Ann Arbor is never entirely quiet. But of the many sounds you hear drifting through the city, those of a band with a bossa nova feel often aren’t among them. And yet, on a slightly chilly Saturday afternoon, a group of around 40 people and I found ourselves masked up and spread out, sprawled all over Lawrence Street as a jazz/rock band played on the porch of a yellow house. Perching on curbs, leaning against buildings, standing on porches and roofs, audience members lounged and danced and tapped their feet, clapping along. Most were dressed in the colorful, artsy way typical of the creatives of Kerrytown. Someone with pink hair danced loosely and expressively, and the musicians joked with the audience. There was a communal atmosphere, the feeling that everyone gathered there were friends or friends of friends.
It is the musicians who reside in this house who came up with the idea of sharing their music with their neighbors and whoever else feels inclined to come. Their porch concerts have been occurring weekly — Saturdays at 2 p.m. — on their porch at the corner of State Street and Lawrence Street. Members who live in this house are in the band Kektus, a funk band made up of School of Music, Theatre & Dance jazz students. However, each week they bring a guest from the local scene to jam with them, or some of their own friends to sit in, and share a wider variety of music. It is a mindset typical of the jazz community, which is all about learning from other musicians by playing and hanging with them.
The band of five — a mix of household members and friends — stuck close together on their makeshift stage, communicating steadily with nods, calls and twists of expression. Ann Arbor locals Mei Semones and Reggie Pearl (both on guitar, alternating lead vocals) led the band, taking turns singing a mix of each of their originals and covers that the crowd sang along with. Supporting them were Music, Theatre & Dance sophomores Ben Wood (on bass) and Sam Uribe (various percussive instruments). Addie Vogt — who currently lives in Ann Arbor but attends The New School in New York — plays drums. The singers, although clearly close and very good at combining creatively, had distinct styles.
Semones sang in tones classically described as “silvery.” Her voice seemed to float and skip where it pleased, with the breeze sometimes carrying it past the ears of the eager listeners. Her original songs carried a gentle bossa nova to them and worked their way into the in-between feeling that comes early in a partially cloudy afternoon.
Meanwhile, Pearl’s music took on the anger of punk with the education of a jazz musician. The snake-like fluidity of her voice recalled Australian musician Jaala, while her yowls and yelps evoked American singer-songwriter, Angel Olsen, at her most fearsome. When asked about her music writing process, Pearl replied, laughing, “I feel like it’s just like, life happens and then I sit in my room and write about it.” To hear such a powerful voice switch to a light, laid-back tone is a shock that always comes when hearing creatives speak about their everyday selves.
And yet, even with such separate music emerging from their writing process, the two clicked deeply and musically. Olsen and Pearl met at Berklee School of Music in Boston. They were able to fasten onto each other and combine their voices without ever overpowering the other. Semones’s bleached pixie cut, both of their chain jewelry all serve to set them apart from typical jazz musicians. The other players, two University of Michigan students and another Ann Arbor local, found their groove in the band too, having fun and performing in a way that came naturally. This was music played for the love of music, and the love of sharing it.
“What are you hoping people get out of this?” I asked, and immediately, Vogt cried out, “Happiness!” She went on to explain the sudden influx of audience members that occurred halfway through the first song, as people were drawn to the tunes from all over the neighborhood.
Since there weren’t any other gigs to be had, Wood said they figured they’d play on their porch and see who came. “And people ended up coming,” he shrugged with a modest laugh. As the concert ended, friends called up to the porch, shouting hello and finding joy in reconnecting after a long winter spent in quarantine.
“Live music is amazing!” they all passionately agreed in their last statements. “Every Saturday at 2 (p.m.) at the corner of Lawrence and State!” Listen for drums, guitars, possibly a horn. You can’t miss it.
In the meantime, you can find music by Mei Semones and Reggie Pearl on all streaming platforms.
Author’s note: Special thanks to Ben Wood, the founder and organizer of these sessions. His passionate effort and dedication allows for the success of every weekend’s events. Daily Arts Writer Fia Kaminski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.