Originally published August 14, 2014.
When I first moved to Detroit from Washington D.C. just over two years ago, going halvesies on a rutty old mock-Victorian (per inspector’s notes) in the trendy North Rosedale Park neighborhood with my newly retired mother (her money, really; I was a minimum-wage bum at the time), we were staggered to find that the house—that is the property, not ‘us’ specifically as the new owners—was behind in water bills to the tune of nine-hundred dollars.
Neither the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, nor the realty company from which we bought the house was exceedingly helpful in helping us sort this out, particularly when in order to actually pay off that bill, the city government had to be sure the property was in our name… Well, we did have the means to spend our first month in Metro Detroit hauled up in a dog-friendly hotel (leave no Yorkie behind) where our tap, amongst other things, was covered by our nightly bill, while the contractors got to work renovating as best they could manage with no running water. Or electricity.
But so many others in this town of over 700,000 don’t have the means, let alone the means to find the means, and now it’s a matter of international record and ridicule.
And let me reassure you that I haven’t forgotten about the subject of music (which is integral to my forthcoming point,) but I am in the midst of painting a picture, wherein music is one of the very few pinpricks of light allowed to infiltrate a very dark canvas.
The drive from Rosedale Park, in the very far northwest corner of the city, to Chene Park Amphitheater which is just east of downtown on the northern bank of the Detroit River, usually requires one to drive right through the heart of the D.—The downtown area is designed so that all major thoroughfares converge inexorably toward an open square named Campus Martius. Among all of the self-sustaining microcosms spread out within Detroit’s patchy 142.9 square mile quilt, the scene here—with its busy storefronts, soaring multistory atriums, open dining areas, public stages for musical acts, white collar yuppies rubbing shoulders with artists, entrepreneurs, tourists and others thronging in the many hundreds during the afternoon—shows a picture of a city (tightly framed, but regardless) that still lives, works, plays, and dreams.
Trolling the city center for a reasonably-priced carpark near the Bucharest Grill before an evening show at Chene, and with hunger pangs and garlic sauce withdrawals piquing our road rage, our last ditch attempt to satiate our chicken shawarma-fueled DT’s before showtime met its untimely preclusion with a grand-mal Woodward Avenue pedestrian traffic crosswalk cockblock, courtesy of that night’s Tigers game at Comerica Park. The world’s papers may say our city is bombed-out, bankrupt, and that the sit-rep on the ground is increasingly resembling not just the one, but now another Paul Verhoeven film (to paraphrase the ex-Governator in Total Recall, “Give these people water, Cohaagen!!”)—but by bloody Buddha can we still turn out for a ballgame!
Gastronomical interruptus aside, it was nevertheless an unfailingly pleasant occasion, not because pre-show hunger can make anything (even that night’s gourmet, courtesy Wendy’s) taste like manna to be consumed with grudging acceptance and guarded with feral selfishness. No, because Chene Park can be such an unfailingly happy way to enjoy a live program, whether by land or water.
Concertgoers in private boats or jetskis can steal a free show, and often convene their vessels behind the open stage when the title act is on, blowing their foghorns in lieu of flicking their bics or (at that distance, inaudible) spirited applause in order to tell the artist if/when he/she nailed it. Paying customers have access to food, alcohol, and superior acoustics, though I’m sure the thunderous reports launched from Ralphe Armstrong’s bass guitar and amp stack surely made it across the river to bug the residents of Windsor in some muted form, even as jets of back-pressure from the ported subwoofers made my shirt ripple across my chest like a flag in the wind.
Armstrong and pioneering fusion guitarist Larry Coryell form the creative engine of the Armstrong-Coryell Fusion Reunion; seasoned travelers of that sexy and unpredictable place where jazz meets rock meets a live jam. Had they not just been an opening act, they would have carried us from the early summer’s evening to well past the sodium-lamplit twilight hours. But the headline act of the night, the third last before Chene Park’s summer schedule concluded for the year, was that most unfailingly ebullient keyboardist, trombonist, consummate producer and holding spray enthusiast, Brian Culbertson.
Smooth jazz crowds at Chene generally aren’t the type to lustfully shed essential articles of clothing in a cavalier attempt to snatch the attention of a particularly handsome VIP away from his deadly serious stagecraft—fans of the genre tend to be too insufferably pious to lose themselves and risk civil injunction on such a lark. (More to do, I think, with some musicians’ inability to raise a flame let alone boil a kettle.) But this Detroit audience knew Brian and loved the stuffings out of him. The bandmembers quietly assembled themselves into position with a sequential steadfastness reminiscent of that anxious train station scene from The Untouchables, the anticipatory whoops and whistles welling up into premature applause as WDIV Local 4 news anchor Carmen Harlan took the stage to formally introduce the main event. Reflecting on the history of her own Culbertson encounters and fandom, she momentarily broke character as the memory drew her face into an involuntary scrunchy-eyed, ear-to-ear open mouthed giggle. This extinguished itself back to business-casual in seconds, but there it was; every music lover has that artist or band whose work has touched them so deeply that the prospect of sharing breathing space with them inevitably reduces the listener to a quivering puddle of 14-year-old Beatles fangirl. (I too, can’t begin to imagine how I’d react to speaking with Hiromi Uehara, Yoko Kanno or Jeff Beck. Thankfully I can hide my radioactive inner-geek behind my journalistic pursuit, to avoid the kind of catatonic meltdown Community’s Troy Barnes experienced when he was confronted by his idol Levar Burton in the flesh. All Troy wanted was a picture…)
Maybe I just haven’t been present to see this crowd’s reaction to an artist who was really worth a good wardrobe malfunction. And surely, with the sun setting and the stage lights taking dominance, casting the players in a very Princely deep-violet haze, and everybody’s attention on a lonesome and vulnerable-looking Roland keyboard perched center stage and so close to the first row you could play it yourself if you had a death wish, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if some women, their vital accoutrements chafing at the seams, would have given the Dirty Diana act the old college try.
But then it’s easy to see why, as Culbertson pops up from behind an elevated platform at the rear of the stage, his hair spiked and frosted, and his hands clutching the air like Stokowski pardoning his orchestra for a C Major vamp. The Boy Genius—with a face that remains naturally boyish even after twenty hard-working years in the music business—has arrived. He motions to the band with a great sweeping gesture of his right arm, before bounding from his perch like a trained raptor and finally seizing upon the keyboard, his mouth caught in a hammy and winsome gawp, as though reunited with a long lost friend.
My own circulatory system got vamped; it was hard not to get involved with the rest of the audience, skeptical as I am of broad theatrics (Oh no… am I becoming what I ridicule? Did I not just earlier criticize smooth jazz fans for not being ‘fun’ enough?). We all, however, desperately needed this tonic. Culbertson knows, probably more than anyone there, that these shows are about making dreams happen.
Another Long Night Out
One might imagine (and as a fan of Calvin and Hobbes, with that other spiky-haired young genius, I did imagine) that if Mr. Culbertson had a sudden change of heart in his generous and humanitarian attitude and decided to make his stage band redundant, he’d be able to invent a transmogrifier that could produce a couple dozen sentient clones on demand, and they would conspire to produce to within some satisfactory tolerance a show this good or better (right before the inevitable existential breakdown!)
I considered this in regarding Brian’s protean effortlessness at seeming to be everywhere at once; taking no breaks between the keyboard and joining the horn section with his trombone, while showboating us with inextinguishable reserves of enthusiasm. This sort of sustained activity can actually make a person lose noticeable water weight between the beginning and end of a program; the magic, and the work, is in making it all seem effortless.
It also speaks volumes of Culbertson’s grade as a showman and leader; when he’s on, he exudes positive energy like a firehose on tap, pulling the band together, pulling the best performances from everyone, yet clearly possessing the gumption to singlehandedly wing the event under the steam of his own talent and ego, if not the actual ability to perform every task on his own. —Which indeed is how it all started twenty years ago.
Brian’s 6th August appearance at Chene is part of a 20th anniversary concert tour that celebrates his 1994 studio debut Long Night Out (back when the ‘studio’ contained an Apple editing workstation he barely had the dough enough to scrape up for as a second-year college student at Chicago’s DePaul, with his roommate as co-engineer) together with the recently released Another Long Night Out, wherein Culbertson revisits the material—for which listener admiration has grown ever fonder through the years—but this time with production values more lush, arrangements more fine and polished, and a budget that could afford more live talent where twenty-years thence there was only Brian, his Opcode production software, and two other musicians whose meters were up after only a few songs.
Yet the original Long Night Out remains a charming listen, with a musicality and earnestness that transcends its technological and financial constraints—an effect that wasn’t lost on fans, or Culbertson himself who explains, “Some of those compositions are kind of unique and stand out (at least in my mind) as different sounding from the rest of the contemporary jazz genre. But it was definitely one of those things I always wanted to revisit and redo, and I think both [albums] kind of stand on their own at this point, for what they are.”
The 20th Anniversary tour project will culminate with a series of shows performed from 11 to 14 September at Yoshi’s in Oakland, CA, from which Culbertson will compile his very first concert album (to be released this January) and that live band will finally get their due respect on record.
I wish I could write more in-depth about the live experience, but our outfit had to beat an early retreat, which precluded us from crashing the after-show party, and—the original reason behind our coverage of this event—a meet-and-greet with the Detroit Fire Department and members of the police dept., whose attendance at the program was paid for fifty/fifty by Brian Culbertson and the promoters at Chene Park.
Heroes Of The Dawn
Fire seems to have a soft spot in its sooty little heart for this city. Having only begun to wear in the seat cushion of my own tight neighborhood in these past two years without spending any quality time stretching out the fabric of the outer extremities, I still have much to learn about my adopted home.
One mystifying aspect was the frequency with which I saw plumes of smoke in the air, and news coverage of both residences and businesses going up in flames for seemingly no good reason. (The only plume of smoke I remember in 27 years living in Northern Virginia, was that rising from the Pentagon in September 2001.)
For the first time in my life I became superstitious about my house’s wiring, thinking all of these beautiful old brick-clad houses on my block were–underneath the plaster-lath walls–like desiccated tinder boxes trussed up with 60-amp mains which, if the pre-war jacketing were to crumble or be eaten away by a starving rodent, and two wires that were never, ever supposed to touch then unceremoniously did…
And then there’s the arson problem, which DPD Police Chief James E. Craig has been quoted on MLive.com as saying has “historically been part of the Detroit culture.”—A likely reference to the legendary Devil’s Night blazes of the Halloween season, which nowadays (thanks to ‘Angel’s Night’ volunteer work and, unfortunately, population decline) are nothing compared to the eight-hundred or so arsons chronicled between October and November of 1984; so anarchic a spectacle as to have roped in rubberneckers from out of state, and inspired some hopefuls to return each year after.
Nevertheless, pyromaniacs looking to satisfy their fetish, mortgage owners who got falcon-punched by the market after signing off an irredeemable chunk of their future income and retirement savings, and everyday people aiming to redress a local government that can’t now or in the near future afford to deal with their grievances, needn’t have had to confine their frustration-venting to Halloween. (Nor did they.)
A cash-strapped and understaffed Detroit Fire Department fielded an estimated 30,000 fire calls in 2011, according to an NBC quote from Detroit Executive Fire Commissioner Donald Austin, of which 958 of the actual engagements were classified as being set deliberately.
In a city of 142.9 square miles, wherein one could fit the land area of Boston, San Francisco and Manhattan with room to spare, and with over half of its fires occurring in any one of some 80,000 derelict structures in varying states of eye-watering disrepair, some very creative and desperate plans were being floated about how something, something, really needed to be done with next to nothing. It then became public through the 2012 documentary Burn, created by filmmakers Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez who spent a year in the DFD’s company, that Fire Commissioner Austin was considering a policy of allowing structures that have been over 50-percent engulfed, continue to burn themselves out completely.
Regardless of how rational a place it came from, the idea of letting any part of the city, large or small, burn to the ground as the surrounding foliage germinates with uncivilized abandon, doesn’t exactly jive with the self-image of a town this obligately proud, and struggling to maintain a sense of dignity.
Culbertson and his family watched pieces of this drama play out over a Detroit-based episode of CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, which saw the culinary raconteur cover some of the same ground as the film Burn. “[My wife’s] dad is a cop in the Chicago area,” Brian recounts, “and she just said, ‘Hey, we’ve just watched this, now we’ve got to do something for these guys.’”
He donated tickets for the 6th August show at Chene to the fire department, and the park in turn agreed to match Culbertson’s offer, so members of the police force could also attend free of charge. “We thought we’d say, ‘Come see a show; take your minds off the craziness for at least a couple of hours.’ So that’s kind of the least I can do.” Culbertson said.
Brian did enough by doing the nation’s most overworked firefighters the favor of taking them away from themselves for a little while, which is the sole duty a performer is tasked with doing—making us forget our insolvable ills. Music remains the more storied, the culturally richer, more profitable, productive and beloved of Detroit’s traditions than ruin-porn is, and could ever hope to be.
The privilege of being immersed in these assignments where I’m allowed to be a student of this locus of American musical history is almost enough to make me forget my jealousy, (and homesickness, admittedly,) of my former hometown. Though the bloggers at Unsuck DC Metro may eternally disagree, Washingtonians and DC suburbanites get a truly world-class example of a working city for their tax dollars. (To echo Charles Laughton’s Tiberius Gracchus character from Spartacus, I’ll take a little of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s corruption, along with a few arts and science museums, but I won’t take the dictatorship of Rick Snyder and Kevyn Orr, and no museums at all!—Such has been my internal battlecry during the bankruptcy debacle.)
So what’s to be done here in Lower Michigan? At its endgame, Fire Commissioner Austin’s policy would do some of the more isolated detached family homeowners the tough favor of drawing their geographical reality into sharper focus, for all to see, providing a 142.9 sq mi picture of the insolubility of the public funds deficit. With just 714,000 citizens and an unemployment rate at 16.4% as of June 2014, even with exorbitant taxes and utility rates (which does more to encourage those who have means to just move away, and those who don’t, not to pay for what they don’t consider worthwhile,) there just isn’t enough money to run the city without massive amounts of federal assistance, and tri-state, tri-county or metro-area compacts (which is what the the DC Metro is, and what Detroit’s future water and sewerage department will become. Pride hurts sometimes, but cooperation is a gift from Darwin, I always say.)
My family moved here largely because rent inside the Beltway had skyrocketed since I grew up, and what you’d spend on a ripe hovel in Arlington or Alexandria, VA would get you a mansion in Boston-Edison. The costs we avoided in nabbing a more realistic 1,800 sq ft dwelling in North Rosedale Park we soon found were offset by other, nearly equal expenses, for what is essentially—unbeknownst to us at the time—an investment in Detroit; an investment in its current state, and a bet on what it could become if enough people want it badly enough. The people who created this magazine, and all the young artists, entrepreneurs and coders I mentioned in my earlier painting of Campus Martius, are seeding Detroit with hope. They have the obligate do-it-yourself attitude that the current town requires, and have turned pockets of the city into their own technological bohemia. (And I had just read a Vanity Fair article by the late Christopher Hitchens, mourning the demise-in-progress of New York’s bohemian hoods. Give me your scribblers, your painters, your computer hackers and app makers; Detroit is open for crashing!)
Most importantly they love the city for what it was, for what it is, and have faith enough in its future to stick around, grow roots, and give of themselves to make what was next to nothing into something—or something forgotten into something inspiring. One does no favors by moving here intending to be a passive observer to watch shit burn. After all, when the music ends at the concert, you’ll have music to face at home, too.