Appleseed Collective to perform in Aztec
FARMINGTON — Andrew Brown took up the guitar at age 7 and learned some basic techniques. But by his own admission, he didn't do much with it until he reached the age of 18 and decided to get serious about playing.
Fortunately, he had an in-house expert to go to for advice. His father had been a Motown session player for many years, performing with the likes of blues legend Koko Taylor, and even had his own hit record in Detroit in 1980.
"I asked him, 'How did you get so good at playing the piano?' " recalled Andrews, now the guitar player for the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based band the Appleseed Collective. "He said, 'Well, I practiced skills and arpeggios for eight hours a day. And I took every opportunity to play with other people.' "
The younger Brown described his dad as "a bit of a hard cynic" who indicated there was no substitute for elbow grease when it came to establishing yourself as a musician.
"So when I did decide I wanted to be good, I started working my (butt) off," Brown said by phone from Lincoln, Neb., last week, where his band was preparing to play a gig. The Appleseed Collective will be in Aztec Tuesday, Aug. 11 to perform at Crash Music.
What else did he learn from Dad when it came to the music business?
"Don't trust anybody," Brown said, laughing. "Double-check all the contracts. And get a lawyer before you sign anything."
"He said, 'It's all about the rhythm,'" Brown said. "For a white guy, he's a real funky player."
The younger Brown has a bit of a funky edge himself, as do his associates in the Appleseed Collective — a group that defies description with an eclectic style that borrows liberally from Dixieland, Americana, Gypsy jazz, folk and bluegrass. With an acoustic guitar, upright bass, fiddle, mandolin and washboard, the band may look like a garden-variety string band, the ranks of which have swelled precipitously in recent years in college towns across the country.
But it would be a mistake to lump the Appleseed Collective in with that crowd. While many of those string bands take such an intentionally scattershot approach to their music that they wind up sacrificing any kind of identity, this group has a warm, signature, rootsy sound that simply evokes good times.
It's an approach that fits in well in Ann Arbor, home to one of the more accomplished and adventurous live music communities in the country, as well as the University of Michigan. Brown described it as "seven and a half square miles surrounded by reality," a reference in part to the fact that not every audience the Appleseed Collective encounters out on the road immediately grasps what the band is trying to do.
"Usually, they warm up to us in one to two songs," Brown said. "A lot of times when people see us set up, they think we're going to do the same old bluegrass thing. I've had people tell me, 'I was confused for about 60 seconds until I realized that what was happening in front of me was really sweet. I don't even know what to call your music.'"
The members of the Appleseed Collective — Brown, Brandon Smith (violin and mandolin), Vince Russo (percussion) and Eric Dawe (bass) — don't spend too much time worrying about such labels. They're too busy building an audience outside the cozy, accepting confines of their hometown.
"You have to keep out and keep working ... In Ann Arbor, you'll either get accepted or you won't, but either way, you can only play (there) so many times a year," Brown said.
Since its formation in 2010, the Appleseed Collective has churned out four albums — two studio efforts (2012's "Baby to Beast" and 2014's "Young Love") and two live recordings. Its most recent disc, 2014's "Live at the Ark," is an engaging collection of old and new material recorded at one of Ann Arbor's flagship live music spots, but it already has become dated in the sense that it includes a prominent contribution from banjo player and vocalist Katie Lee, who left the band halfway through last year.
Brown said her departure forced the other members of the band to focus on developing their harmonies, and the result has been that the group now sounds tighter and deeper than ever.
"It has actually been really amazing," he said of the transformation that has occurred since Lee left the band
The down side to that development, of course, is that the Appleseed Collective doesn't have a recording out that reflects its current sound. That will be remedied soon, Brown said, explaining that the band plans to release another live album that will be recorded from its live shows over the next few months. He described the concept as a tour journal in audio form.
Brown looks forward to its release, explaining that he often feels like the band has had little time to sit back and map out a strategy since its inception under unlikely circumstances five years ago. Brown had known Russo since high school, but he met Smith on an Ann Arbor street corner one night during a busking session when the guitarist Smith was playing with set down his instrument for a moment and Brown picked it up and joined in. From those origins, the Appleseed Collective arose.
The band's first real gig came, appropriately enough, as the house band at a party to mark the removal of a fermented cheese called kombucha from store shelves by manufacturers because of its alcohol content. Some enterprising Ann Arbor residents whipped up their own batch of the stuff, began offering it at their house (admission was by password only) and the Appleseed Collective was hired to provide the entertainment.
"We like to joke (that) our music grew out of the great kombucha speakeasy movement of 2010," Brown said.
Ann Arbor's fascination with the devil's cheese may have flagged over time, but the Appleseed Collective proved to have a little more staying power. The band has built a devoted following there, no easy feat in a community that is regarded as fertile performing ground by well-known national touring acts, sometimes making it difficult for local bands to gain a foothold.
Brown said it's nice to have that level of support in your hometown, but he and his bandmates have no intention of being satisfied with that.
"We're getting way out of the dream bubble and touring reality," he said. "But we're trying to take the dream bubble with us."