A strange and fortuitous connection exists between the local musician Dick Siegel, myself, and The Ann Arbor Chronicle. Last May, I wrote a tribute to Ken King of Frog Holler Farm, who passed away after battling a brain tumor. I knew that Dick had played music with Ken, and I thought he might have some insightful words for the tribute.
Just before finishing that article, I ran into Dick at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market, and one of his quotes completed the piece for me. The column ended:
Dick Siegel had this final thought about the death of his long time friend, Ken King.
“He just took one foot off the earth… just now.”
Dick told me that after reading the column in The Chronicle, and considering further what Ken meant to him, he wrote a song about Ken that he then performed at Ken’s memorial service. It is a slow, deeply moving ballad that pays tribute to an extraordinary man, captivating and also hopeful. Expanding on the imagery quoted in the memorial article, the song is called ”The Man Who Fell Into The Sky.”
Dick himself is no less extraordinary. This internationally recognized singer/songwriter and performer is playing at The Ark on Saturday, Jan. 9 as Dick Siegel and the Brandos. This is the latest partnering for Dick – playing with Brian Delaney and Dave Roof – and perhaps one of the ensembles most likely to showcase his immense talent. The three men have also been spending time in the studio, with a new album expected this summer – the tribute to Ken will be on that album.
I had the opportunity to talk with Dick recently at his home on Ann Arbor’s near northwest side. In a wide-ranging interview, we touched on everything from the process of writing his tribute, to Ken, to his childhood growing up in New Jersey, and how his upbringing instilled in him a strong sense of community.
The Power of Community
Dick and I have spoken a few times since our unusual connection through The Chronicle article last spring, but I was just a silent fan of his music before this all took place. And he had no idea who I was. It was a nice connection, the kind that can take place in our small, intertwined community.
In fact, one of my great interests is in community, why Ann Arbor is special, and how it is that we have so many extraordinary people in our midst. So I asked Dick about his experience of Ann Arbor.
Like so many others, he came here for the University of Michigan, and he stayed. His wife Karen teaches at Ypsilanti High School in both theatre and debate. His daughter attends Mack Open, just a few blocks from their home, and Dick was enthusiastic about her work with Sarah Randazzo doing tap, ballet and jazz dance.
Dick’s own childhood was spent in West Orange, New Jersey, where community was important to his family. Dick’s grandfather ran a corner soda shop in Nutley, New Jersey, and was able to cultivate a diverse and vibrant community of regular customers. Dick’s father passed on that appreciation for small town culture. Dick talked about the time spent with his father that included visiting people his dad knew in the course of doing errands or even buying gas, and being part of a town where connections mattered.
He has found that same sort of opportunity to get to know people, to be a regular, here in Ann Arbor.
“I love the small businesses here,” Dick said, “knowing the proprietors, having friendly relationships with them, being part of a network that works with and for each other.”
I asked Dick if the current resurgence of support for local businesses, local food, and locally produced goods could apply to local musicians as well. He agreed that is it important, though he feels that supporting local music is in some ways different. A number of times during our interview, Dick repeated the idea of his songs being a part of the culture and essence of the community. Especially as a songwriter, his role is that of a chronicler or troubadour of our lives and experiences.
Yet he must, and does, have a larger appeal. He relies on the connections and support within our small city, which has also launched his international career. There is something of value in supporting an artist in your community, he said. These artists “share a lot of your culture and they are chronicling your experience. But they’ve got to be good. To do that effectively, you have to hone your craft – no matter what your medium is.”
“My career feels very comfortable and rooted to this place and the life that I live here,” he added. “Although I do travel and perform other places, I’ve never been a performer that is primarily on the road performing. I do know that … living in a place and living among friends … is very important to me.”
Building a Musical Career
While developing his craft, Dick worked as a builder and carpenter. His house reflects that background. In the less than 10 years Dick and his family have lived there, they’ve transformed a neglected yard and vinyl-sided home into a place that’s inviting, clad in the original and more attractive wooden exterior, with restoration of wooden floors, new walls and mechanicals, landscaping in the backyard, a renewed and welcoming front porch, and many other details blending modern, functional, and antique.
While Dick felt some pressure to devote himself full-time to music, he said he liked the work as a carpenter and builder, the friends that he made, and the opportunities it gave him. But now, he spends all his time on his musical career – writing songs, recording, and performing.
Dick has found Ann Arbor to be an accepting place to have a non-traditional career. The town is “a gentle place, very open-minded,” he said. “People are allowed to be who they are without getting a lot of flack from other people. That is one of Ann Arbor’s messages. You can be yourself. That is why you live here.”
“And it’s a supportive community for artists and musicians. They are valued in this community. When I started out, I could devote myself to playing the guitar and writing songs … people didn’t look down, it was a respected pursuit.”
Now, his career is being recognized in traditional ways as well. This semester, he’ll be the Helen L. DeRoy Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan’s Honors Program, teaching a course called, “Sing Out of Our Minds: The Art of Songwriting.”
“Angelo’s” – a Love Song
His own songwriting is grounded in his sense of place. While Dick now lives in the near northwest side of Ann Arbor, he spent many years living near Delhi Park. “It was a tiny little community before all these grand houses were built there,” he recalled. “When I was just beginning to be a songwriter, that was where I lived and I began to look at the world in a larger way – take pictures of it and put the pictures into songs.”
Which confirmed one of my suspicions: that my favorite Dick Siegel song – “When The Sumac Is On Fire” – was inspired by the Staghorn Sumac near the Huron River. “There is a lot of sumac out there,” Dick said. “The song is one of my favorites as well. It is transporting.” He recalled playing the song in Italy to audiences who didn’t speak English – they loved the song without understanding a single word.
But “When The Sumac Is On Fire” isn’t the song that most people recognize from Dick’s repertoire. At this point in his career, he’s best known for “Angelo’s” – a reference to Angelo’s Restaurant in Ann Arbor. The song plays every Saturday and Sunday on the WCSX-FM “Over Easy” program, and over the years it has been heard by tens of thousands of people around the world. It also sells well on iTunes. I asked Dick what it was like to be so well known for a particular song.
“It’s great!” he said. “So many people know the song … many more than know me. When they discover the connection they say, ‘That’s you!? … That’s your song!!??’ They’ve been my fans without realizing it.”
Dick has appreciated being associated with the song, and the fact that it provides an introduction to his other music for new fans.
I learned that “Angelo’s” came on the heels of Dick working very hard on a different song, “a love song that was convoluted and difficult,” he said. “As a vacation from that song, I started making up this one. It came very quickly and captured something romantic, light-hearted and optimistic. Sometimes you struggle with a song and sometimes they pop into your head.”
“I’d been listening to Louie Jordan music. Swing chords, jazz chords … I could use these new chords in a way that made sense to me. They seemed right for ‘Angelo’s.’ When a song is so easy to write … there is no time for it to wither as you are writing it. It comes out ready to jump around.”
The Writing Process
During our interview, Dick also described the process of writing his tribute to Ken King, and from that discussion I was able to gain some insight into both what songwriting means to him as well as how it sometimes unfolds.
“There is always the listener in mind: Am I writing well enough? Am I being clear?” he explained. “I put songs together to be vehicles for something that I can communicate to someone else, something they’ll be able to understand and experience themselves when they hear it. Writing the song about Ken – I went to places that were very sad with the purpose of making something beautiful. I needed to do it for my own relief, with the idea that if I did it right, it could be a relief and comfort for others as well.”
I have been a fan of Dick’s for so many years because of his rich voice, and as a guitar player myself I enjoy listening to musicians who are far more accomplished than I am. I have found so many of the songs he has written simply mesmerizing. The word evocative may be overused, yet that is a fine description of songs that share experience, transport you to other times and places, and stir feelings inside of laughter, love, sadness, happiness, and more.
I was able to listen to a few of his songs with Dick. I loved watching him listen to his own recordings – attentive, fully present, and also frankly intense. I hesitated to say anything to break the mood and his concentration. Yet of course he has heard these same songs countless times, considered each note, and then the synergy of the performance.
A New Direction
Dick described to me why he’s so very excited about the evolution his music has taken with his new trio, the Brandos, and with his help I could fully appreciate that something very special is happening.
The name is taken from another popular song of his, “What Would Brando Do” – a song that struck me strongly when I first heard it. I can recall where I was and who I was with, even though that was a few decades ago. (Both “Angelo’s” and “What Would Brando Do” are on the CD “Snap” – you can here audio clips from the songs on the CD Baby website.)
While Dick had a brief “Brandos” band for a Top of the Park performance, that previous band only played together a few times. “When I started playing a lot with Brian and Dave and realized there was something important with the music we were making and I became committed to the endeavor, I thought the Brandos would be a cool name,” he said. “It made sense.”
I’m not a music reviewer, or critic. I’m just learning how to write about food – something beyond “yum,” “awesome” and “tasty.” So writing about music rather than just singing and enjoying it is a bit of a further stretch for me. But not surprisingly, Dick is articulate when describing his own music, the musicality of his partners Brian Delaney and Dave Roof, and what’s so special about this phase in his long career.
Dick describes Brian as “a musical omnivore,” beginning his career as a classical pianist, and then moving on to the guitar and creating a group called The Royal Garden Trio.
”When he plays a song with me,” Dick said, “he comes up with a part that is very much a part of that song, and expands the entity that the song is. We started getting together just to enjoy ourselves, and some of the stuff we were coming up with was so powerful and amazing and we’d be sitting and playing for a while and after a while we’d say, ‘That’s amazing! Fantastic!’”
Dick and Brian share many of the same roots regarding their musical inspirations and the inventiveness of their styles. When Brian started playing a Shorty – a short electric 12-string guitar – Dick said he was further captivated. The instrument, as Brian played it, fit into the spaces in Dick’s music in a new and wonderful way, providing support and yet not overpowering the basic melodies and imagery created in the lyrics.
“The voice of that instrument melded with my guitar,” Dick said. “The space that my guitar occupied totally melded with the space of that instrument. There was no redundancy in the tone and tenor and pitch of the sounds. It was a very complete-sounding picture of music. That was somewhat of a revelation. Suddenly I could imagine that this sound of this guitar was complementary to my guitar. That it could be used on any song and it would enhance the sound.”
And when I had a brief chance to hear one of their recordings, I could hear what he meant. The Shorty has a mandolin-sounding tone, and the two instruments together sounded more whole.
With no drummer, the contribution of slap bass by Dave rounds out the trio.
“Dave is one of my favorite bass players ever,” Dick told me. “He knows my music. When the three of us started to play together, the sonic space we inhabited, the bass the way Dave was playing it, there was room for him – so it filled it up. With Dave playing and adding percussiveness and drive, there is a complete sound. There is no need for any other instrument. We can perform like this and record like this.”
“The more we began to perform,” Dick added, “the more that feeling was realized. It allowed me to perform songs with these two guys that I could only [previously] play in a rock band. But they allowed a certain pulse to come alive. With the voices and their instruments, powerful rhythmic entities could be performed with a lot of drive.”
“There are some songs where I can sit back,” he said. “I can just sing, with old songs that I’ve sung hundreds of times – I’m free. I’m not trying to make everything happen, and everything is happening. In terms of the total musicality of the endeavor, the level is so high for me.”
And what can you expect for the Jan. 9 concert at The Ark, as well as for the upcoming album?
The trio is breaking new ground, Dick said, “pushing the boundary of what a string trio can do.” And with this new incarnation, “the performance of those songs is so high. I’m excited about it. I look forward to every time that we play.”
Ticket information for the Jan. 9 performance of Dick Siegel and the Brandos is available on The Ark’s website. Siegel’s albums are available online at CD Baby, and individual songs are also sold on iTunes. Additional information about his career and more – including where you can order the Siegel’s Smoky #40 sandwich – is on his own website. About the writer: Linda Diane Feldt is a local holistic health practitioner, teacher and writer. You can follow her foraging and herbal tips on twitter.com/wildcrafting.