Local music scene: Something to blog about

With the expansion of Bell's Eccentric Cafe, the imminent reopening of Kraftbrau Brewery and The Strutt gaining popularity almost by the minute, the music scene in Kalamazoo is on the move.

And if the past and present scenes are indicators, the direction it's headed in will be beyond labels.

Venues are changing to keep up with the new musical landscape. A $2.5 million renovation of Larry Bell's popular Eccentric Cafe is in the works. Signs have been hung outside the new home of Kraftbrau Brewery on Portage Street and more than 1,000 Facebook fans eagerly await the reopening of one of the favorite venue of the local-music lovers.

Blogger Jeff Till, author of leonstemple.com, is someone who knows what the scene can be. He spent five years in Kalamazoo in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Now a resident of Amesbury, Mass., near Boston, the 39-year-old keeps an updated site that's dedicated to the Kalamazoo artists from that era, and a place to find their music.

The early 1990s were a time when cities like Seattle and Athens, Georgia, were becoming well-known for their local artists, and Till says it became clear that Kalamazoo could too.

"The excitement grew because Kalamazoo was also a good community of people. Everyone who had an inkling to pick up a guitar or the drum sticks came to soon do so," Till says.

Till estimated that at the time there were about 115 local bands, hundreds of musicians and a handful of record deals.

"Venues started popping up everywhere. There were five to 15 rock shows on any given night," Till says.

Main venues were Club Soda and Harvey's On the Mall and bands tended toward heavy metal, rock and punk genres. Bands like Twitch, The Sinatras, Thought Industry and Rollinghead ruled the scene at the time, Till says. The State Theatre invited local bands to do shows in those days and lots of bands aspired to a spot on the big stage.

Till says Chris Breyers, formerly of Twitch and now a solo artist, remains "the best songwriter and the best singer in the whole bunch."

Not content simply being a spectator, Till played bass and did vocals in punk bands Overman and Screwtape.

"It's history. ... Whoever's playing music there now owes homage to us," Till says.

Till says most of the "boots and shorts" crew, known for wearing boots, shorts and leather jackets even in the dead of winter, have since moved out of Kalamazoo, settling largely in Boston and Portland, Oregon.

That they've scattered doesn't stop Till from writing about the scene or its followers from staying interested, as evidenced by a Rollinghead reunion show in August at Bell's.  

"It was packed, to the point where they had to turn people away at the door because there was still such fond memories of seeing that band," Till says.

Munson Haver, 25, has a front row seat to the region's music scene of the moment.

In February, the Portage resident launched Kalamazoo NOISE!, a blog that reviews local bands and acts coming into Kalamazoo and also promotes and organizes local shows.

With two faithful writers by his side, and a number of contributing writers, the site has grown from something Haver himself thought may not last, to a site that racks up about 3,500 hits a week and updates daily. Haver called his writers "local music junkies," as they are not paid for their work.

Haver and writer Dustin Brondyke, 21, a Western Michigan University student, say it's hard to classify the current music scene in Kalamazoo, though it tends toward indie rock and folk rock. They also describe the scene as mellow, a far cry from Till's punk era.

One of many local groups they like is Their Teeth Will Be of Lions, a promising seven-member band that plays original indie rock songs, each one distinctive from the next but with a definite connection.

"They can inject some crazy sounds into their songs, almost like an orchestra," Haver says.

Glowfriends, Please Promise and Branden Mann and the Reprimand also get Haver and Brondyke's seal of approval.

Bigger names are coming to town and playing at smaller venues, like Kevin Devine's recent appearance at The Strutt, and that bodes well for the future of music in Kalamazoo, Haver says. People come to hear acts like Devine, but likely catch the local opener and discover something new.

Sixteen of the blog's favorite bands will be featured at the Kalamazoo NOISE! Convention at The Strutt at 8 p.m. April 29. The Hex Bombs, Ghosts of the Great Lakes, Hello Victor and others will play at the 18-and-up show.

Jeremy Martin, music director at WIDR FM, Western Michigan University's non-commercial station, says he's noticed a "noise scene" movement coming out of the heavily student-populated Vine Neighborhood in the last eight months.

Her Majesty's Ship, Victory! and Rotten Wood Moon have become core bands on the burgeoning Vine scene with what Martin calls their "post-rock vibe."

"There's intricate instrumentals and guitar playing. They experiment with different sources of making noise with very limited vocal work," Martin says.

The bands play at The Strutt, which Martin says has been instrumental in helping new bands perform publicly.

Kalamazoo's ever-changing music scene can attributed to the fact that it's a student town, and students graduate and move on, he says.

"Kalamazoo, more than any other college town, seems to be on the pulse of what's new," Martin says.

One scene that is likely here to stay is what Martin calls the "root scene," a group of folk and bluegrass bands that mainly play at Bell's Eccnetric Cafe, a bar that's become a mainstay for the crunchy granola crowd.

Bell's Eccentric Cafe, Kraftbrau Brewery, which plans to reopen soon at 2712 Portage St., and The Strutt all have their niche in the music world, making the scene as a whole bigger and better.

"The scene and the music they bring in are so different from each other," Martin says. "It's a lot more of a thriving music scene than other cities."

Rebecca Bakken is a freelance writer hailing from metro-Detroit and living in Kalamazoo. A fan of all genres, she prefers her music live and spends summer free time camping out at music festivals.

Photos by Erik Holladay

Writer Dustin Brondyke, 21, left, and Munson Haver, 25, creator of the blog Kalamazoo NOISE! have a passion for music.

The Strutt will be the place that will host NOISE! Convention on April 29. It will showcase a number of local bands in an 18-and-up concert.
The Strutt has been a pivotal venue in the explosion of local music in Kalamazoo.

Bell's Eccentric Cafe hosts many of the "roots scene" bands highlighting folk and bluegrass. It has been a staple in the growth of the local music scene.
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