On a cold night in January, steam rolls off concertgoers as they emerge from the back door of The Milhouse, a red and white two-story home in the Vine neighborhood. Over the past eight years, the house’s basement has been the site of more than 120 DIY concerts and tonight’s is a pretty standard Kalamazoo house show. A young punk band plays both originals and covers. A hip-hop duo plays a short set. A hat is passed for donations. People leave the door open. Every 10 minutes or so, the show booker reminds everyone to close the door and keep it down outside.
But inside, The Go Rounds begin tuning up and the mood shifts to buzzy anticipation for the headliner. The basement is packed with attendees who are craning their necks to see the band, which is back in town after months away playing more than 100 shows across North America. This is only the fourth Kalamazoo show in a year for The Go Rounds, a band that was once a local staple.
The four-piece band cracks into a set with the synchronized three beats, three chords of its upbeat favorite “Cage Divine,” off the band’s 2016 album, I Promise I Won’t Get Hurt, and the crowd responds enthusiastically. They know this band, and they know this song.
Two days from now, however, The Go Rounds will be gone again, off to play at a slew of high-end breweries, house venues, dive bars, art spaces and concert halls across the Midwest and the South and up the East Coast.
“When you come home, you do feel a little out of touch,” says the band’s guitarist, Mike Savina. “There are people who host house shows, who host open mics, and they do it every week. As a band we might be perceived as being outside of the DIY (do it yourself) scene because we miss some of that while out touring.”
For The Go Rounds, the Milhouse show in January was important because it allowed them to connect with their home base in the kind of inexpensive show that to some is the purest form of concert-going. “We were really, really honored to be a part of that,” says Savina. “Those spaces have a unique feeling. It’s like being inside a black box. People are just wet with sweat and freaking out.”
Began in 2009
The Go Rounds came into being in 2009 and have had a rotating roster of members led by singer-songwriter Graham Parsons. The current lineup — Parsons, Savina, bassist Drew Tyner and drummer Adam Danis — came together in 2014. With a sound described as “high-energy twang rock,” the band has released three albums, toured Mexico twice, played a showcase at the 2017 South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival, in Austin, Texas, and were signed earlier this year by the booking and promoting agency Prater Day Agency, of Knoxville, Tennessee.
And while none of the band members are natives of Kalamazoo, they all consider the city home and the stick against which they measure other cities.
“The DIY scene that people have here, especially the venues that have been long-standing, that’s something that we don’t find in other places,” says Parsons. “It usually takes only one or two interested people to galvanize a scene. We are always trying to find those people within other cities. It’s probably a lifelong endeavor.”
In Kalamazoo, the band says, that galvanizing force is Selner Bros. Music, at 505 W. Vine St.
“Selner Bros. filled a void that we had been lamenting for years,” says Tyner, who grew up in Saginaw. “When I moved to town in the early 2000s, there were six music stores, and they all closed when Guitar Center opened. Having Jarad (Selner) there is so important for musicians’ day-to-day well-being. We can trade gear, talk gear. Every time you’re in there, you run into two or three artists.”
Danis agrees. “It’s a vector for strengthening the scene.”
Keweenaw to Kalamazoo
Without a doubt, though, Parsons is the vector of The Go Rounds. The son of educators and homesteaders, he grew up in Allouez, a township on the northwest tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula with a population just shy of 2,000. The Parsons’ family farm, a 9½-hour drive from Kalamazoo, sits alongside a 2-square-mile property where the neighbors are also homesteaders.
The enclave calls itself Farm Block, and Parsons was raised among neighbors who own hot-sauce companies, hunt for mushrooms, fish for walleye, write prose about fly fishing, exchange home-canned beets and provide hospice care for aging farmers. It’s a place where, when you lend a jar to a neighbor, you can expect that it will come back filled with homemade sauerkraut.
Parsons, who had played music for years, had a life-altering moment in high school when he met Michigan folk musician Seth Bernard and vintage blues musician Luke Winslow-King. The duo came over to watch a football game at Parsons’ house after performing a show at the Calumet Theatre.
“It was enlightening to meet someone on a path I still wasn’t able to fully conceptualize,” says Parsons. “I had never known anyone who was a touring musician.”
“There’s this magical web of intelligent, fringe-type hippies that made connections throughout the Keweenaw, Traverse City, Marquette, Kalamazoo areas. That’s just to say, Seth’s parents knew my childhood neighbors, Ray and Viki Weglarz, the makers of Ray’s Polish Fire hot sauce.”
Bernard, who started the music collective and record label Earthwork Music, became a friend and mentor to Parsons and in 2005 invited him to play at the Earthwork Harvest Gathering in Lake City, northeast of Cadillac. Parsons has played the festival every year since, performing with The Go Rounds in recent years.
Festival born from loss
Parsons’ tight ties with Bernard paved the way for The Go Rounds to become a favorite on the Midwest folk festival circuit, and the band has played scores of shows, including at the Wheatland Music Festival, in Mecosta County; Blissfest, in Petoskey; the Buttermilk Jamboree, at Circle Pines, in Barry County; Founders Fest, in Grand Rapids; the Traverse City Microbrew and Music Fest; Holler Fest, in Brooklyn, Michigan, southeast of Jackson; and Mile of Music, in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Parsons dreamed of hosting a music festival of his own modeled after the Earthwork Harvest Gathering, a goal that came to fruition after tragedy.
Parsons was attending Western Michigan University and, while home for the holidays in 2007, convinced his best friend and closest musical collaborator, Dan Schmitt, to move to Kalamazoo. Schmitt, who began playing music with Parsons in middle school, had experienced a challenging childhood and eventually lived with the Parsons family. They encouraged him to get his GED diploma after the dropped out of high school.
“We were supposed to drive down (to Kalamazoo) together, but plans changed. I started driving downstate and I got the call in Marquette from our drummer,” says Parsons
Schmitt had been killed in a car accident. “That was the first real hardship or death that I faced,” Parson says. “I had to drive to Kalamazoo with all of his stuff … He was such a wonderful instrumentalist and kind. Not an enemy in the world. I was stunted in every way for a while after he passed.”
That summer, the Parsons family held a fundraising concert on their farm in Schmitt’s name, raising $3,000 to buy guitars and lessons for students at Horizons, an alternative high school in Calumet. Farm Block Fest was born. The festival supports a nonprofit, Dan Schmitt Gift of Music and Education Fund, created in 2014 and now headquartered in Kalamazoo, where it provides after-school lessons and jam sessions for Kalamazoo Public Schools students.
A decade old, Farm Block Fest has developed a cult following of Kalamazooans willing to make the trek to Parsons’ homestead in Allouez. It is a small festival with just one stage and food cooked from scratch (except for the pasties) in a small outdoor kitchen. Last year, 30 bands played the festival, including Anna Ash, The Mac Pods, Vox Vidorra, Kansas City Bible Company and, of course, The Go Rounds — introduced with great gusto by Parsons’ father, John, who has made an annual tradition of warming up the crowd for “the house band.”
“This community and how it connects to the Keweenaw is cool. So many people from Kalamazoo go to the Keweenaw, and vice versa,” says Parsons. “Dan died on the day he was going to move here. That’s part of why I have clung to Kalamazoo. Making music and having community is the only healthy way I have been able to process all of that.”
And whether it is Graham Parsons weeding his garden and making chicken soup in his 104-year-old Vine neighborhood home, Adam Danis’ wavy hair flouncing to PJ Harvey while he waits for a $1.50 coffee at Fourth Coast, Mike Savina trying out a guitar at Selner Bros. Music, or Drew Tyner walking his dog around the Vine, The Go Rounds all seem to embrace their adopted community.
For them, Kalamazoo isn’t just another stage. It’s home.