove Park above the dam on the St. Joseph River overlooking Lake Chapin. According to festival coordinator Jan Burda “It’s a unique free festival that is family oriented for young to old. There is always something going on.”

Goshen First Fridays

The whole town of Goshen and the surrounding areas come out to play on Goshen First Fridays. From 5-9PM in downtown Goshen restuarants, taverns, art galleries, musicians, artists, the Goshen Theater, various entertainers, and performers throw a free giant roving street party that has something for everyone. It really is a fun and unique experience. A great range of people and happenings all come together in the classic small town ambience of downtown Goshen to make First Fridays something special.

Still by Micaela Kingslight

Still by Micaela Kingslight shows that Michiana has another promising female singer songwriter in our midst. The strong debut from the up and coming songstress shows lyrical depth, musical refinement, and vocal poise. The fact that she wrote the songs, sings, plays guitar and even bass on many tracks shows just how much talent she has going on. The accompaniment is strong as well, with solid contributions from Joe Chamberlin, Carolyn Koebel, and Adam Danis.

There are some real musical gems here that show tons of promise. The style is hard to peg, at times it seems folky, other times more rocking, and occasionally even feels a little jazzy or alt county. I like that you can hear an individual style evolving on this CD rather than someone trying to conform to an existing formula. That being said there seems to be some room for improvement.

While Still is a strong debut, it comes from a young artist clearly getting their musical foothold. The vocals while solid, will no doubt mature with time. The songs while tightly constructed, don’t always transcend the emotional murkiness that no doubt fueled their creation. There is a distinct melancholic air that tends to restrain the energy on this moody album. For some that might be a good thing, for this listener it left me wanting a greater range of emotion in the music.

The gloomy atmospherics are in no doubt the flipside of what makes Ms. Kingslight a talented songwriter. She is a keen observer who sees the contradictions in life and herself and skillfully articulates them in song. One gets the sense she is reflective, honest, and true to her experiences. At the same time one can’t help but wonder what she will sound like when she has had a greater range of life experiences to channel into her already promising music.