The Hamtramck Labor Day Festival lives on, powered by rock, rap, soul, and the psych-rock of Black Merda and Fugi 

Labor of love

When it comes to end-of-summer festivals, the Hamtramck Labor Day Festival is the great grandaddy of them all. It’s been going on since 1980, when Dodge Main shut down and Hamtramck Mayor Bob Kozaren inaugurated the shindig as a way to boost the city’s flagging morale.

It turned out to be a fitting celebration marking the city-within-a-city’s transition from industrial powerhouse to postindustrial playground, with its profusion of watering holes and music venues. The city, still Michigan’s densest and most walkable, provided an early springboard for Detroit’s punk scene at Lili’s 21, and presented an excellent location for music festivals such as the Blowout and, later still, the Hamtramck Music Festival.

Yes, it’s nothing like your grandfather’s Hamtramck. Though the automotive business lives on at the Poletown plant in Hamtramck’s backyard, the city’s exports today include artisanal pickles, Indian food, and slices of burek pie. The old Polish stronghold has blossomed into the most diverse city in the state, and that’s worth celebrating too, even if it proves bewildering to the former residents who return once a year, eager to encounter all the new residents and misunderstand them.

But even they are welcome to become part of the fun, and there is plenty of that. Hamtramck’s Joseph Campau becomes a midway, full of carnival rides, amusements, and what seems like 300 beer tents, as if all those local bars weren’t enough for you. Grand Marshal George Lukowski will lead the Polish Day Parade north up the main drag from Holbrook to Commor in one of the largest ethnic parades in Michigan. But one of the wildest, most whimsical events is the annual canoe race, in which a half-dozen of the local taverns sponsor teams to push carts shaped like canoes up and down one block of Joseph Campau, while revelers bombard them with water balloons. Watch carefully and you may even see master of ceremonies, City Clerk August Gitschlag, get a bucket of H2O dumped on him.

Like many local festivals, Hamtramck’s hootenanny has a full line-up of music, and it was thoughtfully selected this year by Matt Luke, John Garcia of the Johnny Ill Band, and Jeffrey Fournier of Timmy’s Organism. It was Fournier’s second year booking with Luke, and Garcia rounded out the crew into a perfect trio. Fournier says, “We’re all friends, so it’s like, ‘What’s the best lineup we can possibly put together?’ We have a good cross-section of the music scene in southeastern Michigan: rock ‘n’ roll, electronic, hip hop … ” It’s a wide array of talent, and somehow the team manages to get it all done without calling anything the Gold Bond Medicated Foot Powder Stage.

The music schedule has its share of notables, including Mark Flash and DJ Dez, and, of course, the Polish Muslims, which Fournier says are “always a huge draw.” The group’s parodic send-ups of classic songs always gets crowds laughing, but even with an absurd song like “Bowling U.S.A.” the Muslims put enough musicianship into it to get you shaking your dupa too.

There’ll be plenty of rock, with the Craig Brown Band playing, fresh off being signed to Third Man Records, Michael Hurtt & His Haunted Hearts, Moowalks, Danny & the Darleans, Caveman Woodman & Bam Bam Moss, Eastside Elvis, Cheerleader, which just put out a new album called Bitchcraft this year, the Terrible Twos, back together again, Fireball Blind with Jumpin’ Johnny Salvage, who’s lately back with Mexican Knives after pursuing his solo project Radio Burns. Attendees can expect a few out-of-town acts, such as Chicago’s White Mystery. There’ll even be a performance from the Potions, Hamtramck’s closest thing to a supergroup, featuring Richie Wohlfeil, Dave Morrison, Adam Stanfel, and Charlie McCutcheon.

It won’t all be rock, though. There’ll be dream-pop from young Hamtramck up-and-comers Rayning, raw 1970s Detroit soul from Ultimate Ovation, a new iteration of the ever-changing Duane, this time “Duane the Jet Black Eel,” a soulful performance by Detroit’s own James Linck, and much more. But no act on the bill is more anticipated than the festival headliners closing out the show after sundown on Labor Day: Black Merda.

From time to time over the last decade, Black Merda has gotten together to do a show, but this gig comes just as the guys have been playing together all summer, since their sometime vocalist, Ellington “Fugi” Jordan is back in town to record a new LP with them. Playing together as often as they do, the evidence can safely dispel all fears that these dudes are anywhere past their prime.

Fournier, a longtime fan in a psychedelic band of his own, discovered the group on his own years ago, finding their Chess reissues and Fugi 45s while crate-digging. Not only is he thrilled to have Black Merda and Fugi as festival headliners, he adds that they sound great. After walking in on their rehearsal and seeing the band tear into a song with Fugi, “Revolution,” Fournier was blown away. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is awesome … the clarity, the singing — Fugi can hit his notes effortlessly — it just still sounds great. It was amazing. Veasy is such an amazing bass player. They’re just so pro, they know exactly what they’re doing.”

We spoke to Fugi himself, and he tells us it’s a joint effort, described as “Black Merda featuring Fugi,” and that the set will feature a host of their classic songs, along with one or two off the album they’re now working on. Classics should include “Red Moon,” “Revolution,” funky rocker “Prophet,” “Cynthy-Ruth,” and, of course, “Mary Don’t Take Me on No Bad Trip.” “We gonna try to blow the roof off it,” Fugi says. “At this point the Black Merda band is so dynamic and the rehearsals are so well put together, it’s better than ever.” The whole band is tightened by a summer of playing together, and Fugi singles out Veasy for special praise. “He’s really surprised me,” Fugi says. “He’s even better than the old Veasy was way back. Matter of fact, he’s more exciting now, funkier. I was just amazed at how far this guy will take you. He will blow your mind.”

Even though expectations are high, Fugi sounds confident the band will live up them. “We want the audience to be satisfied. We want everybody to be pleased,” he says. “We appreciate the opportunity we were given. We didn’t take it lightly. We thought it was a great opportunity to show Hamtramck and Detroit what we’ve prepared for them. We hope everybody gets a chance to enjoy the show.”

The performance should be a fitting capper to a weekend of homegrown entertainment showcasing what’s best about metro Detroit. For that, Fournier and crew deserve high honors — not that they take themselves so seriously to begin with.

“We did the best we can,” Fournier says. “It’s a bunch of stuff. We’re pretty happy about it. It should be entertaining and interesting. Hopefully people buy a lot of beer. That would be great. All this music goes great with drinking a lot of beer.”

The Hamtramck Labor Day Festival takes place Saturday-Monday, Sept. 3-5, on Joseph Campau in Hamtramck. The canoe races begin at noon on Labor Day at the corner of Joseph Campau and Edwin. The Polish Parade begins at 1:30 p.m. on Labor Day at Joseph Campau and Holbrook. Black Merda performs at 9 p.m. Monday, Sept. 5, on the South Stage. See hamtownfest.com for details and a full schedule of performances.

More by Michael Jackman

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