Laith Al-Saadi: ‘It’s time we stopped putting people in cages for using a plant’

The former contestant on ‘The Voice’ performs at Ypsilanti’s CannaJam Festival on Saturday

click to enlarge Laith Al-Saadi. Former ‘The Voice’ contestant performs at Ypsilanti’s CannaJam Festival on Saturday - Doug Coombe
Doug Coombe
Laith Al-Saadi. Former ‘The Voice’ contestant performs at Ypsilanti’s CannaJam Festival on Saturday

For Laith Al-Saadi this is the best of times, it is the worst of times. One of southeast Michigan’s best-known and hardest-working musicians, the Ann Arbor native will combine his annual pre-COVID birthday bash with a performance at 5:15 p.m. Saturday during the second CannaJam Festival at Riverside Park near Ypsilanti.

“This is the first event I’m playing where a public park has a permit for cannabis consumption on site while I’m performing, so I’m excited about that,” says Al-Saadi, long a vocal advocate for legalization. “I mean, I’m the guy who plays the National Anthem to kick off every Hash Bash. It’s time we stopped putting people in cages for using a plant.”

Sounds like it could be one of his best times. But what kind of audience response does he expect? “It’s not going to be any different than normal,” he predicts, sounding mildly offended. “Honestly, cannabis makes music more enjoyable, so I think people are going to be just like they would be at any gig. Depending upon who you go to see, everybody’s smoking anyway and have been for years.”

It’s been six years since Al-Saadi, who majored in jazz guitar and bass at the University of Michigan, wowed viewers around the world with his blues-drenched musical gifts by making it to the Season 10 finale of NBC’s competition series The Voice. As you might imagine, that kind of exposure led to some of the best times for his career.

“I was a finalist on a show that had over 16 million viewers watching it live every week, not including people from other countries and those who just watched the highlights online,” he recalls. “I was finally hitting a stride where I was able to work at a professional level that was not only national, but pretty high.”

Al-Saadi, who played more than 300 gigs a year for 20 years and was once singer for the Detroit Lions pep band, couldn’t help reveling in his Voice recognition. “People were paying for tickets to see me, and I could curate a show the way I wanted to as an artist,” he says. “I was no longer playing where drunk people were yelling over me. If I played a cover (song), it’s because I wanted to do so artistically. I could play all original songs and it was well received because they were there to see my music. As an artist, that is a level to graduate to that you don’t want to give up.”

Unless it gets ripped away from you. Like in 2020, after our former president, Mar-a-Lardo, assured us that a minor viral strain from overseas would disappear by spring, like the flu. Three years and over 1 million U.S. deaths later, many segments of American life are still in shambles today — maybe none more obvious than the live music scene in clubs and concert halls across the country.

Cue that “worst of times” part.

“You know, these last three years have probably been the worst of my life,” Al-Saadi reflects. “The world shut down. COVID so decimated the industry that it’s hard to keep going when people aren’t showing up.”

Because he makes his living off playing music, Al-Saadi was forced to be on unemployment. “I’ve known nothing else but performing since I was 16 years old,” he says. “And streaming has ruined physical sales so much that we can’t make revenue off of being studio musicians, either. As they say in the music industry now, you no longer tour to support your album; you make the album to support your tour. And when you’re locked in your basement, no one’s going to buy a ticket to see you play.”

Al-Saadi’s last album, Real, hit No. 1 on the iTunes blues chart and stayed there for five weeks. His next album, the ironically titled Don’t You Give Up On Me, featuring such studio legends as drummer Jim Keltner (“my hero,” Al-Saadi enthuses), New Orleans bassist Kenny Gradney, and the late keyboardist Mike Finnigan (Big Brother & the Holding Company), has been under wraps for years. “I’ve invested more than $40,000 of my own money, and I can’t release it and not tour behind it to make some money,” he explains.

As his semi-milestone birthday, the 45th, approaches, Al-Saadi is philosophical. “Life has already passed us by too much,” he muses. “I’m not willing to give up more of it to fear, because you never know how long you have. That’s what turning 45 really makes me lament, that there was so much more I would have liked to accomplish the past few years.”

He adds, “Again, I can’t encourage people enough to go out and support live music. Just remember that except for the really big acts, artists have not bounced back who make a living off of touring. That’s why I’m really excited for live music to return.”

In addition to the CannaJam appearance, Al-Saadi has a date with his “Large Band,” featuring the Motor City Horns and fabled Nashville blues instrumentalist Al Hill, at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts. His website, laithalsaadi.com, has more information.

Oh, and in case you’re considering sending a card or a social media wish, Al-Saadi’s 45th birthday is actually Wednesday, Oct. 5. “But for the CannaJam,” he smiles, “it’s close enough.”

Besides Al-Saadi’s soulful performance, CannaJam 2 will feature appearances by the cover bands Echoes of Pink Floyd (complete with laser light show) and Thumbs Up (think Velvet Underground on ukulele), hip-hop bass legend T. Money Green and Roadwork, Detroit-born country artist Austin Scott, and DJ Joey Pistols. Cannabis, food, beverages, and merchandise will be available for purchase.

CannaJam Fest runs from noon-10 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 8 at Riverside Park; 2 E. Cross St., Ypsilanti; cannajamfest.com. Tickets start at $35; 21 and over only.

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About The Author

Jim McFarlin

Jim McFarlin, former media and entertainment critic for the Metro Times and The Detroit News, is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in People, USA Today, Black Enterprise, HOUR Detroit, and many other publications. His latest book, The Booster, about the decline and fall of U-M’s Fab Five, is...
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