2016 Didn't Suck That Much (At Least Not Musically)

There’s a rule in music…well, there’s a rule in my musical world:

If they hang out with Josh and Garth of The Rutabega, they make damn fine music.

This has held true through numerous events and opening acts. Really, the only exception I can think of is myself and, well, I don’t make any music at all. The rule certainly applies to what I deem my favorite find of 2016 (I really should come up with a name for this…the Golden Needle Award? The Drop Of The Year? Or maybe I shouldn’t).

I’m speaking of Jake Simmons & The Little Ghosts. I caught them while playing with The Rutabega at McCormick’s in South Bend and, while the late night show was making me feel a bit old, the music of JS&TLG revived me in a way I haven’t felt since I was a punk-ass kid watching Dave Kirchgessner of Mustard Plug hang from that weird bar above the two-inch stage at the original Intersection (cheers if you remember what I’m talking about).

JS&TLG make solid rock music, with high-energy dives into punk rock, blues, and, seemingly, whatever the hell sound they deem appropriate for each song. The bleeding guitars are best played on high volume and, hey, don’t be shy about singing along. Jake’s lyrics traverse the realms of quirky, angry, and sentimental, never once feeling anything but genuine.

As is often the case for me with my end of year favorites, most, if not all of the JS&TLG music I’m speaking of was released prior to 2016, but , hey, this was the year that I discovered it (you could chalk this up to my being slow and behind, but I prefer to blame it on the massive amount of great music being made today).

I’ve put together a Jake Simmons mixtape for you to check out some of my favorites. Make no mistake, though, as anything short of picking up the entirety of every release is simply shorting yourself of rock and roll greatness. And why would you do that to yourself? Check out that mix tape over on Spotify:

AtND Jake Simmons & The Little Ghosts Mix Tape

As for the rest of 2016, well, many claims have been made as to the negative nature of the year thanks to numerous deaths of our heroes, bad news stories, and the embarrassing and horrific election of Trump to the White House, but remember, nothing is all good or bad. Whatever else aside, 2016 certainly was a solid year for good music:

(Note: If you’re playing catch up, click on the album or song title to purchase the music from Amazon and help AtND pay the bills at the same time!)

Car Seat Headrest gave us Teens Of Denial, a rock album that finds new depth with each listen.

Amanda Palmer has found a prolific stride thanks to her reliance on Patreon, using the direct support of her fans to give us a constant supply of new and excellent music. It was by fortunate coincidence that AFP’s tour had hit my region the weekend after the election (not to mention the death of Leonard Cohen), giving me a place to process my shock, disappointment, and upset. The concert featured an emotional evening of music, with sing-alongs, scream-alongs, stomping, and crying. Amanda brought along guests, inviting Peter Sagal of NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and the Vice President of Illinois’ Planned Parenthood to deliver messages of love and action. Her husband, author Neil Gaiman, was in the room as well. He performed a reading (with Amanda backing him musically) of Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy” before spending much of his evening with their son in the back of the room, teaching him to walk a few feet from where I was standing (I put my fanboy away and just watched the moment in awe). Speaking of that reading of “Democracy”, you can pick that track up and, in the process, help out PEN America’s efforts to defend free speech by going here.

The Avett Brothers gave us their best album in years with True Sadness. You can check out my review of that here. I saw them too the weekend after the election, a last minute addition to my concert schedule that was the usual emotion packed evening from TAB, heightened so by current events. With protestors expressing similar feelings just around the corner from the Van Andel Arena, the crowd roared in defiance the line “your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected” during “Head Full Of Doubt, Road Full Of Promise“.

Swet Shop Boys brought us the Indian/Pakistan/American hip-hop album Cashmere, full of anger and commentary about our culture’s treatment of those of Middle Eastern descent (and not to mention all of those sick beats).

If you somehow missed it, Drive-By Truckers certainly broke new ground with American Band, giving us the American rock album we desperately need in our current culture.

And Charles Bradley gave us Changes, reminding us the true meaning of the word “soul” and recording an amazing cover of, oddly, Black Sabbath.

And we can’t forget all of the awesome coming from Grand Rapids’ The Crane Wives, giving us the epic Foxlore when I was still busy singing along with Coyote Stories and Safe Ship, Harbored. Watch for them in 2017. I expect amazing things.

Justin Wells returned from the ashes of Fifth On The Floor with one of the best American rock albums I heard all year in Dawn in the Distance, about his life as a musician, an outcast, and a father.

PUP gave us The Dream Is Over, a mischievous, loud, and ultimately fun punk rock record worthy of losing one’s voice while screaming along and playing far too loud.

So much good music. So whatever the “dumpster fire” view of 2016 you may have, remember unrest and upset makes for some fine music and certainly gives us a soundtrack for fighting the battles ahead. And, oh, do we have battles ahead.

I want to thank you all for another great year of support. Remember, if you love what we do, you can support us directly at our Patreon campaign or visit any of our sponsor links.

Let’s finish 2016 with our heads high and our hands ready for the battles of 2017. Until then, here’s to life.


The Crane Wives at The Living Room Series

The Crane Wives, The Living Room Series At The Hanson Theater, Benton Harbor, Michigan, September 30th, 2016

The promise of The Living Room Series at the Hanson Theatre has been the intimate experience brought by the small performing space and the universal emotions in the Americana music played there. This season’s debut, featuring The Crane Wives, elevated that closeness and brought the audience an evening unlike those experienced in standard music venues.

The Crane Wives, from Grand Rapids, quickly found their footing in the relaxed space. Early on, they referenced their own uncomfortableness in the room, it’s rounded shape leaving them “surrounded” by listeners and the quiet audience creating a void for them to fill between songs. Their admission immediately connected them to the audience and soon there was a regular banter, including a “Question & Answer” dialogue. This brought the strength of their music to the fore.

They are the most human of musicians; honest, flawed, and willing to acknowledge their own fears and divisions. Their lyrics are open, personal, and vulnerable and they brought that trait to the conversation with spectators. We were given insight to the stories behind the songs and the lifestyle of music the foursome lives, one they referred to as greatly familial, stating “we’re married to each other & each of our partners as well.”

Throughout the evening, we heard selections from the most recent of The Crane Wives albums, 2015’s “Coyote Stories” and this year’s “Foxlore”, as well as earlier cuts from the already growing library from the six-year old band. Their sound continues to expand with each release, blending the traditional sounds of folk and Americana with the energies of rock and pop.

//ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=qf_sp_asin_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=anytheneedr04-20&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B0185INCJY&asins=B0185INCJY&linkId=b2c1e14435a18ad13f9289415480bad6&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=true&price_color=333333&title_color=0066c0&bg_color=ffffff //ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=qf_sp_asin_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=anytheneedr04-20&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B01DAKAMAY&asins=B01DAKAMAY&linkId=d6f90a5a18ed70400edf6b46297acde4&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=true&price_color=333333&title_color=0066c0&bg_color=ffffffThe Mendel Center rounded out the evening with an expanded attraction in form of food and beverage. The Livery was in the house serving up three of their craft beers, along with a selection of food samples from kitchen manager Becky Wehmer. Pizza fans were treated to standards such as pepperoni, but also unique topping combinations such as Thai BBQ Chicken and the uncommon deliciousness of “Taste Likes Stuffing”. Beer lovers were offered a presentation prior to the show, discussing the history of the Livery, one of the oldest craft breweries in the region, and their beer-making process.

With an evening full of local flavors and music, The Living Room Series has kicked off a solid new season. Music fans should keep an eye on The Hanson Theatre, as they are quietly building some the best seats for live music in Southwest Michigan.

Check out the latest released from The Cranes Wives on iTunes & Amazon and watch their tour schedule on TheCraneWives.com. Updates on The Hanson Theatre and The Living Room Series can be found at The Mendel Center website.

The Living Room Series

This week brings us the latest season of The Living Room Series at the Hanson Theatre at Lake Michigan College. The shows bring growing Americana acts to the intimate space of the Hanson for a close and personal evening of live music.

Audience members, even in the farthest row, are within speaking distance of the musicians. The evenings feature plenty of great music and, often, personal chatter from the artists that listeners would miss at larger venues.

The debut show this year features none other than The Crane Wives. Listeners to the Anywhere The Needle Drops podcast may recall The Crane Wives as our guests on the show last Winter.


Always delivering a solid live show, The Crane Wives are sure to make for a great debut. They are currently promoting their latest album, Foxlore. The 2016 release quickly followed 2015’s Coyote Stories, giving us a pair of albums that exemplify the band’s continued evolution beyond the Americana sound. Both are filled with energy-driven music and provoking songwriting. Here’s a taste of Sleeping Giants, from Coyote Stories:


You can grab both albums from The Crane Wives on Amazon and iTunes.


The music begins this Friday night, September 30th, at 7pm at The Hanson Theatre on the Lake Michigan College Campus. You can purchase tickets here.

LMC Logo W-Mendel_4-C

The Crane Wives

Grand Rapids Americana band The Crane Wives are known for the emotion and the energy brought to the listener in both their live show and in their recordings. As Emilee Petersmark and Kate Pillsbury, the original duo who formed the group, told me after their show at The Livery, their pursuit is not simply about music, but about family and lifestyle.

Emilee and Kate met as students at Grand Valley State University. Though both were solo musicians and ran in similar crowds, it was in the financially tough years following college that the two really bonded. Both worked for the same Chinese restaurant in the area, a job experience they each described as terrible. It was in the difficulty of that job that they connected and embarked on making music together.

We worked there together and in our shared misery, we became much closer than we had been,” Kate said.

Writing together in their free time from work, they started to create a catalog of songs. They quickly discovered that the normally painful process of collaborative songwriting was easy when working together. They would finish a number of songs they had each started previously on their own and took their music to a live audience as The Crane Wives.

Our boss found out that we played music,” Kate said. “And we encouraged her to let us play music on Friday nights.”

Though their initial reception was not positive, the union of their individual skills in lyricism would prove fruitful. Both Kate and Emilee relayed tales of writing songs as early as childhood. Emilee recalled diving into songwriting during her middles school years. Kate, whose father was a songwriter, has handwritten lyrics going back as early as age six. Together, they wove together emotional lyrics and tales that individuals of any background could connect with. As the band grew in size, the music evolved beyond the Americana sound, urging the listener to sing, foot stomp, and dance.

The band would eventually grow to a five-piece. Dan Rickabus and Tom Gunnels, both known from the Grand Valley campus and the local music community, joined the family as a way of uniting their various musical projects. Ben Zito found his way into the band after acting as their sound engineer for a number of shows and playing bass while helping them create an album. Gunnels would leave the band in 2015, pushing the remaining members to stretch their musical skills to complete The Crane Wives sound.


The unification of the four members of The Crane Wives goes beyond that of musical collaboration. Together, they have set out to pursue not only music, but a particular lifestyle, treating their creativity as a career and their band as a family.

Being in a band, we always equate it to being married,” Emilee said. “It’s such a very delicate chemistry.”

Our lives are dependent on each other,” Kate said. “Whenever someone takes a weekend off, we all take a weekend off. We carefully architect our lives around each other.”

The members regularly “check in” with each other, making sure the entire band is satisfied both with their creative progress and with the lifestyle that has come out of existing in a full-time band. They have put a deliberate focus on longevity, as opposed to more lofty goals of stardom. They recalled their experience at Folk Alliance International in 2015, in which they met with people in the music industry who highlighted the more practical aspects of life as a musician.

They want numbers,” Kate said. “How many fans do you want to draw to a show? How many shows do you want to do in a year? How much money do you want to make at a show?”

Making it means something different when you realize this is a job,” Emilee said. “I want to be able to do this every day and live financially secure.”

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The Crane Wives are well on their way toward those goals. They have traveled throughout the country, slowly and practically growing their fan base. They pursue their music in a way they keeps a focus on staying healthy, caring for themselves, and for each other. The music they are creating continues to evolve, with two solid albums in as many years, including 2015’s “Coyote Stories” and 2016’s “Foxlore”, both showing they have plenty to say with their music.


Our goal is to do this for our lives,” Kate said. “Because we love each other.”

You can follow The Crane Wives, find tour dates, and check out their music, including all three of their albums, at thecranewives.com.



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These piece created in part for Justin’s weekly column in Off The Water.