Laith Al-Saadi returns from ‘The Voice’ to headline Arts, Beats & Eats 

A hero’s welcome

Despite its leafy suburban façade, Oakland County has some impressive rock 'n' roll credentials, far beyond its place as the home of southeast Michigan's classic-est rock radio station. It's the birthplace of the Eagles' Glenn Frey. For years, the Birmingham Palladium drew acts like Fleetwood Mac and Chuck Berry. And for a time, rock 'n' roll's foremost critic and commentator Lester Bangs called the affluent suburbs home. So it is no surprise that after 19 years in operation, the organizers of Ford's Arts, Beats & Eats festival have put together an impressive lineup of rock 'n' roll — and a variety of other diverse and exciting acts — for attendees this Labor Day weekend.

Eats are of course an integral part of the annual fest, and this year features great local vendors like Bigalora, Lockhart's BBQ, and Sister Loves Treats Italian Ice. The annual juried fine art show looks similarly promising, and attendees can check out exhibitions stretching over three blocks. But the lynchpin of every great summer festival are those Beats, which draw tank top and sandal-wearing throngs like mosquitoes to a bug zapper. This year, the lineup of musicians at the festival is truly not to be missed.

Michigan acts are well-represented, and you can expect to see many of the familiar faces that have been relentlessly covering the local circuit for years. The Killer Flamingoes will appear at the Ford Alternative Stage on Friday night when the event kicks off, and their friends, the Reefermen, will close out the festival from the Soaring Eagle Rock Stage on Monday. Bands like the Ruiners, the Twistin' Tarantulas, and Howling Diablos will also be there to administer the necessary dose of bluesy Detroit garage rock. But perhaps most interesting of all is the lineup of headliners this year, not simply because of the impressive set of names that appear on the list, but also for the local man who will take center stage among them.

On Friday, the incomparable Joan Jett and the Blackhearts will appear on the main stage, opening up for second-wave hair metal act Buckcherry. It might sound like a biker bar, but please refrain from dancing on any tables. Fantastic local indie rock act JR JR will play the following night, before Our Lady Peace take the stage to close out Saturday night. But the lineup on Sunday evening is perhaps the crown jewel of this year's festival. At 8:45 p.m., classic rock legends Three Dog Night will attempt to recapture the spirit of days gone by on the main stage. And finally, at 10 p.m. on the festival's penultimate evening — their equivalent of Game Of Thrones episode nine, if you will — local hero Laith Al-Saadi will make his triumphant return. Let's give him a hero's welcome.

Three years before his famous appearance on the 10th season of NBC's The Voice, Ann Arbor musician Al-Saadi had built up an impressive body of work, born out of his reverence for the blues and the music of the 1960s. His 2013 album Real. opens with the single "Gone," which is dominated by morose, haunting, gospel-inflected harmonies. Many have commented on the sheer power of his voice, and along with the mood-altering properties of Al-Saadi's emotive wailing, his guitar work here is similarly evocative of the song's somber feel. But the blues doesn't have to be such a bummer.

In a foreshadowing of his work on The Voice, Al-Saadi and his ensemble of expert studio musicians truly shine on their cover of the band's "Ophelia," for real. Al-Saadi was joined on backing vocals and guitar by his good friend Jimmy Vivino, who many of us will know as the leader of the Basic Cable Band from Conan. As audiences around the country would soon learn, Al-Saadi's virtuosic command of both his guitar and voice is equal to that of many rock legends. His talents on "Ophelia" bring out very the best in an immortal song, and his chemistry with musicians Vivino and Co. is palpable.

His 2008 album In the Round features some of his greatest original songwriting. The record's first track, "Chains," has come to be regarded as something of a fan favorite for audiences who have seen Al-Saadi perform over the years, and opens with an overdriven, finger-picking blues riff with sustain that carries throughout the song. It is reminiscent of the contemporary, minimalist brand of Midwestern blues-rock that has found favor among audiences all over the world. But the bare-bones production and arrangement of the tune opens up midway with dueling guitar solos that allow Al-Saadi to unleash his very un-minimal chops. And In the Round is a complete album, with material that covers a range of different territory. Where "Chains" opens the record with growling blues-rock, the album's third song "Morning Light" is slow but still uplifting, and recalls Detroit's golden age of soul and R&B.

Speaking to Michigan Public Radio after finishing in fourth place on The Voice, Al-Saadi made an interesting claim to Stateside host Cynthia Canty: He never actually wanted to win. Al-Saadi pointed to other Michigan natives like Joshua Davis, or fellow University of Michigan performing arts student Michelle Chamuel, as contestants who had escaped with their integrity intact. The narrative of the bluesman selling his soul to the devil (or in this case, to NBC) to advance his career is a familiar one. So in claiming to have seized the machinery of power to suit his own goals, perhaps Al-Saadi was making an important break from the musical past he draws so heavily upon. His approach to music seems almost professorial — with a keen sense of history — and throughout his time on The Voice, Al-Saadi definitely took his audience to school.

Al-Saadi now speaks of how carefully and insistently he cultivated the list of songs he would perform on The Voice. The highlights are many — from his nod to his Michigan roots on his cover of Bob Seger's "We've Got Tonight," to his incredible duet with Joe Walsh for their performance of "Rocky Mountain Way" on the show's finale. He wrestled with the show's producers and coach Adam Levine for their collaborative performance, eventually finding consensus and performing an incredible medley of Beatles tunes from Abbey Road. But it was perhaps his performance of the Joe Cocker's "The Letter" in the blind auditions that will be remembered as dropping the collective jaws of judges and audience members alike — both for the vocal power that was universally acknowledged by the show's coaches, and for the lead guitar playing that Pharrell Williams referred to as "high end," as if it were a pair of expensive headphones.

After some suspenseful button-wavering, judges Blake Shelton and Levine both indicated their willingness to coach Al-Saadi for his journey on The Voice. Al-Saadi later joked that he selected Levine not only on the basis of their musical similarities, but his fear of being cyberbullied by Shelton's fan base.

Opening yourself up on the world stage is a risky move, and participants on The Voice and other reality shows really do face harassment from an army of YouTube trolls. The plot arc of The Voice season 10 rather predictably ended with the selection of Curly Sue child star Alisan Porter. But if you look at the comments section of Al-Saadi's Instagram page, or his YouTube videos, there are few, if any people celebrating his loss. Rather, it is full of messages of appreciation and support from fans around the world, with whom he has shared the timeless music he loves so much.

The Arts, Beats & Eats festival runs from Friday, Sept. 2-Monday, Sept. 5; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sept. 2-4, and 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. on Sept. 5; the event occurs throughout downtown Royal Oak; for full details, visit artsbeatsets.com; on Sept. 2, the festival is free to enter until 5 p.m., and after 5 p.m. admission is $5; on Sept. 3-5, admission is $3 before 3 p.m., and $5 after 3 p.m.

More by Adam Woodhead

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