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Detroit’s 'Howling Diablos' Dominate
Grand Marais Music & Arts Festival
Friday, August 17, 2007
By Michaeleen O’Sullivan, UPfirst feature writer
Photos by Todd Carter, UPfirst staff photographer

Grand Marais, Michigan - “What’s it, Todd?--about 12,000 acres burned in that Sleeper Lake Fire over there?”--Ray Dollar asked my husband, Todd Carter, last Friday, during the 26th Annual Grand Marais Music & Arts Festival.  Ray was sitting behind the "Big Board" in the Sound Director's Chair.

Todd, answered in a serious voice, “I think it’s up to about 20,000 acres now, Ray.”

Ray flashed a sideways grin at me and said, “So 20,000 acres now; eh, Todd?  And next up is a troupe of fire dancers?” 

We all chuckled together a little bit nervously; then we shook our heads and slightly bit our lips.  It's part of Ray's business to anticipate trouble, and as usual, he was keeping cool with a friendly banter.

Detroit's Howling Diablos onstage in Grand Marais last weekend

Sound Man Ray, a legendary Upper Peninsula musician in his own right--everyone up here knows and loves "Jim and Ray"--has organized sound for the 3 days of nonstop performances at the Grand Marais Music & Arts Festival for the past 24 years.

To the festival grounds, to bordering campgrounds and beaches, to little houses on ridges overlooking the tiny village of Grand Marais, vacationers and locals come to hear the music.

The festival--always the 2nd weekend in August--features a variety of well-known artists.  This year's top picks included the original acoustic music of Michelle Chenard and the world-class Howling Diablos from Detroit. 

Just 20 miles east firefighters battling the Sleeper Lake Fire north of Newberry in Luce County reported 20,000 acres burned and only 50% contained.  Still, the festival crowd of nearly 1,000 didn’t let a forest fire nearby stop them from enjoying one of the UP’s most well-known yearly parties.

Detroit's Howling Diablos dominated the festival and gave us a UP musical highlight of decades.  These master musicians roused even the toughest wolves in the crowd with their "funky jam blues and Detroit rock & roll." 

Hopefully Grand Marais gave the boys something back too.  The stars were shining like a universal dome of spotlights.  Or maybe it was the Diablos themselves who made us feel like we were totally enveloped in a harvest of sound reaching up to the stars.

Johnny Evans on saxophone, harmonica, and vocals ruled.  Every time he pulled up his sax to blow, the audience raised up about two feet in adoring bursts of energy.  Johnny and I were friends as teenagers together at West Bloomfield High School.  After Johnny took up the sax at age 15, we never saw him without it again. 

Howling Diablos Tino Gross, Johnny Evans, and MO Hollis

Johnny had a little trouble with a wireless mike when he first hit the stage, but he seamlessly switched to a wire.  During a festival where multiple bands share the stage each day, the musicians set up, plug into the 30 or so outlets available, start playing, and work out the sound from there. 

A struggle ensues for our Sound Man Ray, as he scrambles to find the sounds and amplify them all according to what he hears--sitting in the best acoustical spot on the festival field--and to what he sees watching signals from the artists.

Howling Diablo Johnny Evans working
 with Sound Engineer Ray Dollar before the show

The original music of the Howling Diablos raised the power from the first note with their critically acclaimed new hit, CarWash, recorded by Alive Records.  Todd says a good blues band always sounds like a train’s a comin’, and the Diablos had their own incredibly unique toots, whistles, brakes, whines, locomotion, and conduction. 

Lead guitarist, Mike Smith, together with Johnny on sax, pulled out riffs and trills never heard before in my history of blues and rock ‘n roll.  The speed of his hands and the strength of Johnny’s lungs vitalized the crowd in a powerful interplay of spiraling and driving, pumping and climbing, approaching and encircling blows, riffs and rhythms.

Drummer Jerome Day drilled out a worthy and memorable solo dedicated to the legendary Gene Krupa.  MO Hollis’ rich bass guitar provided an elite soulful depth and rhythm to their original sound.  For encore, lead vocalist Tino Gross sang, “We don’t want to go,” and we believed him as he led 20 extra minutes of drumming with the crowd. 

The Howling Diablos brought an unforgettable night of masterful entertainment to the little ol’ UP.  Johnny tells me the band is talking with Upfront Nightclub in Marquette.  What a blast that would be!  The Howling Diablos are legendary in Detroit, around the world and, after last weekend, in the UP.

Other highlights included powerhouse singer/songwriter Michelle Chenard serenading us as we swam and soaked up the sun on the beach.  Michelle, originally from the UP, is well-known in Petoskey and Harbor Springs.

On the local scene, favorite Flat Broke Blues Band always gets the party up and movin'.  Lorrie Hayes, singing, "Blues is my bidness, and bidness is good!" did just that.  And we can never get enough of Mikey Letts on lead guitar.

Another highlight of the festival--despite the looming forest fire--was the Illumination Troupe from Minnesota.  These flame throwers danced to music while spinning fire sticks and bodies into lovely and sensuous visions for a wildly enthusiastic crowd. 

A slightly comical flare took shape when the troupe’s CD skipped repeatedly.  The dancers tried to keep moving to the music, giving the show a “Max-headroom”-type effect.  Ray’s Assistant, Rachel Hult, ran from the sound booth to a nearby van to score a compatible CD player, and soon the fire dancers balanced into their familiar beat. 

The Illumination Troupe from Minnesota

It’s tough for the Sound Engineer when acts have only minutes to change the stage and there’s no time to test out CD formats.  For Ray Dollar and Company, though, there is always a way to keep the show moving. 

Sound Director Ray Dollar
and Assistant Rachel Hult in the sound tent

Grand Marais not only hosts a yearly music festival, but it also boasts some of the most beautiful beaches and sand dunes in Michigan, including the famous “Log slide.”  Camping adjacent to the festival provides modern accommodations. 

If motel comfort is your pleasure, our favorite is The Voyageurs Motel overlooking the south side of Grand Marais Harbor.  Church bells chiming on the hour soften the already sleepy landscape to a horse-and-buggy type of calm.

Thousands of people appear at the Grand Marais Music & Arts Festival every year in August to hear the music, soak up the sand and sun, and gather around fire pits with friends and family.  All this occurs under magnificent starlight only a tiny community like Grand Marais, Michigan--far from city lights--can deliver!

Grand Marais beach bordering the Music Festival Grounds

Today news sources report the Luce County Sleeper Lake Fire is 62-65% contained with just over 18,000 acres burned.  Governor Jennifer Granholm declared a state of emergency for Luce County until September 7. 

Our thanks to the firefighters, National Guard, Red Cross, and others working so hard and risking their lives to defeat the blaze and to keep us all safe

For more information about next year’s Grand Marais Music & Arts Festival, keep an eye on their web site: grandmaraismichigan.com/ChamberPages/MusicFestival/musicfest.htm

To hear Detroit’s world-renowned Howling Diablos, visit howlingdiablos.com.

For more about Northern Michigan's Michelle Chenard, visit MichelleChenard.com.

For more about our own Flat Broke Blues Band, visit flatbrokebluesband.com.

Contact Terry and Delphine Wilson, hosts of The Voyageurs Motel, overlooking Lake Superior with Scenic Harbor View; 21914 East Wilson Street; Grand Marais, MI 49839. 
Phone: 906-494-2389. 

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