Nothing beats great live music, especially when it's close to home on a sunny, cool Autumn day. Tony and Alice--my second eldest nephew and his girlfriend--drove up from Ohio to enjoy the inaugural festival and after late-morning sustenance from Dearborn's Sajouna (jibnee!) we headed west past Ann Arbor (no time to stop and cheer for the Wolverines) and got to the Michigan Speedway just in time for the Black Belles, a garage punk quartet whose members seem to aim for a witch aesthetic. Known mainly for backing up Stephen Colbert on the single "Charlene," the Belles kicked it without any Comedy Central cameos and somehow managed to make white make-up and tall black hats make sense in the context of an outdoor festival. I got the sense their aesthetic was a bit more geared toward a smoky bar after midnight. But they rocked, so, you know, kudos to them. They also circulated with fans afterward, made possible by a pretty low turnout. That early in the day I'm sure there weren't more than a few thousand people, max, and only a couple dozen at the second stage, where we camped out until nearly sundown.
Other acts who, like the Belles, are on Jack White's Third Man Records dominated the second stage. Black Milk, an excellent Detroit hip hop artist, was undeterred by his status as the only rapper in the house and had a very nice set, making me sorry I never discovered his stuff until he put out a single on Third Man. Must seek out his earlier stuff. Pujol and Jeff the Brotherhood both do a scruffy, stripped down rock act--more the kind of band you'd expect Jack White to produce--and seemed to be having as much fun as the crowd. White seems to have fostered a real family vibe at Third Man and the camraderie came across from the tiny stage. The Speedway facilities are not huge, which was a plus, as you could wander freely to your car for snacks and water and be back to the stage area in a few minutes. Did I mention how great the weather was? Sunny enough that my ears were red when I woke up this morning, but chilly by the time the sun went down.
Speaking of sundown, we ventured over to the main stage in time for the Romantics ("What I Like About You"), straight outta Hamtramck, Michigan, who broke out a Kinks cover in addition to the British Invasion-esque songs of their own, including, of course "Talking In Your Sleep," which benefited from the lack of the 1980s sheen of the recorded version. Did they close with "What I Like About You"? Of course. Did 40-somethings dance nostalgically on the lawn? Of course. As Sheryl Crow was taking the stage, a young woman smelling of the venue's expensive inexpensive beer, came over, told us we seemed cool (which I thought she was going to follow up with an invitation to "party") and handed over three VIP bracelets. Thank you, kind intoxicated girl, if you are out there.
The VIP area had free drinks but the line was too long so we headed toward the stage and got really close to Sheryl Crow. I'm not a fan or anything, but hearing her upbeat tunes up close was pretty cool. She kept saying we were in Detroit and referring to her friendship with Kid Rock, who I thought might join her for a duet or two. He didn't. She broke into a nice version of "Stuck in the Middle With You" at one point and had a really strong backing band. And the age-diverse crowd had a good time. Thanks for coming to Michigan Sra. Crow. We were about two hours from Detroit, but close enough. Really, her music isn't really my speed, but she's got really top notch pipes. Actually, much like hearing the Romantics, I appreciated her voice live, divorced from the production of her records.
Okay, after her set we worked our way close to the stage. A lot of the 40-plus crowd headed for the parking lot, leaving behind some huge Jack White fans. Really. Around us, I heard people comment on roadies who they knew from the White Stripes days. Wow. The Raconteurs, the second of White's three beloved bands, headlined the show and really killed it. I mean, they know how to please a crowd. The band has five amazing musicians when you include the keyboardist with whom they tour. They played much of their two records and the crowd sung along. Guitarists White and Brendan Benson both do a Zeppelin-esque thing--lots of solos, lots of shredding. Like a lot of the Third Man acts of the second stage, you got the sense they were having a fabulously good time on the stage. They played "Old Enough," my favorite Raconteurs track, so I was a happy audience member. Jack White's relatives sat in rows on stage left, rocking out, apparently (the local press reported) after traveling in his tour bus from Detroit. That Jack White. Whatta guy. When the family came out, I commented to Tony and Alice that maybe the older woman in the yellow jacket might not want to sit right next to the amps. A guy in front of me turned around and said "That's mom," so I figured, well, Jack White's mom probably knows better than anybody here that it's about to get loud. It did. Fitting for a guy who's become one of the definitive icons of Detroit rock and roll to close the day. Despite some hiccups last week, the MI Fest acquitted itself as a worthy event that I hope becomes an annual Fall tradition.