Open-door gospel

Spirit Family Reunion brings its unique acoustic soul to Detroit

We literally stumbled onto these guys in Nashville a few years ago, just bummin’ around Broadway lookin’ for a light. Before we knew it, drummer Pete Pezzimenti dragged us over to the Basement, and this road-weary band of ragamuffins blew the fucking roof off the joint. It was like when Landau discovered Springsteen. When Aretha discovered Ray Charles.

Brooklyn-based Spirit Family Reunion is old-time religion without the religion. It’s timeless, rootsy Americana, drenched in banjo, washboard, and upright bass — and the soaring, plaintive vocals of Nick Panken and Maggie Carson. Their music is earnest, raucous, and downright spiritual.

We caught up with washboard player Stephen Weinheimer in New York late last week before the band lit out for the territory.

METRO TIMES: So you’re finally coming to Detroit.
STEPHEN WEINHEIMER: Yeah! … Between Motown and the MC5 and even though the Stooges aren’t from Detroit proper, I’ll put them in there. The Gories, the White Stripes … the best music town of all time, if you ask me.

MT: Detroit is a lot of electronic music and garage rock these days. Do you think Detroit’s ready for the sounds of Spirit Family Reunion?
WEINHEIMER: I always like to think of us as a garage band [laughs] but I don’t think we are. I think you’re ready for us … I don’t know if we’re ready for you!

MT: So you have a new album coming out?
WEINHEIMER: Yeah, we’re gonna go up to Connecticut and record for a couple days, see if we can come up with some good songs. We’ve already recorded the whole album, but we were thinking we might try our hand at just recording them real fast live and see if we like any of those takes better.

MT: Do you have a name for it yet?
WEINHEIMER: Uh, we'll call it Fun House? White Blood Cells? Maybe Kick Out the Jams. Something like that. 

MT: So you're playing a few shows with the Felice Brothers on this tour?
WEINHEIMER: Yeah, I think we're meeting up with them in New Orleans. I think we'll be by ourselves, but I'm hoping we'll play with some awesome garage band I've never heard of. 

MT: So how long have you been playing the washboard?
WEINHEIMER: I've been playing about five years maybe. I played a little bit before we started the band. Me and [lead singer] Nick used to have this little country residency, and I played a little washboard then. So I guess I started probably about seven years ago, but I didn't really get into it until about four or five years ago.

MT: Most people play the washboard with spoons. You play with forks. Is it true you stole some forks from the Waldorf-Astoria?
WEINHEIMER: Oh, yeah, Nick stole 'em. 

MT: Do you still have those forks?
WEINHEIMER: Yeah, I've found better, cheaper forks I like a bit more. The Waldorf ones didn’t have enough weight. 

MT: Your method on the washboard is pretty fast and furious. Do you have different washboards or just the one?
WEINHEIMER: I just have one. What usually happens is I put the legs of the washboard in my pockets, and eventually the legs end up breaking and I'll glue them. So I often change the frame, but the metal has pretty much been the same for the couple years. I broke a couple washboards when I was younger, but I guess my technique is better now.

MT: You and [drummer] Pete Pezzimenti and [bassist] Ken Woodward are the backbone of SFR. What's the interplay like between you three?
WEINHEIMER: We didn’t really lock in at first, but now we can almost play off one another like — we don’t really have to consciously pay attention to one another, and we're still locking in pretty well. Pete’s a pretty steady, straight, kinda jazz-style drummer, mine technique’s kinda sloppy — kinda all over the place. Ken keeps it down, keeps it going around.

MT: So what can fans expect [tonight]? 
WEINHEIMER: We try to bring it onstage. We really like the audience to bring it, too. We feed off one another. But we're excited to be coming ... Detroit is the epicenter of what music has been and will be. In 1969, they can get down to the Stooges and the MC5, in 1990, they can get down with the Gories, in 2002 they can get down with the White Stripes … I think they can get down with some Spirit Family Reunion. They're all inspirations with my washboard!

Spirit Family Reunion plays the Magic Bag tonight, Wednesday, Sept. 17. Doors at 7:30 p.m. 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-544-1991;

About The Author

Dave Mesrey

SPJ Award–winning journalist Dave Mesrey is a veteran copy editor who’s worked for the Detroit Metro Times, Motor City Muckraker, The Detroit News, and ESPN’s The editor of Willie Horton’s autobiography, “The People’s Champion,” Mesrey is also a founding member of the Hamtramck Stadium Grounds Crew...
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