by James M. Manheim · Ann Arbor Observer · May, 2016
The Corn Potato String Band
I heard a duo formation of the Corn Potato String Band, “the ears and eyes of America,” one Friday in February over happy hour at PJ’s Lager House in Detroit. I had been waiting for years, decades even, for old-time music to reach a level of popularity where you might hear it in a bar, and I was intrigued to hear from the proprietor, former Ann Arborite P.J. Ryder, that he’s transitioning the place, the very epicenter of Jack White-era Detroit rock ‘n’ roll, to Americana music. The fiddle lines of Aaron Jonah Lewis had not only the strength but also the clarity to slash through the bring-on-the-weekend bar talk, and Lewis’s genuinely impressive beard fit the urban-roots vibe.
That mix of power and clarity is what gets and holds your attention. The Corn Potato String Band hits a sweet spot between the punk speeds of Old Crow Medicine Show and the Hackensaw Boys on one hand and the delicate precision of Norman Blake on the other. The result is a tremendously infectious show that has earned raves not only from the Scotsman, which ought to know about good fiddling, but even the Hindustan Times (“power-packed performance!”), which encountered the band on its 2013 U.S. State Department Cultural Diplomacy tour.
The Corn Potato String Band is usually a trio, and that’s how they’ll appear at the Ark on May 15 (see Nightspots). Guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Lindsay McCaw and banjoist Ben Belcher provide extremely forward-driving backing for the fiddle lines, and the band’s repertory is diverse, with such novelties as polkas and French-Canadian and Mexican tunes supplementing the old-time music. The band also has an eye for country songs that make good old-time pieces, like the obscure “Bacon and Eggs” from the Lovett Sisters, onetime stars of Dallas’s Big D Jamboree. The second Corn Potatoes album has more vocals than the first one, with precise harmonies to match the ace instrumental work, but there are still plenty of dance rhythms. (They’re coming to town with a new album that expands the range still more, with swing fiddle and an old Mexican-Hawaiian guitar tune.) Agile twin-fiddle and twin-banjo pieces add to the balance of precision and energy.
A number of old-time bands have come along, in Michigan and elsewhere, over the last few years, but this one’s a standout, and their choice of Detroit as a home base provides a more reliable indicator of the city’s revival than does the sidewalk army of private guards on Segways. For the Corn Potatoes’ Ark show, the fine Detroit old-time band Lac La Belle will be opening and providing a lyric counterpart to the Corn Potatoes’ vivid instrumental shapes.
-James M. Manheim · Ann Arbor Observer · May, 2016