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Concert Reviews:
MI Fest rocks MIS, puts controversies in rearview mirror

for Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Sunday, September 18, 2011

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BROOKLYN, Mich. – If the week leading up to the inaugural MI Fest was marked with turmoil, those who attended the daylong event at the Michigan International Speedway will likely remember it as simple a good – and full – fall day of music.

With the good fortune of late summer sunshine and warmth, with a chilly evening, the 11-and-a-half-hour festival took the focus off the canceled stage (and acts), confusion over ticket prices and the bad PR generated by both and put it squarely on the music – a mostly rocking affair that played to both Michigan’s (and particularly Detroit’s) heritage with nods to the contemporary and current. It wasn’t perfect, but MI Fest wasn’t nearly the catastrophe it appeared to be headed for just a couple of days prior.

The crowd – about 10,000, according to MIS officials, though it appeared to be significantly less than that throughout the day – clearly had a favorite, and it was Jack White, the Detroit native who closed the show with his band the Raconteurs but also made a strong footprint with his Nashville-based Third Man Records label. Several of its acts – including the Black Belles, Pujol, JEFF the Brotherhood and Detroit rapper Black Milk – were part of the MI Fest bill, while long lines formed throughout the day at Third Man’s Rolling Record Store – a yellow truck that sat at the crest of the hill facing the festival’s two stages and sold vinly records and apparel.

White himself made the festival a family affair, bringing along ex-wife Karen Elson and their two children and stopping in Livonia to pick up his mother and other relatives in his tour bus on the way to MIS. “It feels really good to be here,” White told the crowd during the Racontuers set. “A lot of people say that…but we really are from Michigan, so we really are happy to be here.” He added that “on the ride here I saw some cities I didn’t know existed in Michigan, but I love those cities as well.”

The Raconteurs – reactivated after a three-year hiatus and playing their third show of the week – were in fierce form, blazing through a 14-song, 90-minute set comprised entirely of original material from its two albums, 2006’s “Broken Boy Soldiers” and 2008’s “Consolers of the Lonely.” Opening with the latter’s title cut, the quintet hit its stride early and tore through powerful renditions of songs such as “Top Yourself,” “Level,” “Old Enough” – which White dedicated “to my mother and all the rest of you beautiful Michigan women” – “Many Shades of Black” and an epic “Blue Veins.” The group also led fans in encore singalongs during “Steady As She Goes” and the murder ballad “Carolina Drama,” though the size of the crowd shrunk throughout the set as older attendees, more attuned to the festival’s classic rockers, bailed out in substantial numbers.

Sheryl Crow, performing before the Raconteurs, may not be from Missouri but she clearly had Michigan on her mind Saturday. Crow crowed about hearing the Romantics play “What I Like About You” and Mark Farner deliver Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band” and spoke about spending the summer touring with Kid Rock – who did not make the guest cameo that many MI Fest attendees (and organizers) hoped he would. She somewhat oddly thanked White “for inviting us to come play for y’all” and referred to MIS as “Detroit” several times, meaning she’s in need of some remedial Mitten geography

But fans readily forgave that gaffe as Crow and her band rocked through an uptempo set of hits such as “A Change Will Do You Good,” “My Favorite Mistake,” “If It Makes You Happy,” “Soak Up the Sun” and “All I Wanna Do,” never slowing down until the gospel-flavored closer “I Shall Believe.”

Crow and the Raconteurs were the only two of the 17 acts that played without competition on the other stage, and sound bleed was a problem all day long. Both country star Ronnie Dunn – who mixed songs from his solo debut album with a sampling of Brooks & Dunn hits -- and Detroit singer-songwriter Ty Stone called off softer songs they planned to play because of noise interference from across the field. Stone, who was up against the Romantics, even cracked, “Cool, we can play and listen to another band at the same time. This is awesome.! “ JEFF’s Jake Orrall gave a “shout out to the main stage” as the strains of Farner’s set played in the audible background.

The second staged, dubbed the Grandee, also suffered from criminally low attendance throughout the festival, which was especially for strong sets by Stone, the Rockets, Jeff the Brotherhood, Black Milk and the Black Belles. All managed to soldier through the conflict, and the Rockets spiced their set with three new songs – “Whiskey Head,” “Let’s Go” and “Detroit Women” – alongside perennial favorites such as “Desire,” “Takin’ It Back,” “Turn Up the Radio” and its version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.”

MI Fest was full of Michigan musical moments like those, in fact – whether it was the Romantics doing “What I Like…” or Farner dipping deep into the Grand Funk songbook for “Time Machine,” “Bad Time,” “Shinin’ On,” “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “I’m Your Captain”/”Closer to Home.” Iconic rocker Mitch Ryder offered up a full survey of his career, getting the early afternoon crowd dancing to “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” “C.C. Rider”/”Jenny Take a Ride,” “Devil With a Blue Dress” and even a trippy Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).”

Jeff Daniels – making a last planned musical appearance before starting work on a new HBO series created by Aaron Sorkin -- sported a Detroit Tigers hat and celebrated the team’s Central Division Championship by singing about how “Michigan water tastes like cherry wine,” suggesting that “we take our pants off” and covering the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville.”

MIS officials readily spoke about next year’s edition of the festival as a done deal, even as Saturday’s show got under way. Those who were there – whether the 10,000 claimed or the less than 5,000 many observers estimated – will testify to a good time, a smooth operation and the potential for a special annual event. Here’s hoping that better pre-planning and some production changes can be implemented in 2012 to prove them right.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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