On the first Monday in March, the rhythm of the blues lured an eclectic group of Albion’s community into the Bohm Theater. It all started less than three weeks before when Albion College chemistry professor Dr. Cliff Harris had the idea to infuse his love for music and the Albion community. With the help of family and few good friends, Harris threw the event together in two weeks time. The product? A beautiful, organized mess of talent, passion and spontaneity that entertained audience members and created a raw, judgement-free jam space for musicians. He simply called it Blues at the Bohm.
Since before he could talk, Harris’ father rocked him softly to sleep singing Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
“I think about it now. It’s pretty terrible. Maybe the most depressing song ever written,” Harris said. “Like, ‘Hey just so you know, young child, who’s forming basic thoughts in your brain, everything’s gonna go to shit.’”
But despite Dylan’s foredooming song lyrics, everything seemed to work out just fine. Harris grew up singing and playing music with his family members—a source of joy and expression deeply rooted in their family’s tradition. And when the hope for the theater’s reopening was not just to be used as a cinema but, instead, a hub for performance arts and a place that would bring people together, it’s no wonder that music came immediately to Harris’ mind.
In early February, Harris came up with the idea for Blues at the Bohm while walking out of the theater. Shortly after, he put together a Facebook page, bought a $20 Facebook ad and found a local band that was willing to risk going without a paycheck if no one showed. Harris, along with good friend and bass guitarist Ronnie “Coach” Parker, sent around a sign-up sheet for musicians who’d like to play in the jam session during the second half of the event.
When March 2nd finally rolled around, Harris had no certainty whether anyone was going to show– even despite what Facebook told him.
“Oh my god, I was so terrified,” Harris said. “We had said that you could start buying tickets at 6:30 and by 6:45 we had not sold a single ticket.”
But by ten after 7pm, 100 admission tickets had been sold and Pogo Rey and Blue Haze kicked off the night with a soulful performance. The music was loud and the sound crisp thanks to Kelly Kidder of Dickerson Music Co. And for those who were hungry, Nora of Nora’s & More was serving up tender pulled pork and ribs (soul food that the locals swear is some of the best you’ll have for a couple hundred miles).
After about an hour and a half set, the curtains closed for an intermission and Cristina Ybarra, a current Albion student from Spain, sang a few Spanish folk blues originals that many might not have understood but undoubtedly enjoyed. In the hour and fifteen minutes that followed, a mix of friends and strangers jumped on stage for an extemporaneous jam sesh. Coach Parker yelled for a guitarist when he needed one and, though most of the guys who jumped on stage were strangers, for all the audience knew they’d been bandmates for life.
The vibe was welcoming and the space inviting. Harrison Twp junior Max Wheaton described it as “relaxed and good hearted, nothing was intended to be serious.”
“I’m just not used to going out in public in Albion and having a good time,” Albion senior Austin Lelle admitted.
Lelle quickly tried to correct himself, afraid his words might be misunderstood, but I knew what he meant— I felt it too. It wasn’t that he never enjoyed going out in Albion, it was that he had never experienced such a homogenous gathering where teen and retiree sat in equal merriment.
At one point Harris and Parker were on backup vocals (and backup dance moves, I might add) and Kidder was absolutely killing it on his hand-carved bass guitar–all jamming to Ride Sally Ride.
“In the history of music, [blues] was the first time that audiences were integrated and that bands were integrated in places. At some point the level of musicians became more important than race,” Harris said. “What I liked about what happened at Blues at the Bohm was that all aspects of the Albion community were there. Rich, poor, black, white, student, working class—everybody was there.”
The camaraderie discovered on stage seemed to be the same kind found within the audience. We seemed to become one, possessing a mutual respect for the talent and the music and, therefore, for one another. I found my nods to strangers reciprocated, as if we were communicating, “Yes! I am totally digging this too.”
The next Blues at the Bohm event will take place on Monday, April 6th at 7pm and feature some similarly rad talent. Next month, The Cool Ol’ Dudes will play a set, organize a jam sesh for an hour or so to follow and then audience members will come up and subsitute for the front line (harmonica, vocals and guitarists). In the future, Harris hopes to schedule the Albion jazz ensemble, a few bands from Detroit and one from Kalamazoo. Interested in jamming with people who, too, love great music? Show up April 6th with a few songs in mind and jump on the sign-up list–everyone is welcome!
“It’s just a bunch of people getting together in celebration of the simple appreciation of good music,” Wheaton said. “Plus, when else are you going to see Cliff dance?”
Photo by Jennifer McDonell