When Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, he was slaughtered. The minimalists hated it. An angry fan in London called him “Judas.” People thought the new, plugged-in take on the acoustic music that brought him his initial acclaim would be his ultimate downfall.
Funny how that turned out.
Up-and-coming Michigan native Joe Hertler has pulled off the fabled “Dylan” transition by recruiting backing band The Rainbow Seekers to release their first album as a group, On Being. Unlike Dylan however, us fans aren’t mad because he went electric. We’re mad because he’s been hiding this from us for so long.
Hertler’s first album The Hard Times was a compilation of acoustic songs completely self-produced that he recorded as an underclassman studying at Central Michigan University. His modern-indie-folk still dominates the production of On Being, but now with the addition of The Rainbow Seekers (Kevin Pritchard – bass, Ryan Hoger – guitar, Rick Hale – percussion) the freedom of having more instruments allows an extra dimension for the songs to take off on lives of their own. As well as the guitars and drums, extra layering like brass, strings and banjo show up on many of the tracks. Songs “Carbon C14” and “Good Time” both have unexpectedly massive ending jams. “What It Feels Like To Drown” is probably the bravest song out on the album due to the four-on-the-floor dance beat and disco bass. Think what would happen if LCD sound system got stuck in a remote cabin for the winter, and you pretty much have it.
Hertler has said that the album’s lyrics “deal with existence and what it means to be human.” The lyrics have always been one of the shining spots on his growing résumé. Many songs here show him walking the tightrope between existentialism and religion. There’s the apocalyptic romance of “We are Everything,” the question-all pleas of “Carbon C14,” and the hilarious “Devil, Don’t You Steal My Bicycle,” a simple and quirky jamboree about how Beelzebub tries to make sure Hertler doesn’t make it to the club that night.
At live shows, it’s pretty commonplace to see several Michigan state flags hanging over the stage or draped around Joe’s neck like a bordered Superman. Maybe it’s just my home state bias, but On Being is full of songs that feel wonderfully Michigander. “J.L. Hudson,” Hertler sings of the spirits flying through the Au Sable River and a ghost taking him through the basements of old Detroit. In my short time, it seemed like all the songs we heard always talked about bigger and better places in California or New York. What Hertler and other local acts are doing is really special. They’re giving Michigan the props it deserves. On Being is one of those albums that you name-check as being made right at home in the mitten.
I had a chance to meet Joe and Ryan at their album release show at Mac’s Bar in East Lansing a few weeks ago, and they were real quality gentlemen. Up-and-comers are all too often cocky pricks when they get the slightest sniff of good publicity. Not these guys. Keep an eye out for them, you’re going to be proud of yourselves when you see them waving our beautiful blue home flag on the big stage.