Rock the stacks

Talk about doing it for the kids. By the end of August, the High Strung will have toured through the reading rooms of more than 60 public libraries, breaking the cardinal rule of such rooms — "quiet, please" — with fully electrified sets of '60s-leaning bash-pop.

It's actually the Detroit trio's second time doing this. Last year they hit 35 libraries throughout Michigan; this summer, the tour stretches from Pennsylvania to California. Rather than some kind of experiment in alternative booking, the tour is the brainchild of librarian Bill Harmer, head of Adult Services at metro Detroit's Chelsea Public Library. Back in 2003, while still a temporary librarian at the Farmington Community Library, Harmer contacted boho pop combo Brian Jonestown Massacre and asked if they'd like to play a set at his library on their way through Detroit. To his surprise they accepted the offer within an hour.

The High Strung happened to be touring with Brian Jonestown then. After that first library show, Harmer tapped Strung vocalist-guitarist Josh Malerman for a songwriting workshop for the kids. The bands' enthusiasm about the show, and the workshop's success, inspired Harmer to create the tour.

"I'm a music geek myself and I saw this as a great way for me to take my passion for rock and apply it to my job," Harmer says. "I wanted to quash the notion that libraries are boring, uptight and no fun."

But Malerman was skeptical. Though he liked the concept of the tour, becoming a song-and-dance routine or, worse, being dubbed "that library band" wasn't the future he had in mind for the High Strung. But Harmer assured them that he wanted the band to perform just as they would at any other gig, but no booze or cigarettes, of course. Stipulations aside, the High Strung would have free rein to play rock 'n' roll.

"When we're on stage there's pretty much no difference," drummer Derek Berk says, comparing a club gig to a library one. "We're being used, but we're also a part of a much bigger thing. I mean there's no reason to be hung up on books. Yeah, you need them to exercise your mind, but they're only one medium to spread ideas. Now we're a part of showing everyone that a library is a place where knowledge can be exchanged freely. It's a revolution and I'm excited to be a part of it."

The High Strung's routine at each library is pretty consistent. They arrive in their converted kindergarten short bus and load in their gear, just as they would at any club show. Only the dismissive sniffs from dingy rock bar regulars are replaced with wary looks from 4- and 5-year old kids. Then they perform, usually bedecked in nut-hugging stage wear, and the crowds of kids, teens and even grandmothers react with surprise and grinning enthusiasm.

The trio recently played to nearly 400 people at the McIntosh Memorial Library in Viroqua, Wis. "They were wonderful," says McIntosh librarian Shirley Creager. "We had it in the backyard, we sold popcorn. There were 6-month-old babies and 80-year-old ladies all watching the band."

How rock 'n' roll, right? These days, babies and grannies count, and the High Strung's library gigs are the ultimate all-ages showcase.

"Listen, I want everyone to like us — kids, teens, hipsters, whoever," Malerman says.


7 p.m. Aug. 2, at the Northville District Library, 212 W. Cady St., Northville; 248-349-3020.

Danny Voros is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to [email protected]
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