Like their Michigan home, Kalamazoo’s Willamena was counted out by the corporate cognoscenti years ago. But these underdogs, with their award-winning original Midwestern guitar rock and their blue-collar work ethic, just won’t stay down on the canvas.
Musically, Willy’s had the goods all along:
“I keep thinking, how could a band with this talent and sound not be on a big label… will these guys ever run out of hooks?” Bill Ribas, www.NYRock.com 3/5/2005 re: “Far From the Current”
“…[P]op rock, in the vein of Matchbox 20, Counting Crows, modern U2, etc… a familiar rock sound culled from decades past, [but] the sheer craftsmanship… in the music keeps [it] from coming across as a stale rehash… Comparisons aside, Lucas Ross is a great rock vocalist…” Alan Moore, www.lovelabormusic.com 6/14/2005 re: “… Current”
Now, after some rough years, things are looking up. The automakers are profitable again, Detroit’s Lions and Tigers are contenders, and Willamena’s new CD “Lost in the Shadows” hits the streets in January. A self-produced single (“Broken Heart”) has already made www.AllAccess.com’s “cool new music” list and aired on over 125 terrestrial stations from Florida to Japan and New Zealand. With production help from 100-million seller Kevin Beamish (REO Speedwagon, Jefferson Starship, Kenny Chesney) on the next two singles, and from Grammy-winner John Seymour (U2, Dave Matthews, Santana) on the team as well, Willy’s latest effort is tooled-up to go out and reaffirm a simple truth: in life and in music, genuine quality comes through in the end.
Founded in 1996, Willamena quickly advanced to opening for national acts such as The Why Store, Fishbone, and, SR-71, and sold all 700 hard-earned copies of their first CD “High Price to Pay.” “High Price…” received some local airplay, and the band toured like fiends. The show tally gets fuzzy somewhere near #600, but word got out: “
You don’t get the reputation of being the hardest-working act in Michigan by sitting on your bum… Willamena gigged relentlessly and developed a huge following…” The Buzz, www.theindustryresource.com 12/22/04
The miles paid off. Willamena scored a clique-shocking victory in Grand Rapids’ 142-act WBFX West Michigan Rock Search in 2001, and the stage was set for the band’s second self-produced album, “Ghost of July.” “Ghost...” arrived to local critical acclaim (and sold out its 1200 units) in 2002:
“Willamena are the Derek Jeters of local music… Along with their kick-butt live shows… “Ghost of July” is putting these cats on the bus that says “Major League…” Buddah Worthmore, Music Revue, 5/2002
“’Ghost of July’ could be the most solid release from a local band this year – a sonically-superior recording showcasing emotional performances and… gifted songwriting… highly recommended…” Recoil Magazine, 6/2002
Willy was climbing, but nobody realized yet that NAFTA and Napster were corroding the ladders. Michigan’s jobs emigrated. Venues closed. Record sales plunged, labels slashed rosters, and independent radio evaporated. One local DJ featured “Ghost…” and promptly was “consolidated” off the air. A few A&R reps called, but then they all found themselves out of jobs, too. Simply put, for West Michigan’s #1 original rock band, and for the rust belt, 2002 was the beginning of a perfect storm.
Willamena soldiered on, and in 2004 the band sent the self-produced “Far From the Current” out into the maelstrom. For one illustration of the milieu, a story in the Grand Rapids Press about “… Current’s” release actually was titled “Willamena revives music scene in Grand Rapids.” (Tricia Woolfenden, GR Press 2/5/04). Part of another local writer’s early review offers a clue, as well:
“Perhaps the real risk for Willamena is writing a great album that no one will hear.” Nick Stephenson, Recoil, 2/04.
Tough times, those. Nevertheless, and despite a near-zero promotional budget, ascending Triple A and non-comm stations from Long Island to Seattle gave “… Current” some spins, as did some European stations and syndicated shows. As it sold through all 1500 copies, “… Current” found its way to XM Unsigned’s “most notable” and “most played” lists, a movie soundtrack, and critical praise farther from home:
“Willamena… turn the Northern superiority complex against itself with devastating results in ‘Rock-n-Roll.” Dave Queen, Village Voice 9/26/05 re: “… Current”
“Willamena is a polished rock combo with the right twang and grit to set them apart from the pack… ‘… Current’ shows off the band’s ability to swing from Neil Young and Crazy Horse territory into Stax-style grooves…” Artvoice (Buffalo), 2/17/05
WYCE nominated “… Current” for two “Jammie” awards, a nationally-syndicated Triple-A show featured the band live, and some A&R execs asked for more material. “… Current’s” success sparked a headline club tour in 2005, stretching from Milwaukee to a well-attended Manhattan label showcase. But those weren’t just tough times for Michigan music; within a few months, all the major-label reps who’d attended that showcase had lost their positions. Willy remained unsigned.
“And what am I supposed to do? How am I gonna make it through? In a world that’s black and blue, I don’t know what this is coming to. How am I gonna make it through?” – Willamena, “Edge,” produced by John Seymour in Hoboken, 2005.
As Michigan fell farther behind the nation from ’05 through’07, the band kept recording. They headlined regional outdoor festivals, and played storied clubs like Martyrs’ (Chicago) and Small’s (Detroit) at will. But by 2008, like many Michiganders, the artists were being scattered by employment demands to places like Omaha, Minneapolis, and North Carolina. One last concert was set for July 4th at Bell’s Brewery (where Willy’s annual shows held the records), and that was to be all. The economy was in free-fall. GM and Chrysler were headed off a cliff. The Lions struggled with what became their epic 19-game losing streak, and even the Tigers finished last that year. It was all supposed to be over. And for a while, it seemed to be.
But the music fought its way back. As 1.5 million auto jobs were being saved in ’09, new songs were written. In ’09 and ’10, there were one-off Willamena holiday shows, then outdoor summer gigs, and more recording sessions. Then in late ’11, as the Lions were heading toward the playoffs (and setting NFL comeback records), a plan was drafted for Willy to get up and throw one more punch: an EP, with an uncompromising advance single to kick things off. Gravity Studios in Chicago got in, radio and the industry took notice, and “Broken Heart’s” overachievement in 2012 spurred some fundraising. Then the songs found their way to Nashville, Kevin Beamish listened and signed on to help, and the EP project became a full CD.
If Willamena and “Lost in the Shadows” (and, really, Michigan) do nothing else, they’ve already won. They took the hard shots, and they’re getting back up swinging. They made it through.