East Lansing’s Little Known Musical Gem – Pump House Concerts

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Monday, August 27, 2012, 7:33 am
Dudley "Smitty" Smith

Many people enjoy live music, but are not into the bar scene or paying $75 to sit in an arena with thousands of other people. What’s a music fan to do?

In East Lansing, they go to the heart of the Bailey neighborhood and attend a Pump House Concert. The Pump House, located at 368 Orchard Street, was built by the WPA in the 30s as East Lansing’s water pumping facility. The well remains, but the water tower and valves are gone and now the building is a one room, neighborhood run community center. About once a month it turns into a listening room. When the music starts, the talking stops, and the worst seat is about 5 rows from the musicians. It is the most intimate (max ~60 seats) music venue in Mid-Michigan and a very special way to experience live music.

My wife Gerry and I started hosting concerts at the Pump House in May, 2009. We book local, regional, and national touring musicians. The talent is significant – Grammy winners and nominees, writers of multiple number one songs, and winners of prestigious national festival competitions. The audience is asked for a $15 donation, all of which is given to the musicians.

It all started after we lived in Nashville for a year in 2008. The opportunity to see first class singer / songwriters in listening rooms is almost limitless in that city. When we came back to East Lansing (where I’ve lived for over 30 years), I was very disappointed in the lack of nice venues to see this sort of artist perform in Mid-Michigan. I guess we just decided to solve the problem ourselves!

The concert series has been very successful, with a small but dedicated audience, many of whom walk to the shows. And the effort does not end with the booking and promotion of the shows. One way we entice artists to come up here and perform is by feeding and housing them overnight in our home. We’ve ended up making many good friends as a result.

Artists are usually solo or duo acts, with amplified acoustic instruments. The focus is on singer / songwriters, typically from the Americana, Alt-Country, or Folk genres. Some are established artists (Grammy winner Don Henry and writer of seven #1 hits Craig Bickhardt), others have since gone on to commercial success (Angaleena Presley, now touring with Miranda Lambert as part of ‘Pistol Annies’). Then there is the occasional band (Outlaw Country band Whitey Morgan and the 78s) or local favorites like Jen Sygit, Drew Nelson, Dave Boutette or Annie and Rod Capps.

Many artists are from Nashville – the heart of Americana and alt-country singer/songwriter territory. Most do not often come to Michigan, or when they do play at larger venues like the Ark in Ann Arbor. A quartet including Grammy Winners and Nominees called ‘Decembersongs’ has become a holiday favorite. This year will mark their third two week tour at many large and well known venues across the US, but they also perform at Pump House Concerts because like all the Pump House artists, they love the vibe, the acoustics, and the attentive and appreciative audience.

On the first or second weekend of June every year, Pump House Concerts hosts an outdoor, family friendly music festival called ‘Pumpstock’. Four or five bands perform, food vendors feed the crowd, and jugglers and face painters entertain the kids. The bands include those signed to major labels (Sonia Leigh of Southern Ground Artists), local favorites like Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys, and Nashville favorites like Tommy Womack and Phil Lee. Hundreds of people now make Pumpstock part of their early summer fun.

You can see the current Pump House Concerts schedule at either http://www.facebook.com/PumpHouseConcerts/events or http://www.reverbnation.com/venue/pumphouseconcerts and keep track of Pumpstock at http://www.facebook.com/Pumpstock

You can also send an email to pumphouseconcerts@gmail.com or call me (Smitty) at 517-927-2100.


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