Matthew Milia of Frontier Ruckus led off Tuesday night’s set at The Ark just the way he started the band – with David Jones sitting by his side. With Jones’ gentle plucking of the banjo and Milia on guitar, Milia eased into Driving Home, Christmas Eve: “The churchyard is frozen, the Salvation Army is closin’, your child is dozin’ asleep …” But the repeated rhyme stopped there and did not become a caricature of itself in the way that a Dylan lyric sometimes does.
As the evening progressed, the pair were joined on stage by the full complement of the band – which added drums, bass, a musical saw, piano, trumpet, trombone – but the constant throughout was the sheer literate quality of Milia’s songwriting. A lot of it is about place, or moving through a place – someplace that could be any old place. But he’s writing about a particular place – even if it’s half made up, which is the case for Orion Town, the title of the band’s new full-length CD release. But it’s real particular places when he sings about I-75, or Rosemont Street. And Milia makes them compelling as stand-ins for a listener’s own places – in the same way that Springsteen does when he sings about driving through his hometown in a big old Buick or when Mellencamp describes another hot one out on Highway 11.
The progression of the performance Tuesday night mirrored in some ways the chapter of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn entitled “I Have a New Name,” from which Frontier Ruckus quotes on their MySpace page under the slot for Sounds Like: “… and there was them kind of faint dronings of bugs and flies in the air that makes it seem so lonesome and like everybody’s dead and gone.”
But the faint dronings soon become the barking of hound dogs as they encircle Huck on the Phelps’ plantation where he’s arrived a stranger. Which is not in any way to compare the full band to the barking of hound dogs.
Especially not the vocals of Anna Burch, who lends the band’s sound a fresh, sweet quality to complement Milia’s not-unpleasant half-creak, which sometimes teeters on the edge of a laugh.
And there were plenty of laughs shared among the band and the audience during the evening, some intentional, some not. “We’re not used to playing formal shows,” Milia said during a minor hitch involving the set list and tuning of their instruments, saying that they were used to playing bars where most of the people were only half listening.
One of those bars has been The Elbow Room in Ypsilanti, and Andy Garris of The Elbow Room was there at The Ark on Tuesday to offer up a tray of Jameson shots to the band before one of their final songs. After the show, Garris summarized his thoughts on Frontier Ruckus: “I love this band.” They’ll be playing next at Garris’ Elbow Room on Dec. 28 for the third day of a three-day event, Mittenfest.
Standing in the same conversational pod as Garris after the show was Ryan Howard, who plays with the band Canada. Howard confirmed that Canada would be playing the first day of Mittenfest on Dec. 26 along with Creaky Boards, among others. Chris Bathgate was also in the audience for the Tuesday show with Frontier Ruckus, and he confirmed that he’d be at Mittenfest as well (Dec. 28). All three days of Mittenfest are scheduled for The Elbow Room this year, with music starting at 6 p.m. each day.
The show on Tuesday evening at The Ark had the relaxed intimacy of a neighborhood pub with a band comfortable knowing that many of the people there were totally on their side. But bass player John Krohn estimated after the show that two-thirds of the audience skewed away from their usual demographic.
Those folks at the concert who had never heard Frontier Ruckus before, and might well have never heard of them, either, were at The Ark for Take a Chance Tuesday. The Take a Chance Tuesday series is a free concert on the fourth Tuesday of every month except December, which concluded a full decade with yesterday’s concert. Cynthia Dunitz of Fleming Artists came up with the concept 10 years ago as a way to help develop young and up-and-coming artists. Speaking with Dunitz before the show, she said that she’s turning over the reins to her colleague, Susie Giang.
The concert series also works as a fundraiser for Food Gatherers, which had volunteers on hand to accept and sort the food that concert goers brought in lieu of paying for tickets.
The concert series also enjoys support from DTE’s GreenCurrents program, which has sponsored 110 concerts at The Ark, according to Larry Kaufman of DTE. Kaufman was on hand to highlight DTE’s role in sponsoring the series, as well as to sign folks up for the GreenCurrents program, which DTE promotes as a way for electricity consumers to boost the use of electricity in the grid that comes from wind and other alternative sources.
As The Chronicle left The Ark, Kaufman was on the verge of signing up Andy Garris of The Elbow Room for GreenCurrents.