The Local Spins Live Artist Spotlight

03/29/2013 at 11:37pm EST
The busy Earthwork Music collective co-founder closes out St. Cecilia’s Fresh Folk series with his wife, singer May Erlewine. But musically speaking, he never stops moving … or collaborating.

The impromptu rehearsal and inspired performance said it all.

As a founder of the Earthwork Music collective, respected mid-Michigan singer-songwriter Seth Bernard is all about collaboration, cooperation, community-building, partnerships and, yes, last-minute inventiveness and spontaneity.

So, with two members of the Fauxgrass Quartet in Grand Rapids’ WJRW-AM studios – mandolinist Jason Wheeler and banjo player Joey Schultz – Bernard confidently dove into a first-time collaborative rendition of his Americana-hued song, “Tree Skin,” with the off-the-cuff band, delivering a rousing performance that brought wide smiles to the musicians’ faces when it was all said and done.

For Bernard, it was just another example of his “with a little help from my friends” approach to music, community organizing, teaching, ecology, sustainability and creativity – hallmarks of the Earthwork Music collective named after the Lake City-area farm where he grew up and which now includes about 20 rootsy artists, including his wife, prolific singer-songwriter May Erlewine.

“We formed the collective around the idea of collaboration and cooperation in music, and there’s a lot of that in Michigan and has been my whole life,” Bernard says. “We wanted to carry it on with a nebulous model that can morph to what the community is needing. We do a lot of events, we make records, play on each other’s album, promote things, try to feature things.”

On Thursday night, Bernard and Erlewine will feature things like a fresh blend of original songs in their inaugural duo performance in St. Cecilia Music Center’s gorgeous Royce Auditorium, the final show in the three-concert Fresh Folk/Local Spins Live contemporary folk series spotlighting Michigan bands.

The Fauxgrass Quartet will open the evening with a set of progressive bluegrass in the renowned venue, and after Wednesday’s spur-of-the-moment in-studio alliance on Local Spins Live at News Talk 1340 AM, don’t be surprised if the bluegrass musicians join Erlewine and Bernard at some point during the 7:30 p.m. show. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 students; get more details online at the St. Cecilia website.

Fans can get a sneak preview by listening to the entire podcast of this week’s Local Spins Live radio segment in a podcast here and watching a video of the in-studio performance below, with Bernard strumming away on his classic, 1941 Kalamazoo acoustic guitar.

“It’s really rewarding to be able to play in an acoustically famous venue that’s historically significant here in Grand Rapids,” Bernard concedes. He says they’ll “switch it up” a little on the Royce Auditorium stage, playing some “electric stuff” on archtop guitars for “reverby sounds,” with Erlewine trading off on guitars, strings and piano as the pair plays “some old tunes, some new tunes, some harmonies, some duets.”


Considering the couple’s whirlwind schedule, the St. Cecilia concert represents a rare opportunity to catch a truly singular performance by the singer-songwriters.

The pair, who first met at 2003’s Ann Arbor Folk Festival when Bernard opened the event as a performer, frequently criss-crosses the country on tour. They recently returned from concerts in Oregon and will play a set of April dates on the East Coast, including a Boston concert backed by a big family folk chorale.

Impromptu Magic: Seth Bernard with The Fauxgrass Quartet’s Jason Wheeler, left, and Joey Schultz. (Photo/Anna Sinkevics)
“We sponge up a lot of inspiration when we’re in those places,” reasons Bernard, who grew up in a musical family with one grandfather who was a Juilliard-trained jazz, classical and swing musician and another who was an “old-time fiddler.” The family farm frequently hosted musical guests and performances. “I take inspiration where I can get it and I feel like I’m on a lot of shoulders.”

Between them, Bernard and Erlewine have released 16 albums – three as a duo – and have appeared on countless recordings by other Michigan artists. Bernard currently is working on a new solo album, recording nine songs earlier this week at Kalamazoo’s Double Phelix studio, and continuing work on another duo project with Erlewine. (Learn more about the couple’s music and project at their official website, with details about Earthwork Music here.)

He’s also finishing up another Airborne or Aquatic? band project (“experimental folk-rock and riff-based rock”) with Jake Robinson, Dave Bruzza and a cast of collective musicians.


Beyond that, the couple, who now live outside of Traverse City, offers songwriting and guitar instruction at Blackbird Arts nearby, with Bernard slated to teach at Interlochen Center for the Arts in July. They also spearhead Seeds, a seven-year-old effort fostering local solutions to global issues by emphasizing local foods, youth empowerment and arts-based ecological education. As part of the Earthwork Music Collective, they also help host the 90-band Earthwork Harvest Gathering outside Lake City every fall and the Earthwork Family Weekend (celebrating arts and ecology) in mid-June.

“Sometimes, the conversation is, ‘Do we need less irons or a bigger fire?’ We’re lucky to be living in a place where’s there’s no shortage of good work to do and good people to do it with,” Bernard insists. “People have ideas and they’re not afraid of hard work and a lot of good stuff gets done.”

In addition to passing down his musical knowledge to a new generation of young musicians, the most satisfying thing for Bernard may be the response he gets at performances from growing legions of fans embracing the region’s folk and roots revival.

“It’s multi-generational,” he says. “You go to a lot of these shows … and people of all walks and all ages are coming to watch music in Michigan, and that’s really encouraging for us.”


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