LowellArts has launched a new music program for 2021 called the Featured Artist Series: Connecting You with the People Behind the Music. This monthly feature offers audiences a personal, insider view into the current music scene from the perspective of West Michigan’s talented performers. Check back on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month for a new article or interview from the featured artist. The July artist of the month is Nicholas James and the Bandwagon.
Article by Sue Clements. Photos courtesy of LowellArts.
Buttermilk Jamboree – it was warm. We had been sitting in the sun and listening to music most of the day. Despite the heat the crowd was excited, and on their feet. You know that feeling when the audience really connects to what is happening on stage? That energy, it’s magical. We were dancing, having a great time listening to the music. My friend looked over at me and said, “These guys are great!” Nicholas James and the Bandwagon were on stage.
Interviewing Nicholas for this article, I wondered how the Bandwagon came together as a group. Nicholas shared, “I recorded my first solo album in 2009. During the recording process we added bass, drums, and electric guitars. By the time it was finished I knew I wanted a band to play the songs on the record. Shortly after the Bandwagon was born.”
Nicholas describes their music as, “a mix of Folk, Rock and Country. The most accurate term is Americana, but we prefer to call it Hippie Tonk.”
In 2012, The Bandwagon released their first album, Saturday Night. Their second album Tall, Tall Tales was released in 2016. In a Local Spins article, John Sinkevics quotes Nicholas, “The most satisfying thing about this album is knowing that as a band and as a songwriter, we’ve taken a step forward.” Tall, Tall, Tales “is much more cohesive than our first, and I think the writing is better too.” John goes on to describe the music. “With tales about the open road, the temperate Midwest weather, love, loss and surviving on the kindness of strangers, this is the music you want at your backyard BBQ or around your campfire on a Saturday night.” I agree with John and will add that this is an album you’ll want in your car, playing it over and over again and singing along.
“The band has gone through several lineup changes,” Nicholas shared. “Initially the idea was that whoever was backing me up would be in the Bandwagon, but at this point we have developed our own sound and identity. We can do acoustic shows, but the Bandwagon just isn’t the Bandwagon without Pete, Greg and Alex.”
The band members are Nicholas James Thomasma (vocals, acoustic guitar, and harmonica), Greg Baxter (producer, electric guitar, bass, and auxiliary instruments), Pete Weatherhead (pedal steel guitar, violin, vocals, and percussion), Alex Austin (acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, and vocals) and Dan Hildebrandt (bass).
When asked, what makes The Bandwagon unique? Nicolas answered, “I think the thing that really separates the Bandwagon from most other Michigan folk rock bands is the pedal steel. We call it the mystery machine because it really does add a lot to our sound. Pete is a wizard on that thing. It’s a mystery to the rest of us!”
Pete adds that the pedal steel “has a sustaining quality at any volume level that supports and enhances the songs. It’s similar to the background support that you get from a Hammond B3 organ, except it has the unique ability to slide.”
Pete is a life-long musician and singer songwriter. He not only plays with Nicholas James and the Bandwagon, he’s also part of The Porters who specialize in music and movement for kids of all ages. You can find them at all the Michigan Hippie Fests. Pete and his wife Barbara are The Weatherheads – look for them on the schedule at Greyline Brewing.
Tall, Tall Tales was produced by Greg Baxter of Second Story Sound who is also a member of the band. These guys are all so talented! Second Story Sound’s website aims “to provide artists with a studio that is both professional and affordable so they can do what they do best: tell stories with music.” The reviews of this studio are great.
The band came out with a video this spring filmed at Second Story Sound. If you know Nicholas, you know that Bob Dylan’s music and poetry have had a major influence on him. Thomasma has organized several Bob Dylan tributes at Founders Brewing Co. This spring in honor of Dylan’s 80th birthday, The Bandwagon put out a video of Dylan and Robert Hunter’s song “Silvio.” The energy is engaging, and contagious. Nicholas’s deep voice, as well as the stellar guitar work of Alex Austin and Greg Baxter, are a joy to listen to. When you see The Bandwagon playing live, there’s a good chance you’ll hear one of Dylan’s songs. My husband is hoping that Quinn the Eskimo is coming back into the line up!
Nicholas talked about the band’s creative process. “Generally, I write the songs with my acoustic guitar and only present them to the band once they are finished. Quite often I will record them at Greg’s studio, and he will add drums, bass, electric guitars and all the bells and whistles. Then we present it to the rest of the band. From there, everyone writes their own parts.”
Songwriting is important to Thomasma. “I’ve been writing songs since I was a little kid. My earliest songs were just little ditties about life. I later started writing my own words to popular songs on the radio. Once I got a guitar, I think I wrote my first song before I even knew how to play it. In that sense, I’ve always been a songwriter, but I was in my 20’s when I started taking it seriously.” He goes on to say, “I write all the time. While I’m driving, while I’m working, while I’m sleeping sometimes too. With that said, songs aren’t really done until you get out and play them. The performance and the interaction with the audience is what really feeds my soul.”
Nicholas leads songwriting workshops and retreats and has been instrumental in two songwriting camps sponsored by LowellArts. He shared, “First of all, anyone can write songs. It’s true! Writing good songs takes time and practice though. In fact, most of the songs I write suck. I just let them suck. The way I see it, you have to write the bad songs to get to the good ones. You’ll know when it’s a good one. So listen to your inner critic when it tells you a song sucks, let it suck, and move on. There are good songs out there just waiting for you to write them.”
Hosting Founders’ open mic night since 2008, Nicholas commented, “I got my start by playing open mics. I can’t emphasize the importance of the open mic community enough. When you’re first starting out you don’t know what you’re doing. I certainly didn’t. I started playing every open mic I could, and soon was asked to host one. That was when I really grew by leaps and bounds as a performer. Being on stage every week really forces you to get better.”
To get a hold of Nicholas James and the Bandwagon’s music, checkout Earthworkmusic.com. You’ll find Tall, Tall Tales as well as Nicholas’ own Rolling Home.
You may have seen The Bandwagon at one of West Michigan’s festivals; Buses by the Beach, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park’s Tuesday Evening Music Club, or the Buttermilk Jamboree. Look for them this summer at the Lowell Showboat Sizzlin’ Summer Concerts on Thursday, August 26th at 7:00PM.
With things opening up again, these days feel like a celebration of sorts. I’ll end with a quote from Bus Life on the Tall, Tall Tales album. I don’t know about you, but I know what I’m going to do.
“Hop on the bus,
Hop on the Bandwagon,
Come along with us,
We’ll take the van again,
Hop on the bus.”