Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Mind blown

So, um, yeah - that actually happened.  My friend, who I have known, for 34 years was on a TV show that millions of people watched last night.  Pharrell Williams came out of his chair and bowed to him.  Adam Levine said he was "unlike anyone we have ever had" on The Voice.  It was insane.

Not that I didn't think Laith had the talent or ability to "make it" as a recording artist - but I always thought it would happen differently.  I thought that some record producer would catch one of his shows and he would get a small contract and then tour, first regionally, and then nationally.  As he said - he has played over 300 gigs a year for the last 20 years.  Laith is definitely pretty big in the Ann Arbor music scene.  And he had made some significant inroads into Detroit and up north in Traverse City.  He even was playing more nationally in the last several years.  He played in Los Angeles, Denver, New Orleans, Kansas City etc.  But for it to happen - the way that it is happening - like he just jumped on a rocket ship to the moon at the age of 38 is just plain crazy.

So, I don't know if I'm going to write something necessarily every week - but a few things came to mind that seemed worthwhile to discuss.  I thought I'd write a little about some of the influences on Laith musically when we were growing up. Laith is completely his own person and yet he is very much a product of his environment.  I would say that a large number of American musicians have had one of two things which influenced them - a strong church music program and/or a strong public school music program.  Laith had both.

Our church, Zion Lutheran in Ann Arbor, had about 2,000 members when we were growing up.  So, a pretty decent sized church.  But we had two people that not many churches of any size have - we had Dr. Donald Williams and Carol Muehlig.  Don was from just outside of Atlanta, GA.  He migrated up to Ann Arbor to study organ at the University in the 1960's - and found a church home at Zion.  By the time we were in the choir he had been at Zion for ~20 years.  Carol was from Ann Arbor and served as the associate organist and choirmaster.

Don was a great choir master, but also a nationally touring organist.  At the end of the service each Sunday he would play a postlude - many people would stay in the church just to hear him play.  His "go to" was the incredibly difficulty Widor Toccata.  Here is a youtube of the piece so you know what I'm talking about.  It's actually pretty Rock'n Roll to my ear.

Laith has done a lot of study on guitar and none of it was with Don - but I think his ear for virtuoso playing came directly from all those years of hearing Don and Carol play the organ.  One of the most fun things about being in the church choir when we were really young was that Don and Carol would let us play the organ after choir practice.  They called it "monkeying on the organ."  Donald and Carol were not only incredible musicians - but they were giving with their time and wisdom.  They were also a great team.  Don was bombastic - if he laughed you could hear it three blocks away.  Carol is more quiet - but, also very talented and a great teacher.  They showed how one style is not right for every student.  You need a mix of styles to reach the greatest number of people.  Most importantly, they made everything seem very accessible to us.  They allowed us to be curious and creative.  I only wish that Don was still alive to see Laith last night.  

So, although Don and Carol certainly were a big influence on Laith - they certainly weren't Laith's only influence.  Ann Arbor is known for The Big House - but it's also a great place to be as a musician.  It's pretty much a given these days that if you go to a Broadway show there will be somebody in the cast from the University of Michigan musical theater program.  The other "Big House" in Ann Arbor is Hill Auditorium.  And even though the most recent event there was Jim Harbaugh's crazy signing day extravaganza with Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, Ric Flair etc - there have actually been even more historic concerts that have occurred there : )

During much of the 20th century the University's "May Festival" would bring some of the greatest classical musicians to Ann Arbor.  The Philadelphia Orchestra was a main stay while the great Eugene Ormandy was musical director there.  When Leonard Bernstein was in the last year of his life he decided he wanted to conduct one last time in three places - New York, Los Angeles, and Ann Arbor.

Classical was just a piece of music scene in Ann Arbor.  The two most famous musicians to come out of Ann Arbor are Bob Seger and Iggy Pop.  Seger, with his "Old Time Rock'n Roll" appeared to be of the past - but he had a huge influence on the future of Rock - even Kid Rock sites him as his most important influence.  Iggy Pop along with the MC5 basically invented punk rock.  And although Ann Arbor is not Detroit - we certainly are in the sphere of influence of Detroit.  In the 80's, less than an hour from where we lived Derrick May, Carl Craig and others were creating the new genre of Techno.  That energy which created Motown was still there - it was just finding new ways of expression.

Southeast Michigan in the 20th century is one of the most unique places this world has known.  There is a reason there was all this incredible creativity going on.  The auto industry brought in people from all over the United States - but also the world.  A huge Ford plant was just 10 miles down the road from us.  Our friends' parents were not only executives, but they were blue collar auto workers, engineers - and of course professors at the university.  Ann Arbor has a population of only just over 100,000 people - but it has the energy of a town 10 times the size.  The energy of that town on a football Saturday was incredible - but it was also our normal.

Jonas Salk studied here before discovering the Polio vaccine - James Earl Jones found his voice there - Arthur Miller studied theater there.  Because it is a relatively small place and there were so many amazing things going on it made you feel as though anything was possible.  It also gave us a lot to live up to. 

We might have grown up in the 80's, but there was still a lot of the 60's still left in Ann Arbor.  At one time it was probably the most liberal place in America - or at least it was tied with Berkeley.  Cheech and Chong talked about going to Ann Arbor in one of their movies because of the famously soft pot laws.  Local activism and national activism seemed to merge in Ann Arbor.  John Sinclair was a local guy who was a poet, journalist, band manager for the MC5 - among other things.  He got the attention of the authorities with his political activism - he started a group called "The White Panther Party" - which was supposed to be a group of whites fighting for racial equality with just as much as a military bent as the Black Panther Party.  To make sure he couldn't make good on some of his threats the authorities gave him a 10 year prison sentence for giving two joints to an undercover policeman.  His plight became a cause celebre for the entire radical left.  A concert in Ann Arbor in 1971 which was held to try to get him released included John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, the poet Allen Ginsburg, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, etc. 

We also had a very strong music program in our public schools.  Laith went to Community High School - an alternative school that was based on much of the educational theory put forth by John Dewey, who was also a faculty member at the University of Michigan.  Community had an incredible Jazz program.  Their Jazz band was a regular at the North Sea Jazz festival in Amsterdam.  Several professional musicians came out of that program. 

So, when I see Laith on stage - I see all of those influences.  It's not just the long hair and beard (which is kind of funny to me because he was pretty clean cut most of his life), it's not just the bluesy voice that occasionally gives way to a clear falsetto, it's not just the virtuosic guitar, it's not just the emotion that he sings with - it's the combination of it all.  It's how he took all of these influences - how he perfected his craft through a lot of hard work - and then put all of it together in a way that is completely unique.

One of Laith's albums is called "Long Time Coming" - a long time coming indeed brother.


PleaidesDolphinInfo said...

Thanks for sharing your memories!!

obrien1988 said...

Wonderful piece. We were Sunday School teachers, 7/8 grade, confirmation time, for Laith's years at Zion, lol. Fond memories. We still live in Ann Arbor and are delighted to see what's happening on the Voice.

Neda Al-Saadi said...

Thank you, Ben, for sharing this! I love that I am not the only one who can connect the complexity and virtuosity of the Widor Toccata and Laith Al-Saadi playing Little Wing by Jimmy Hendrix!

KS said...

Enjoyed reading this...especially the bit about Don Williams...I have no doubt he is smiling down on Laith right now. He was such a wonderful man & musician and is dearly missed..