The camaraderie of the Codgers and the importance of ‘place’

Mar 4, 2020 at 1:00 am
The Codgers, March 7, the Gaelic League Irish American Club.
The Codgers, March 7, the Gaelic League Irish American Club. Jeremiah Kramer

It can objectively be said that the Codgers create some particularly magnificent music. There is genuine luminescence on these strummy, rustling, richly melodic folk ballads. And much of that authenticity springs from each member assessing equal measures of gratitude for any extended intervals where all seven members can align. There's even a song on the band's new full-length album called "Different Parts of Town" that melodically elucidates the struggle — but also the reward — of getting your friends together, however long it takes.

"Our band has always been a pick-up band that started in the spirit of friendship and has very much continued along those lines," says singer and guitarist John Freeman. "If you're looking for the essence of the Codgers, I'd say it's definitely friendship."

Freeman has shared primary songwriting initiatives with guitarist, accordionist, and singer Steve Cousins since the band's first album back in 2013, but its newest, The Codgers Have a Little Fun, features three songs by the group's mandolin and banjo player, Matt Balcer. The Codgers also feature Jake Dimmick on bass and Nick Mansfield on harmonica — both of whom contribute backing vocals — along with Terry Murphy on banjo and guitar, and Jim Flynn on fiddle.

If anyone is going to value camaraderie, it's the Codgers. "There's friendship," says Freeman, "but also a shared reverence for Detroit's labor history. I think everyone in our band is a union member. We have a firefighter in the band who fights industrial fires. I'm a teacher (Oakland University) and a union member; Steve is a labor organizer, and was one of the architects for the ongoing 'Fight for 15' movement, with the SEIU (Service Employees International Union). I think that reverence is for what it means to be involved in the ongoing labor struggle that the Detroit area is so famous for, and also what that means going forward and how it intersects with folk music. I would say folk music in America, going back to even the 19th century, has lent a voice to those sets of intersectional working-class concerns."

The rollicking acoustic anthems, slower somber waltzes, and cathartic toe-tappers arranged by the Codgers, ever sweetened by the elegance of the timbres teased by dulcet mandolins and rustic banjos and that noble purr of the accordion, could easily evoke an older world's sound, whether it's Woody Guthrie in the '40s or Greenwich Village at the turn of the '60s, but the lyrical content speaks to contemporary issues, universal concerns, and especially inhabits settings, streets and buildings that would be instantly recognizable to lots of Detroiters. It's a timeless sound, set on delivering an earnest, almost documentarian-style poetry through melody and harmonic musical accompaniment.

"Celebrating 'place' is something we've always wanted to do," Freeman says. "I think, also, that part of the function of folk music is to historicize. I think being a songwriter, you're always somewhat of a folklorist, you want to preserve the stories of people and places, even if they may be bygone. I think there's something to be said for those prettier kinds of pop songs that might not draw from proper nouns or capture places, but I just think we're at the opposite end of that spectrum. We evoke very specific places from our upbringing, trying to pick up stories and carry them as these sorts of oral histories of the people we've come into contact with."

The Codgers have an undeniable chemistry and intuition for best serving the structure of each song, but that chemistry and ability to reach each other comes from a decade of rather intense workshopping. "We've been together in different instantiations, but we've played so many Irish bar gigs — that's where we really cut our teeth," says Freeman. "Those sets are up to five hours long — 8 p.m. to 1 a.m.! You do a couple of those each month, and that's a solid eight hours of music and eight hours of being on stage with each other."

And that leads to an ensemble that's keenly sensitive to each other's eccentricities and knows how to perfectly play off one another. Freeman says that producer Dave Lawson perceived how that was a core characteristic of the Codgers' sound and preserved that energy on the album. Lawson, who's also a singer and songwriter — part of the local group the Scrappers, has worked on the Codgers' previous two releases, but there's something particularly crisp about this one — to where you'll feel like you're right there in the room with them. And more of that magic was added by legendary engineer Jim Diamond.

Getting along with each other is one thing, but another component of the Codgers is encouraging one another. "Matt Balcer hasn't written an original specifically for one of our records until now," Freeman says. "He's a phenomenal musician who's pretty low key otherwise, and might never push for something like this, so we had to kinda draw it out of him — we were so excited that he was writing. It was really a collaborative experience for this one, more so than most of our records. And that comes from that spirit of camaraderie and encouraging each other — just caring that the best songs are on there and not caring about who wrote them."

The Codgers cheer on their bandmates when they write songs for the table to consider, and they encourage each other when they need time to devote to projects and passions adjacent to the band. Freeman is still full steam ahead on his career as a published (and award-winning) poet, while Cousins needed time recently to work on minimum-wage hikes in Colorado. Mansfield and Freeman have started up a side project called the Wagner Act, which can certainly add some surplus coal to the Codgers' creative fires.

When you listen to the songs on The Codgers Have a Little Fun, you can almost glimpse the radiance that must spark when these gents are in the room completing their songs together. "It's a sense of joy," Freeman sys. "My friend Ryan Dillaha said he saw a difference between happiness and joy — that happiness is a simple feeling, whereas joy is contingent upon the darkness. That's a lot of what we've got going on, when we finish a song together. It's a joy, but I don't think it's happiness. We might try, a lot of the time, to deflect the seriousness of it with humor. Making the aesthetic judgment on whether something's good or not is hard for us; we'd be quicker to make a joke of it and just let (the song) land with other people and sort itself out from there."

Since they're often singing about serious or rueful subject matter, the band embraces levity as often as possible — that's actually part of why Freeman pushed to name the album "Have a Little Fun," along with the fact that it also happens to be the title of his own personal favorite song of the bunch, penned by Cousins. "That's another element of the band," Freeman says. "We've gotten to be notorious pranksters; we're always kinda messing with each other. So, in the writing, there's a lot of joy when we get together." That prankster nature was evident enough, once, to compel singer/songwriter Mike Galbraith to ask, having just been invited to open for them, whether he was, in fact, being invited to a real venue, and that this wasn't some ol' Codgers trick again. Freeman laughs recalling that exchange.

Levity aside, and getting back to their focus on celebrating place and celebrating local history, the album-release party will be hosted at a place Freeman considers to be the band's home base. the Gaelic League. "It's such a hallowed space, and one of the vestiges of old Corktown," he says. "It really wouldn't feel right doing it anywhere else."

The Codgers perform an album-release party for ... Have a Little Fun with McSpillin and Carl Henry & Toni Berci at 8 p.m. on Saturday; the Gaelic League Irish American Club of Detroit; 2068 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-964-8700;; admission is free.

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