Jammin Man by Eve Doster

Jammin’ Man
by Eve Doster Listings Editor at Metrotimes
January 7, 2004

I was working a double shift at a trendy downtown Detroit music club when I first discovered what the term “blue-eyed soul” meant. For years, I thought the expression was just another cumbersome reference to sad, emotive music.

The act for the evening was Johnny Winters. I know, the irony is stupid, as albinism has rendered Winters’ eyes red and not blue, but after hearing some of the most gut-wrenching blues performed by a man who literally could be no whiter, the colorful phrase began to make sense.

If you really take the time to think about it, the term “blue-eyed soul” could be considered offensive. But since this phrase basically means “black music performed by a white artist,” it would take a long history of music, American racism and a timeline documenting exactly who did what to appropriately describe why it ever needed to be noted that a certain musician was “blue-eyed.” But that is not what this story is about. It is about a young man by the name of Chris Brantley.

He plays the blues. And, oh yeah, he’s white.

Brantley, 36, grew up in the suburb of Troy with a guitar-playing mom and banjo-picking dad. Reared in an atmosphere where music was a way of life, Brantley naturally began to explore instruments at an early age. After forgettable forays with the saxophone and the drums, by the age of 10, Brantley glommed onto the guitar tightly. He jokingly credits his older brother for his dedication.

“If I didn’t learn a song by a certain date, he said he’d beat me up,” says Brantley. And whether it was from terror or tenacity, Brantley kept with it.

To look at him, your first impression might not be “blues man.” He is sweet and soft-spoken. When he walks onstage, his fresh face is, well, almost off-putting. But once he begins to play, he wails. While ripping into a version of B.B. King’s “Everyday I Have the Blues,” you can’t help but wonder where this all comes from. His happy eyes close tightly, his once-smiling lips purse and his head rises and falls to the rhythm of each bent note. He’s a natural. But as most anyone knows (barring legends of souls bought and sold for chops), the term “natural” is simply another way to describe a musician who excels.

Brantley says his aptitude came from playing with folks who were much better than he was. Bobby East (the Reefermen, Kid Rock, Hemigod), for example, has been a tremendous influence.

Brantley recalls spending many nervous nights at open jams with East. He thinks those were the days when he found his style. “He was one of the hard hitters for me at that time” says Brantley of East. “Having a chance to play with people who have been playing for years is how you cut you teeth.”

He probably couldn’t have guessed it at the time, but going to those open blues jams would change the course of Brantley’s life. While he was hoofing it, he maintained a steady workaday stint. Suit and tie by day, guitar by night, it took a while for the dichotomous lifestyles to clash. But they did.

“I quit my corporate job and started working at a music store,” he says. Quitting a job for the love of music … now that sounds like a blues song. He then moved on to join the innovative and locally based Axis Music Academy, where he still works today.

Not unlike his mentors from the late-night blues circuit, Brantley now enlightens starry-eyed hopefuls. He gives guitar lessons five days a week and performs at various clubs anywhere from three to six nights a week. Two of his regular gigs are open jams — the type of forum that Brantley thinks coughs up the soul of really great music. He also volunteers his guitar playing for services at the Genesis Church in Royal Oak.

“I suppose I spend anywhere from 70 to 80 hours a week playing guitar … but it doesn’t feel like a job,” he says.

Blue-eyed, blond-haired … whatever you want to call it … Chris Brantley has got soul.

Jam with Chris Brantley on Wednesday evenings at the New Way Bar (23130 Woodward Ave., Ferndale, call 248-541-9870) or on Sundays with Cathy Davis and the Soul Searchers at the Blue Goose Inn (28911 E. Jefferson Ave., St. Clair Shores. Call 586-296-0950).

Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. E-mail edoster@metrotimes.com.

Music Academy Charms Kids

Music Academy Charms the Kids
December 18, 2003

BY SHARON GITTLEMAN
DETROIT FREE PRESS SPECIAL WRITER

Andy Van Slyke's 9-year-old-face glowed as he sat behind the drums in the community center lobby and punched out a syncopated rhythm.

"I could stay up there for eight hours," said Andy, a Madison Heights resident, after he finished. "It felt cool."

Andy was one of nearly 50 members of the Boys & Girls Club of South Oakland County waiting to give the instrument a try. Their chance came after four teachers from the Axis Music Academy gave a free concert Friday at the organization's clubhouse in Royal Oak.

The concert was a holiday present to the youths from the Roseville- and Southfield-based music academy.

Early next year, Axis will give free guitar lessons to members at the youth organization's clubhouse.

"I want to expose every child to music -- to loving music," said Axis' Executive Director Tim Antone.

The classes will be the first music lessons offered at the Boys & Girls Club of South Oakland County, said the organization's associate director, Iris Parlangeli.

Parlangeli expects 8 to 15 youths to sign up. Students can bring their own guitars or use eight instruments available at the clubhouse.

While Timothy Brown, 9, already enjoys making music on the piano, harmonica and tin whistle, he plans to take the guitar lessons.

"Most of my family plays strings. Everyone comes over at Christmastime and plays carols," said Timothy, a Detroit resident. "If I played the guitar, I would be more like the rest of them."

Cortney Tucker, 13, wants to learn how to use her new guitar, an early Christmas present from her grandparents.

"I want to start writing songs," said Cortney, who lives in Royal Oak.

Timothy and Cortney joined other club members sitting cross-legged on the floor as Axis teachers played tunes on bass, drums, electric guitar and violin. Some youngsters sang along while others swayed to the music. The youths cheered the musicians at the end of each song.

Chris Brantley, 35, hoped he and his fellow Axis music teachers would spark a new passion for music in his audience. "I was 10 when I got started. That's why it's so cool to play for the kids," said Brantley, a Ferndale resident.

Violinist Geoff Roman, 28, of Madison Heights had proof that inspiration sometimes comes from unexpected places.

"My mother had a tablecloth with a gentleman playing the violin on it and a little kid imitating him with two sticks," said Roman. "I thought that would be a neat idea after I saw it. I was 6."

William King, 12, didn't need extra motivation to make big plans for his future.

"I would like to be the president of the United States, a lawyer, a dancer, singer and entertainer," said William, an Oak Park resident. "I'd like to play guitar." Youths ages 6-18 may join the Boys & Girls Club of South Oakland County at the clubhouse, located in the Jack and Patti Salter Community Center at 1545 E. Lincoln in Royal Oak. Call 248-544-4166, 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. weekdays or 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

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