Steppin’ In It was never really a band, but rather, a couple of them.
It’s traveled the country as a swinging, Cajun string quartet, something straight out of the French Quarter. It manifested itself as a harder hitting electric six-piece, beefing up originals or succinctly clanging through Tom Waits covers. Sometimes within the same week.
The band has grown into its own since a few Michigan State University students got together in a house on M.A.C. Avenue in the late ‘90s — four beautifully written and crafted studio albums later.
Members have come and gone. Tracks from various artists were added to the repertoire. A few thousand more miles on the road have perhaps weathered the songwriting. But one thing has remained constant throughout Steppin’ In It’s history: Monday night at the Green Door.
“It was every week — we had a crowd, a lot of energy there,” said Joshua Davis, the band’s guitarist, singer and principal songwriter. “We could do whatever we wanted onstage. There was a lot of experimentation and stretching out. I built a personal sound around that band. Without that gig, I wouldn’t have become half the player I am.”
The Lansing-bred band bid farewell to fans new and old when it performed its last regularly scheduled Monday at the Green Door this week. (The band will stay together, with tour dates planned for 2014, including a benefit show for Robert Busby at the Creole Gallery Sunday.) Davis, 36, recently moved to Traverse City with his wife and daughter, making weekly trips downstate difficult. It capped a 13-plus-year run at the eastside blues bar, a gig that members say turned them into professional musicians. On paper, that’s around 700 shows, though an occasional Monday was missed. “The end of an era” is thrown around loosely among the band and fans.
“I’m sad about leaving the Green Door,” Davis said. “It’s like cutting off one of my hands.”
Davis met bassist Dominic John Davis (no relation) and multi-instrumentalist Andy Wilson in the late ‘90s. Along with a few other musicians, the group started playing house parties and co-ops in East Lansing in late 1998.
The band took its name from a Herbie Hancock song off his funky 1975 album, “Man-Child.” The nearly nine-minute track features Stevie Wonder on harmonica. “We did some of that funky fusion stuff back in the day,” Davis said.
Within a few years after forming, the band was playing every other Wednesday at Mac’s Bar, along with violin and guitar player Jonathon Price, Joe Wilson (Andy Wilson’s twin brother), Bob Bryan on drums and keyboardist Mike “The Reverend” Lynch, a longtime Lansing-based session musician.
“It got crazy down there, packed,” Lynch, 50, said of those Mac’s shows. It led to an agreement for Monday nights at the Green Door, which Lynch described as “a real step for them” because it had mostly served a blues and cover-band clientele. “We made the Green Door our playground. Monday in particular really allowed all of us to be full-time musicians. … All of us learned our chops there.”
In 2011, Steppin’ In It released “At the Green Door,” a 14-track live album recorded in December 2009.
“Leading up to that recording, the band was firing on all cylinders,” Lynch said. With an introduction by Lansing good-time stalwart Mr. Party himself, the album features a mix of covers and originals, capped off with a positively ass-shaking take on Taj Mahal’s version of “Candy Man.”
Jenny Costigan, general manager and co-owner of the Green Door, has been doing booking for the bar since 2000. In her basement office, a daily planner from 2002 (the earliest she has) shows “Steppin’ In It” preserved in pencil on each Monday of January that year. It was the start of what would turn out to be another decade-plus long residency at the bar. Before Steppin’ In It, the 10-piece blues band Blue Avenue Delegates held down Monday nights for what Costigan believed was 18 to 20 years.
Committing to Steppin’ In It “was definitely a big step for us,” she said, bringing in a “unique and different clientele than we normally have” — notably “a little bit younger.”
The band has been able to draw a steady stream of college students, making for a generally rotating audience over the years.
“I love all the guys, I watched them all grow,” she said. “I’m sad to see them go, but it’s awesome to see them move on.”
Perhaps none in the band has moved on to a brighter spotlight than original bassist Dominic John Davis, who moved to Nashville with his family about a year and a half ago. Davis, 38, grew up in southwest Detroit. Around fifth grade, he befriended a young man by the name of Jack White. The two played in a band together in high school. In the mid-‘90s, Davis moved to Lansing for college at MSU, while White would go on to form The White Stripes and help define a new generation in Detroit’s rock ‘n’ roll history. Davis couldn’t say whether White has a favorite Steppin’ In It track, though he said White did see them perform at Moriarty’s several years ago.
In the past two years, Davis has toured with and recorded on White’s solo projects. But when he first arrived in Lansing, he said he had a hard time finding musicians to play with. He met Andy Wilson first, an astute harmonica, horn and accordion player living on the east side who still performs regularly with Steppin’ In It. They met up with Joshua Davis soon after, toying around with country blues and a variety of Americana music.
Dominic John Davis said the band was rehearsing “a lot” by the time it graduated from Mac’s to the Green Door, but it was the latter that allowed them to really get comfortable with each other musically.
“Having any kind of venue that you’re going to every week, knowing how a room sounds, playing to a room — you can gauge what people are into, what gets people on the floor,” he said. Moreover, “You can’t really play the same stuff” week in and week out. “We’d go off the cuff a lot of times.”
But it’s not as if the band didn’t take the gig seriously. Despite traveling the country to establish the band, they never forgot where home was.
“It was wild. … We’d play in Colorado on Saturday night and rush back home for Monday,” Dominic John Davis said.
Going forward, the band has multiple shows lined up for 2014. Dominic John Davis still helps with the booking. “We’re not forcing it, but we’re not saying no, either.”
Lynch, along with drummer Geoff Lewis and Andy Wilson, has tentative plans to keep some form of a Monday night gig going at the Green Door, but it’s uncertain how that will play out.
Even though the band plans to stay together, in whatever fluid lineup takes the stage, it’s hard to avoid thinking about what kind of legacy the group has had on the Lansing and even the Michigan music scene.
“It’s interesting now, looking back with all these other bands — Seth and May, Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys — who say we were the ones to do it. And it’s fun to be on the road with Jack and see how many people are familiar with Steppin’ In It,” Dominic John Davis said.
Singer/songwriter Seth Bernard (of Seth and May), a well-known figure in Michigan’s folk scene with close ties to Steppin’ In It both professionally and personally, said the band helped define a sound within the state.
“The end of an area,” he said of the band’s last Green Door gig. “An era of incredible tone and musicianship. Their Green Door residence has had a lasting impact on the Michigan music scene. They raised the bar down there at the Green Door. It was like walking into Frenchmen Street in (New Orleans) or Beale Street in Memphis, only it was 100 percent Michigan. Rust Belt music at its finest. Essential Lansing.”
On Monday, the dance floor was packed for all three sets (and two encores) that spanned over four hours. The third-set closer, a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues,” is a “song about death, transition, moving on,” Joshua Davis said after making the song even more haunting as he moved the bottleneck slide down his black Danelectro guitar. The band closed with it the week before, too. “It’s one of my favorite songs,” Davis said, with the favorite verse:
I’m chained upon the face of time Feelin’ full of foolish rhyme There ain’t no dark till something shines I’m bound to leave this dark behind The crowd didn’t let them go, though.
How did the band cap off its nearly 14- year residency in Lansing? Of course, with Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”