The backyard jam

One of the best things about Detroit is the summer. So many festivals, so little time — and nobody wants to stay inside for anything. There’s a good seven months out of the year when the weather stays locked inside a bad mood, so when the heat comes strolling into town and the weather cheers up, everybody wants to just bathe in it.

Checking out the numerous festivals is one of the more enjoyable ways to feel the city bloom, but you don’t always have huge crowds to get that feeling. Sometimes the best things of a Detroit summer come in small, comfortable, neighborhood-sized packages.

You aren’t likely to see these events advertised in the newspapers; neither will you see or hear them promoted much — if at all — on the radio or on television. It’s more of a word-of-mouth thing; somebody who was there last year passing the word onto someone who shoulda been there last year and really ought to be there this year and on and on.

Darryl Lee’s Musician’s Day is one of those neighborhood-sized gems of a summer event that has been going on for at least seven years. Every July, Darryl’s mother opens up her back yard, on the west side of Detroit near Livernois and Burlingame, to allow one of the best little festivals around. And everything is free. The hot dogs, the hamburgers, the salad, the chicken, the drinks. Everything.

Darryl even provides a portable toilet so his numerous guests won’t clutter his mother’s home — or go dashing down the street trying to find an accommodating fast-food joint — when nature comes a-knockin’. An empty field behind the house allows for plentiful parking; a tarp is provided to keep the summer sun from roasting anyone who happens to be onstage performing.

Like I said, the event is Darryl Lee’s Musicians’ Day party. Just about everyone who has been playing the blues in Detroit for any time knows Darryl Lee. He has played bass behind nearly everyone on the local circuit, but what has earned Darryl a rep just as much as his bass playing is his Darryl-ness. He is one of the most unusual brothers I have ever met, and I mean that as a compliment. I respect any black Detroiter who can comfortably wear a cowboy hat while pumping heavy metal at top volume from his car stereo while driving through a ’hood where it seems only the hip-hoppers think they have the right to shred neighboring eardrums. Darryl Lee lives life as a wrought-iron middle finger extended laughingly in the shriveled face of conformity. I kinda like that.

Apparently I’m not the only one. Each year the party continues to thrive. It is probably one of the very few parties in the ’hood where you are ever likely to see blacks, whites and whoever else kicking back in their lawn chairs, heads nodding, feet tapping, refusing to live up to the terrifying hype that is supposed to be Detroit. Instead, everyone who comes decides it’s easier to just relax and have a good time.

The musicians, of which there are many, always come with their gear and wait patiently for their turn to take the stage in the tiny back yard. They’re surrounded by an appreciative crowd of other musicians, friends, family, and curious onlookers from the neighborhood, who almost always seem pleased that something this mellow is actually going on right next door.

When I’ve been at the party there has always been a wide spectrum of local musical talent walking about, including the likes of Johnnie Bassett, Thornetta Davis, James Cloyd, Curtis Sumpter, Nikki James, Milton “Heavyfoot” Austin, Luther “Badman” Keith, the Butler Twins and Robert Penn. Although the predominant musical sound is the blues, there has always been room for everything from classical guitar to heavy metal to gospel to whatever other talent happens to be lingering in the audience. If it’s good, and even sometimes when it’s not so good, there’s usually the space to get heard.

The party is Darryl Lee’s way of giving back to the neighborhood. The neighborhood seems to appreciate the effort. I have yet to see the police show up asking the musicians to turn it down. There are no grumpy neighbors hollering curse words over the fence. In fact, the neighbors are usually sitting outside underneath an umbrella, tapping their feet right along with everyone else.

What invariably turns out to be the most fun is listening to the various combinations of musicians that get thrown together unexpectedly. There are always full bands that show up, but there is always someone else who needs a drummer or a guitar player or a bass player or whatever. If you’re one of the musicians, then you had best be ready — because you just might get called in to fill a slot.

At this year’s party, perhaps one of the best surprises was a drummer (who was reportedly only 12 years old) backing up Robert Penn, one of the baddest cats in town. Even Penn had to look back over his shoulder several times to make sure he was seeing what he was really seeing.

“Give the young man a hand!” he said at the end of his set. The applause came on strong, but Penn wanted more.

“Hey, he could be out there on the corner selling crack, but instead he’s out here doing something productive!”

This time the crowd roared. Many had been in attendance for nearly five hours, but they still didn’t want to see Monday come creeping any closer. Even as the shadows slowly reached out across the dwindling crowd and began tucking in the sunlight, there remained the ever-stalwart few who nearly had to be chased off the premises before they were willing to accept that it was all over. Again.

Until next year.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]