Too good to ’Pass’ up

By Mary C. Cusack

WKAR showcases Michigan musicians

It is no secret the Lansing area is home to a thriving music scene that features amazing diversity. Certainly the presence of Michigan State University is a significant factor in creating such a scene, due in part to its respected music program. Now MSU is playing a big part in promoting that scene, via WKAR’s music performance show “BackStage Pass.”

The hour-long show features sets of three or four songs interspersed with interviews with the musicians. They talk about their backgrounds and training, as well as cultural and historical information about their style of music. They discuss their passion, then demonstrate it.

WKAR’s Web site describes the show as “your backstage pass and front-row center seat for performances from Michigan’s most talented artists.” True, that.

But what that description overlooks is the artistry going on behind the scenes.

The bands would give top-notch performances under any circumstances. However, to keep a television audience engaged requires another kind of skill.

This is where “Pass” succeeds. Producer Tim Zeko and his team have created an intimate setting that draws the viewer in. Special attention is taken to show the musicians’ hands at work, manipulating their instruments with deft skill.

The production team are artists in their own right. The studio set and lighting design by Ken Merley turns WKAR’s Studio A into an elegant performance space with beautiful draped backdrops lit with luscious and energizing light. The videography team smoothly captures the musicians from every angle, while the editors cut the footage with subtle panache.

These productions are as skillfully produced as national shows like “VH1 Storytellers” or “Austin City Limits.” The real advantage over those shows is that these musicians are folks we see in a class, or holding down a bar stool at a local watering hole.

The second season is made up of six episodes. The diverse musicians include rockers Big Willy in the season opener Jan. 7; soul-jazz band organissimo (Jan. 14); folk-pickers String Doctors, featuring Joel Mabus and Ray Kamalay (Jan. 21); singer/songwriter Jen Sygit and the band Spare Change (Jan. 28); soul-funkers Huckleberry Groove (Feb. 4); and country swingers Steppin’ In It and swing-jazz combo Shout Sister Shout (Feb. 11). A best-of episode closes out the season on May 27.

WKAR will begin production on the third season of “BackStage Pass” in April, and opportunities to become part of the audience will be announced via WKAR’s Web site in March. Music is always best enjoyed in person, and herein lies a unique opportunity to enjoy two teams of artists performing at once: the talented musicians themselves and the creative team behind “BackStage Pass.”

BackStage Pass

featuring Big Willy debuts at 10 p.m.

Thursday, Jan. 7 on WKAR.