Edison Neighborhood

Whatzit at the Dormouse Theatre? Kalamazoo's own Darcy Wilkin and her talented musical guests

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

It's a folk music, and other music, and talk show kind of a show. 

What is it? It's the Darcy Wilkin Whatzit Hour.

Wilkin brings friends and associates onto the stage of the Dormouse Theatre in the Edison neighborhood, and for a bit more than an hour, gets them to perform.

Her agenda is to get musicians and singers to perform solo. But they're not entirely alone -- Wilkin sits nearby on the parlor-room-styled set.

"It's neat to see people who don't always play alone, play alone. I like that," she says in a pre-show interview. 

So, why Whatzit?

"I don't really have a set script for the way everything goes, and it's been different every time," Wilkin said before the show.

A little Prairie Home Companion without the skits, but plenty of entertaining asides. That's one way to describe Darcy Wilkin's Whatzit Hour.For some shows she'll do a couple of songs with the other performer doing full sets. Sometimes there are more interviews than songs.

"Because it changes, I like the name Whatzit," she says. It's also an "homage to my favorite band, the Red Clay Ramblers," a band dubbed "America's premier Whatzit band" thanks to its eclectic mix of styles. 

The first Whatzit was in July of last year, coming out among the new wave of efforts to bring back live shows to post-pandemic Kalamazoo. The first guest was Jay Gavin, a local guitarist who does everything from surf music in Guitar UP! to 1930s European jazz with The Birdseed Salesmen.

Other guests included her dad Mark Sahlgren; drummer/singer/songwriter from Chicago Gerald Dowd; Kalamazoo hip-hop, avant-garde, folk-soul cellist Jordan Hamilton; and Detroit roots music singer-songwriter/clinical psychotherapist Jo Serrapere.

Wilkins' special guest in August was her 'Pops,' Mark Sahlgren, longtime bluegrass musician and co-host of WMUK's "Grassroots."Wilkin wanted to feature locals and people from outside of Kalamazoo, "and I also wanted to get people who are in bands who can or are willing to do solo stuff." 

The next Whatzit guest will be Ron Casebeer, on March 25. Since the mid-'80s, Casebeer has been on Kalamazoo's club stages, rocking in bands from The Sinatras to the Lower Leisure Class. "He's brilliant, and I love seeing him with The Lower Leisure Class, but he's also such a good songwriter and great singer, I want to hear him on his own," Wilkin says. 

Lilly's first gig

"This is my first gig, y'all," Lillian Werbin says to the audience Saturday night, March 4. 

Werbin comes from the business side of the music business, as the president of Lansing's Elderly Instruments.

Guest Lillain Werbin and Darcy Wilkin closed the show with "Keep on the Sunny Side."The audience was small -- the show had to be moved forward a week thanks to the previous week's ice storm, so the Whatzit had to follow the folk-heavy Kalamazoo Fretboard Festival also happening March 4 -- but they gave Werbin a big round of applause.

The audience was like family. Many were family. Wilkin's parents Mark and Lynne Sahlgren were there, with Werbin's parents Sandy and Stan Werbin. 

The two families are roots music dynasties of sorts. Sahlgren cofounded Kalamazoo bluegrass group Sweetcorn over 50 years ago and was the longtime host of WMUK's acoustic music show "Grassroots" before retiring and leaving it in the hands of Wilkin. She's performed often with her "Pops," which they'd just done earlier at the Fretboard Festival. Wilkin has been a part of her own roots group, The Corn Fed Girls, for nearly 26 years now.

Werbin's pops co-founded Lansing's stringed-instrument shop Elderly Instruments in 1972. It's known as a "folk music mecca" for its array of banjos, mandolins, and guitars. Werbin worked at the store for much of her life and is now president of Elderly.

The two families have known each other for a long time, but it wasn't until recently that Darcy and Lillian got to informally play together at the annual Midwest Banjo Camp,

"Mothers, grab your daughters!" The Sahlgren and Werbin families go back a long ways.We'd sit around after hours at Banjo Camp, and there's a bunch of jammin'. We'd sit around and play, and Lilly would sing along. And Lilly has this voice that nobody really knows about, that's just amazing," Wilkin said.

Werbin told the audience that she'd been in choir, and had sung at Carnegie Hall with a big group. "I learned the benefit of a team, I guess. This feels a bit different."

For her opener on Whatzit, she sang the folk song "Lonesome Valley" a capella, revealing a voice that was as rich and velvety as her purple outfit. She followed with Willie Nelson's and Patsy Cline's classic, "Crazy," backed by Wilkin's strumming.

Whatzit's format encourages variety. Wilkin's covers tend toward the songs of John Prine and Towns Van Zandt; she also did some of her originals from her album "Bristol,"  such as one on the trials and tribulations at a local trailer park, "Pavilion Estates." 

Werbin threw in some surprises for what might be assumed an all-folk show, singing "Burn," from the show she says she's been obsessed with, "Hamilton," and The Spice Girls' "Mama." The latter, with lyrics about being a rebellious daughter who now sees her struggles with mom and were all about love now that she's older, had Werbin's mother wiping away tears in the audience.

Lillian Werbin took it away with an eclectic show, including "Burn" from Hamilton and The Spice Girl's "Mama."The Whatzit leaned into its talk-show tendencies between songs. Werbin spoke on her work for the inclusion of People of Color in roots music. 

"I didn't feel excluded in my house growing up," she says. But outside, she did, "and I can't stand that feeling," she says with a sardonic laugh. Werbin is now active on the boards of Bluegrass Pride, Decolonizing the Music Room, and The Arnold Shultz Fund

She talked about being invited to the Affrolachian On-Time Music Gathering in Virginia, a "Black celebration of old-time and roots music," she says, where "we're just allowed to be ourselves without the rules that society places on us." 

There, she picked up a song, "New Familiar," by Jackie Merritt and Resa Gibbs, which "honors the love and loss of our loved ones." 

Lillian Werbin, President of Elderly Instruments, wowed the audience with her rendition of "New Familiar" by Jackie Merritt and Resa Gibbs.Werbin continues, "I don't know how deep your Whatzits go, but I lost my first friend when I was 13, and loss became a regular theme. So I've spent a lot of time not wasting my life." 

"When I heard Jackie and Resa perform this, it made me sob in public with strangers," she says. She managed to sing a cappella the song of grief, of caring for, and then losing a loved one. Werbin didn't break down, but she had all of those in the old former church structure of the Dormouse absolutely still. 

There were lighter subjects, like Wilkin's love of The Muppets and how Werbin has won trophies for her hand-crafted beards that she models at the Lansing Lumberjack Festival

To take us all back into the light at the end, the two lead an audience sing-along to "Keep On the Sunny Side." 

The next Darcy Wilkin Whatzit Hour is March 25, 8 P.M., at The Dormouse Theatre. For more information, follow this LINK.
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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.