When a Badger Senator hits the road, it’s mostly a blur of caviar and fart jokes—good art comes with a particular smell, you know? But this time around, we decided to lay a little low and backdoor another kind of concert. It was tucked away in Grand Rapids’ Heritage Hill neighborhood (you know, with the Victorian Age houses that can’t decide if they’re better fit for ritchy-rich’s millions or Delta Tau Chi’s debauchery emporium?). Grand Rapids’ local folk groups threw themselves a house party last week, and Badger Senate was happy to accept the invitation.
We arrived at an average inner city bungalow to find a crowd of people packed tightly inside to watch local folk acts trade off on the simplest of stages: a dining room. We were a bit taken aback—seeing as how we were ready to party—as the crowd was completely silent, listening intently to one of the first acts. As classy as ever, good ole’ Frank Cass walked through the door six pack in hand, ready to crush it with the best of ‘em. Sadly, this party was a bit more hipster chill than the Appalachian corn whiskey and blow-flavored shenanigans we had hoped for.
The party’s most popular act was the West Michigan group, Bennett. A trio made up of pianist Nicholas James, guitarist Josiah Gentry, and fiddler Nick Rolls, this group took the stage with a confident swagger. In such a small room, it was easy to see that these guys were the headlining act. Their youthful good looks and innocent demeanor carry a Jonas Brothers-like appeal—here at Badger Senate we know teen heartthrobs when we see ‘em! Just as fast as I was ready to write them off, Bennett announced that they were going to play the set unplugged. Not only that, but the country cliché was completed when Gentry, their guitarist, explained that most of this set was just written at a cottage the band rented for a week up north. It was an impressive challenge, and they backed it up every bit of the way. The tunes carried terrific melodies, and the group’s instruments meshed perfectly with one another. For anyone who’s ever balanced live sound, they know that’s no easy accomplishment, especially unplugged.
What makes Bennett really special is their ability to harmonize. Every song was carried by their three-part harmonies at the chorus. Much like Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers, etc., it’s the kind of repeatable trick that never quite gets old. Critically, I’ll give the band credit. While most of these newer “cottage songs” lacked the kind of bluntly challenging lyrics a true folk fan expects, they ended the set with a popular favorite, “Old Time Father.” The song’s cleverly subtle commentary on fatherhood and manhood allows just enough ambiguity for anyone to interject their own meaning. While Bob Dylan fans may scoff at this claim, that’s how you make the big bucks.
On the whole, this band is doing a lot of things right. So what does Bennett really need to figure out? How they can get their sanitized studio recordings to carry the raw energy and beautifully unhinged nature of this awesome unplugged performance.
By the end of the party, it became apparent that about half of the attendees were actually part of these bands in one way or another. To cap it off, the night ended with an open mic collection of cover tunes, ensuring that even our no-talent, sand bagging butts got included too. Amidst all the fun, I was left reflecting: Folk’s a genre built to be the hidden gem, whether or not it’s out back of the copper stills or in an old 1920s bungalow. As a big folk and blues coinsure, I crave that intimate club show—the kind you hear about 20 years afterward in a Martin Scorsese documentary. Even as I think he’ll die long before Bennett takes their Last Waltz, until that story’s sold to Hollywood, it’ll stay just with my fellow partygoers. This one was something special.
Written by Frank Cass