When Detroit music is culled to mind, the sounds of classic Motown, raw garage-inspired rock or aggressive, lived-out hip-hop ring through the auditories as pronounced and intelligible free associations, whereas country, bluegrass or folk wouldn’t register to even the greenest of uninitiated. The Cadieux Cafe is trying to uproot that notion, with its “Country Tuesdays,” at its perennial address on Detroit’s lower east side. Leading the down-home charge or maybe more accurately, casual stroll, are duo The Lost Boys, (usually a quartet known as Wendy and the Lost Boys) with their particular brand of unvarnished country and folksy lounge. The group, consisting of Niko Eklund on banjo and lead vocals with Thom Kondoff on acoustic guitar and harmony, are truly acoustic with nary a microphone for amplification. Incidentally, Eklund and Kondoff are one half of the now defunct-but-possibly-reforming Weathervane Cocks, whose tune “Lush Psychotic” was reprised for the set.
It is quietly understood that in country and folk music, covers or standards are pretty much the cornerstone of the genre, and to a certain extent the lounge arena, as not only an ancient and effective aural story-telling, but as a medium to showcase their particular sound and style. They are called standards for a reason. Plus I’m a total sucker for an offbeat, off-genre cover, so it is not with scorn or a contemptuous eye-roll that I walk into a bucolic set laden with standards, but with a jejune giddiness, in part because good country music around here is about as easy to come by as an honest politician or a stable economy, and in part because the Lost Boys’ reputation had preceded them. The bespectacled and unassuming Eklund took the modest stage, bathed in a light of muted apricots and titians, without pomp. He began to strum the banjo with an enviable nonchalance which soon took the shape of Lefty Frizzell’s “Saginaw, Michigan,” as his solo warm-up. The more reserved and pensive Kondoff joined him on guitar and spot-on harmonies for the self-indulgently requested, “Cabaret.” It conjured up incongruent images of Liza playing to a sold-out saloon somewhere in the foothills of the Smokies. But it was on this irony that Eklund’s smooth-as-glass voice raptly captivated my attention back to the present with its near-saccharine perfection; both crystalline and syrupy. The undiluted bluegrass tonic of “Early Morning Rain,” and Eklund’s once again Midas voice, sent icy chills down my hyper-aware spine, which was a jarring and welcome contrast to the slow burn of the Kentucky bourbon coursing through my rapidly warming veins. My mind swirling and reacting to these culminations; his voice is like slipping into freshly laundered silk sheets, scented with lavender and sandalwood. The Lost Boys, interlaced their country and bluegrass slant with a lounge-y flavor, not only in crooning style and song selection, but by way of their off-the-cuff banter and improvised jokes which lent to the impromptu and relaxed feel of the evening. “The best part of a five person crowd, you can do whatever you want,” drolly remarked Kondoff.
They proceeded to play such ubiquities as “Moonglow,” “Baby Mine,” and “Sugar Moon,” in their entrancing way-off-the-Reno-strip style, making them sound somehow simultaneously nostalgic, yet fresh. It was as if Ol’ Blue Eyes grew up in Appalachia instead of Jersey. This approach was solidly evident on “Twilight Time,” which half-way through made it seem like the Platters had never existed. It was like hearing the song for the first time. Eklund elaborates, “It’s like if you hear “(Sitting) On the Dock of the Bay,” but a guy’s playing the accordion to it, it’s as if he’s singing in a different language. You might as well be singing in Portuguese or Slovenian or something.” The “baby-making music,” of “Twilight Time” bled into the flamenco-tinged, “Sway,” where even the until-then, sedate Kondoff can’t help, but move his hips to the infectious rhythm. He hits his technical stride on this tune as well, with his complex Spanish-style guitarra picking and booming, abrupt strums. The concentration on the involved fingering reads endearingly all over his strained face as he closes his wide eyes, and throws his head back with a mass of tangled tobacco curls falling against his scraggled demeanor, to which he futilely attempts to shake free. He took lead vocals on the Dead tune, “Stella Blue,” where he got a far-away look in his mahogany eyes as he expertly strummed, you could almost see his inhibitions rising like vapors into obscurity of the mosaic atmosphere. What Kondoff lacks in vocal range he makes up for in adroit skill and trenchant passion. When he lets go, you are treated to a thick brushstroke of sheer, swarthy emotion.
Next were a pair of Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan tunes, with “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” being pure bluegrass, and a quixotic rendition of “Simple Twist of Fate,” where Eklund channeled a somehow even more smug Don McLean. It’s no short order to re-imagine an already spartan folk song, especially one with a voice so iconic as Dylan’s, on “Lonesome,” but the Lost Boys somehow manage by leaning heavily on the banjo and relying on Eklund’s velveteen and honeyed vocals. Admittedly, it’s difficult not to have a bluegrass vibe with a twangy banjo in tow, but Eklund has the uncanny ability to extract from it whatever sound he deems fit, making it as neutral or muffled as needed to suit the Lost Boys’ distinct vision. “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” was begrudgingly played against Kondoff’s feigned protests and inevitable Lebowski quotes, “I had a bad night and I hate the Eagles.” But yet could turn the most vehement Eagles antagonist into a believer with their pure heart and melodious harmonies beaming through the pluck and twang. It had me scrambling for the nearest imagined desert plateau, awash in saturated rusts and warm ochres to peer out over the world with a John Denver cassette in the Walkman and a cheap bottle of tequila in hand. But it was on the venerable original Elvis recording, “That’s Alright, Mama” that I got the shot of full-on bluegrass picking they so seductively teased. This was the up-tempo, foot-stomping, countrified finale to the second set I had waited all night for. Eklund’s got it and I got the express impression he knows it, but he is so damned charming that I don’t even mind. He seems to have taken Shakespeare and his lounge act to heart, as he never stopped performing, even off-stage, cracking jokes, schmoozing and working the scarce room.
By third set they had definitely loosened up; the audience was reacting and music tends to relieve tension, but plenty of booze didn’t hurt, either. Impeccable song choices like crowd-favorite, “Going to California,” The Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman,” the incredibly intimate Buddy Holly jaunt, “Everyday,” and the definitive zenith of the night, “Little Red Corvette,” left me impressed by their discerning and precise palate and wondering if every song shouldn’t get the Lost Boys treatment. A mandatory part of the American experience, hell the human experience, should be listening to Prince played on the banjo, at least one time in life. It was like we were privy to a backstage warm-up jam or some forgotten bootleg session. The highlight of the performance, though, had to be the two seamless originals, “Cigar,” a nod to James Taylor, but without the subsequent suicidal thoughts, and the apt honkey-tonk canticle, “Lush Psychotic,” The crowd’s emphatic response to these tunes had less to do with novelty, I contend, and more to do with the enthusiasm that shone through on Eklund’s and Kondoff’s parts by playing their own material. Amidst hearty applause, Eklund self-deprecatingly muttered, “I only rip off the best.” The slapdash set list ended with the very deliberate and effective, Spanish-styled, “Here Comes My Baby,” which sooner rather than later left my increasingly crimson-flushed cheek stained with obsidian tears and Gordon Lightfoot’s, “Carefree Highway,” where Eklund’s voice lapped like warm, saline waves against my sun-drenched auditory senses.
This unpretentious and rustic evening of re-invented roots music sent me in search of the originals I had just relearned, but nothing would prove worthy of scratching that itch. There was something very touching about these songs; stripped down to their barest, most emotive, but whimsical bones, that was remarkably and painstakingly absent in the originals I dug up. I know there is something to be said about standing on the shoulders of giants, but I very savagely and selfishly craved their versions. It just satisfied that very Americana-pith buried deep in the root cellar of my soul. This night with the Lost Boys was akin to lounging with a mason jar of white lightning on the back porch of an antebellum Mississippi farmhouse, listening to a couple of good friends jam on a breezy summer’s night. The creaky old wooden floor of which, warped and weathered from years of shuffling boot heels and memories; the stage, the inky night sky pulsating with stars; the lighting, and thousands of crickets and one lone bullfrog; the backing band. They take their music seriously without taking themselves too seriously. This crooner-cum-hayseed approach could seem hacky if it weren’t for their technical proficiency, notable musicianship, and pellucid love for the art and past-time of making music. It’s clearly not about the money, as they are willing to play for few shillings, but about an overwhelming passion for the craft that is so deeply engrained in their spirits. It’s refreshing to see such talented artists playing music for all the right reasons. As Kondoff succinctly put it, “I just wanna play music.”
Post Script: Eklund and Kondoff are teaming up again for an extemporaneous Spinal Tap tribute on, you guessed it, 11-11-11 at the Cadieux Cafe. So turn it up and turn it out.