“I wish I could see (insert big band here) on a small stage…”

The fans at the Gallery Coffee Company in Munising got more than advertised as The Verve Pipe’s Lou Musa & Brad Vander Ark joined Brian on July 3rd.

I guess, I’ll start this going back a few years. Okay, maybe even a common statute of limitations (7 years), but I got a call one morning from a friend asking me what I was up to. Long story short, I ended up on the icy shores Harlow Lake with a crew of folks that included Brian Vander Ark and Joel Ferguson (bass 2014-2021) of The Verve Pipe, Lux Land (Brian’s folk singer wife) and artist Lawrence W. Carroll. We spent the next few hours together shooting footage around Harlow, and in the following days Negaunee & Ishpeming city proper, for the video for the title track of The Verve Pipe’s 2014 opus “Overboard. Honestly, that’s a whole other story, but it at least prefaces my interest when I noticed Brian coming back to the central U.P.

I caught Brian’s last local solo performance at Brogie’s Tavern in 2017, so I already knew he puts on one heck of an acoustic solo show.  I wasn’t 100% about taking the trip to Gallery Coffee until my partner brought it up after seeing a commercial for it on one of the streaming services.  She missed Brian the last time, really wanted to check him out, so we decided to do it.  Heck, it wasn’t until a couple days later that I realized the show was free.

Before I get to the meat of the show, there is a BIG thing that needs to be brought up about this being a free show.  Many of our readers know me in real life so they know I’ve had my fingers in a lot of major productions in the region. I only bring this up to back up the idea that I have a pretty solid idea of how much a solo Brian Vander Ark show costs, and I would guess most outside of the music game would be shocked. So this being a free show, much like the Chris Canas FREE! Show on July 23, is a pretty big deal and their sponsors Eh! Burger, Alley Cats, Betty Kinnunen and Altran need to get some serious props (and hopefully your business) for stepping up to make this kind of thing happen.

Thank You Eh! Burger!
Thank You! Alley Cats!

Of course, I don’t know if the sponsors or promoters realized what they’d be getting on July 3rd. I know I didn’t.  So my partner and I hopped on M-28 and made the rather quick jaunt, now that it’s sensibly 65 mph most of the way, from Marquette to Munising. I was a touch concerned we were getting there a little late, as Munising has been known to be a zoo even at 8-9pm in recent years, but it seemed like a pretty calm night. I was later informed it was the calm after the previous night’s storm, which is pretty funny considering what we were about to get to see on the stage at the Gallery.

My partner and I showed up as Whiskey Ryan & Catfish Kennedy were finishing up on stage. Actually we arrived as they immediately endeared themselves to us with a John Prine cover. I’ve heard repeatedly that I needed to check Whiskey & Catfish out, and well, I definitely need to more now. 

Now Gallery Coffee is clearly in their early days of becoming a music venue. I’ll touch on that a little more later, but where it still has a way to come as a music venue it is an AMAZING event venue, with wide open spaces, a lot of history (both local and in general), and an atmosphere that truly fits the traditional rustic civilized feel of most of the Upper Peninsula. I can’t say it’s the most unique venue I’ve see live music at, but I can say it’s the most unique venue I’ve ever seen “a big band on a small stage,” and if you happened to be there on July 3rd as well, so did you.

We wandered around admiring the place while we waited for Brian to take the stage.  I did have to chuckle when I saw one of the stage cats tuning Brian’s guitar. I snapped a quick pic, and turned to my partner with “Oh, how cute, Brian’s having a lackey tune his guitar before a free show. Rockstar.” We both chuckled, and a few minutes later Brian took the stage.

A pretty cool little stage at Gallery Coffee Company in Munising, awaiting Brian Vander Ark.

Well, Brian, and friends. They kicked off with the title track from The Verve Pipe’s multi-platinum best seller “Villians,” and I was just watching how smooth Brain’s “backing band” (a bassist and a guitarist) were moving around on stage immediately. I didn’t recognize the bassist, he wasn’t who I met a few years back, but a quick trip to Google and I knew I was looking at Verve Pipe founding /current bass player, and Brian’s brother, Brad Vander Ark.  I still wasn’t 100% sure, however, who was playing guitar. All I know is he had “big stage rockstar” moves that were being effortlessly translated to this tiny stage cove in a coffee shop in Munising, MI.  After the set I did end up hilariously confirming my suspicions that it was in fact Verve Pipe axeman, since 2009, Lou Musa. Pretty sure it went something like “Hey dude,what’s your name?,” “We’re The Verve Pipe” “Yeah, I got that, I was just making sure you were Lou”.

Lou Musa bringing the big stage rockstar swagger

So within’ minutes I realized that we were in fact staring at 3/5ths of The Verve Pipe ripping out a 90 minute set of their classics, of course, including chart toppers like the aforementioned “Villians,” “Cup of Tea,” “Photograph,” and “Hero.” An array of tracks from their more recent works, oh yeah, and maybe a few tracks from Vander Ark’s pretty solid solo discography like “Coast to Coast Michigan,” “And Then We Fell,” and a few tracks everyone in the room definitely knew like the Peter Gabriel classic “In Your Eyes,” and Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer.”

The performance was dead-on throughout the entire 90 minutes of rock and folk/rock.  Vander Ark is an extremely versatile vocalist, yet he covers all kinds of styles and techniques with such ease and a constant airiness in his voice that many can only strive for.  There’s a good chance the performance level, and the, oft considered surprising, versatility of Vander Ark/Verve Pipe’s catalog made a fan of a skeptic or two in the room that night.

The turn-out was actually a bit smaller than I would have expected, but, honestly, that just makes the night more special for the couple hundred (maybe) that filtered through.  It was definitely a full array of what you’d expect of a U.P. crowd full of tourists.  One family, that I noticed particularly, was clearly dealing with uninterested children, but you could tell that “Mom REALLY wanted to see ‘that Freshman guy,’ which brings me to the point where everyone in the crowd predictably silenced.  Now, I know for those of you who may be reading this that aren’t used to a U.P. music crowd “predictable silence” may seem a little insane.  I get it. I’ve heard more than one musician express being blown away by a crowd going silent, and almost universally paying attention.  Well, those first licks of “The Freshman” came out of the PA and that wave of silence just hit.

It was all eyes on Vander Ark for “the hit.” Well, not exactly all eyes, because I felt the need to just watch my partner passionately lip sync along only to have her turn and discover me shooting a series of photograph’s and smile (those will be processed and put up at some point) with tears running down her face.  She didn’t realize seeing the song, which has been with her since she was 10, would impact her as such. It’s reactions like that that still make it worthwhile to the artists, even if they may start a set with “Yep, I’m here to play (insert hit here) 24 times in a row.”

“The Freshman” ended to wild applause, and the crew kicked into “I Went With the Road” to close out the set.

This is one of those points where I almost get to look important because when Brian walked off the stage he saw and approached me, again we are acquainted, and we chatted real quick before he said, “Uh, one sec…” and looked at the crowd and said “You want one more?!?” to that rousing applause.

The mini-Pipe took the stage one last time, with half the room still staring at me wondering who I was other than the biggest dude in the room.  I may have yelled, “Yeah, get up there and play ‘Overboard,’” which was co-written by Jeff Daniels, but they got up there and within seconds you knew what they were playing was, again, something everyone in the room generally knew, and they got up and rocked out a rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.”

Of course, the band rocked it out as seasoned rockers should, and the night was over. Brian walked around and talked with adoring fans, and Lou and Brad hung out on stage breaking down their gear.

Brad Vander Ark

I mentioned that I ‘d get back to the venue demonstrating either that they’re in their early days of music, which they are, or intend to not play on a certain level.  The sound in the room is solid for sure. I think they would have benefit from sound checking prior to the band beginning because the first song was rough until about 2/3’s of the way through.  When we finally saw the sound man holding his tablet (yep, It’s all digital these days) my partner laughed at me with a “There he is, now calm down.”  Also, in regards to lighting. The stage does have more of a coffee shop, though almost flea market, vibe, but it’s presented as a stage, so the quaint static lighting just feels a bit off when you have someone like Brian, Brad & Lou on stage.  There were times when the focus was clearly not meant to be on Brian, but the only real lighting was as Lou or Brad would be absolutely bending the necks of their axes.  The lack of a spot, or just ready static lighting, for the front of the stage made the “bass solo” in “The Chain” come across as kind of hokey as it’s clear Brad has his “choreography” in his mind and takes the very front of the stage as it hits.

A nice crowd in a nice venue.

Overall, though, it was an incredible special night in a corner of the scene that is absolutely growing, as really Marquette Music Scene is the entire U.P. scene, and Munising is really only a skip away now.  The Gallery Coffee House is definitely going to be a venue to watch, and one you should really be looking to hit up for a show.  Especially with free shows coming up, again like Detroit Blues “Prince” Chris Canas, who has been a Marquette Area Bluesfest headliner in the past, on July 23, or even closer the absolutely manic Igor & The Red Elvises this Tuesday July 12.  They also have a full slate of local and regional acts showing the venue wants to provide a properly diverse line-up of music. They’re not trying to target everyone at once, but at some point during the summer there’s going to be something you’re going to dig on stage at the Gallery Coffee Company.

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