The crowd shuffled excitedly in, only slowed by the long lines for craft beer being sold in the lobby.
Laith Al-Saadi rocked out last Friday night to a packed Michigan Theater full of old friends. The audience was comprised of people who both love the music Al-Saadi plays and the man himself. He’s a hometown classic.
“We took him for granted when he was playing on Main Street” said the host of Ann Arbor’s 107.1 radio station, introducing Al-Saadi. Then he led the audience in singing “Happy Birthday” and welcomed Al-Saadi to the stage, followed by an uproar of applause and hooting from the audience.
The lights were black out, but he struck a double peace signs pose anyway, which led to the crowd erupting into a craze again. The stage was thick with fog as the rest of the band walked on. There were two drum sets, a keyboard / synthesizer setup and seven guitars on the stage. Al-Saadi picked up one of them and took a moment to tune.
Then, still in darkness, Laith struck a chord and began to riff up and down the guitar — the first of many riffs that he played throughout the night. Al-Saadi gave the signal and the lights burst on while the rest of the band erupted into “Breathe” from his album A Long Time Coming.
After the first song, Al-Saadi addressed the crowd for the first time. He mentioned how special the Michigan Theater is to him, and he recalled that his first professional theatre gig as a Lost Boy in “Peter Pan” took place at that venue.
“And I got paid, dammit” he said. The crowd burst into laughter.
Ann Arbor is his home turf. These people were with him before “The Voice,” before he was playing in cities all across the country and the world.
“Happy Birthday!” shouted a voice from the crowd.
“Thank you!” Al-Saadi responded. “The big 4-0!”
Up next was a classic: “Ophelia” by The Band. Al Hill, Al-Saadi’s guest keyboardist for the night, showed his award-winning talent on the synth and keyboard with a syncopated and jazzy solo in the middle of the song.
As the first set of songs continued, they played more of Al-Saadi’s original work including “If,” “The Last Time You’ll See Me Cry,” and “Gone.” That last song was a crowd favorite.
“Sing it with me!” Al-Saadi said while leading the crowd into a slow clap on the beat. The crowd was eager to join in on such a catchy chorus: “Gone gone, babe I’m gone / Oh Lord got to keep moving on / I’m so tired of waiting so long / Babe I’m gone gone gone.”
During the last time the chorus came around, Al-Saadi stepped away from the microphone and leaned his head back to add a harmony line. His booming voice easily carried over the entire theater of singing voices, even without a microphone. The crowd erupted into applause when that one ended.
“We’ve lost so many greats lately,” Al-Saadi said. “I couldn’t leave you without a tribute to Tom Petty.” The crowd erupted into excited applause.
As he started to riff on the guitar to introduce the song, he slips in the melody from the song “Maria” from the Broadway musical “West Side Story” — the iconic line “say it loud and there’s music playing.” This is something Al-Saadi loves to do: He often throws in recognizable and famous lines from different songs in the middle of his guitar riffs just to tease the audience, but then switches back to the original song.
He then continued into Tom Petty’s famous song “Runnin’ Down A Dream.” The crowd bobbed their heads and sang along with the band the whole way through. Al-Saadi turned this four minute song into an epic journey of guitar riffs and powerful instrumentation. He masterfully milked every special moment that the song gives, extending it out to over 10 minutes. Just when you thought the song was about to finish, he broke into another guitar riff, each more intricate and exciting as the last. This wasn’t a cover; it was a masterpiece.
The crowd was up on their feet, hooting and hollering for a long time after he left the stage, but it was just the end of the first half.
As the lights came on for intermission and the crowd shuffled into the lobby to grab a second round of beers, the chatter started up. Various concert goers remark on how long it has been since they last saw Al-Saadi, or talk about how long they have lived in Ann Arbor. These are the people who are Al-Saadi’s truest supporters. These are the people that he was playing for that night.
The lights faded out and in, the second half was about to begin.
The band took the stage while Al-Saadi introduced the funky METERS’s Brian Stoltz from Louisiana, a long-time friend and fellow guitarist.
The duo picked up guitars and got right to it. They played back and forth while facing each other. They weren’t having a guitar battle, but it was more of a conversation — each side masterfully adding new ideas to the song’s progression.
The second half didn’t have as many stops between songs. Between most of them was a just smooth transition. Al-Saadi and the band played some more originals from his albums “Real.” and “Long Time Coming.” He also played crowd favorites like “Midnight Rider” by The Allman Brothers Band and “Stella Blue” by Grateful Dead.
The last original song that Al-Saadi played was “Who Turned Out The Lights?” which is a hard-hitting song with powerful lyrics. With minutes left in the set, Al-Saadi announced that the next song would be the last for the night, one that he performed during the finals of “The Voice.”
As the band started to play the iconic opening to “All Along The Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix, Al-Saadi used the last few moments with the audience: “Thank you, Ann Arbor. I love you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for supporting me.”
The crowd was up on their feet cheering. This time the guitars battled, Laith ripped into his powerful vocal growl as the crowd sang and raised fists in the air throughout the whole song.
Then it was over and the lights cut out, except for a spotlight on Al-Saadi.
“Peace and Love, ya’ll.”
Al-Saadi is the real deal: He’s a showman, he’s got real talent, he’s his own artist, he’s an incredible guitarist, he can work a crowd, he can sing. But above all, he’s a joy to watch perform live. He has a smile on his face throughout it all, and anyone who watches him can tell that he feels unbridled joy when he shares the music he loves.
“Thank you so much.”
It was a perfect concert. He left nothing unsung. He thanked the band, calling each member by name. He then addressed his hometown crowd, in his hometown theater, one last time for the night.
“See you soon.”