“That drum fill, man, it’s just fuckin’ right.”
I’m sitting at the bar with Donny Brown, and Zakk Wylde and friends are ripping through a cover of “Mississippi Queen” on the TV behind us. Brown knows a few things about drums; the 52-year-old west Lansing resident spent 21 years behind the kit for the Verve Pipe.
A founding member of the group, Brown experienced firsthand the fickleness of the music industry. The band scored a huge hit with its first major label release, 1996’s “Villains,” driven largely by the success of the hit single “The Freshmen.”
Subsequent albums, however, never reached the same level of success, and the Verve Pipe was pushed to the fringes of pop relevance. Brown left the band in 2013 to pursue other opportunities.
Saturday, one of those opportunities will take center stage as Brown celebrates his first solo release, “Hess Street E.P.,” with a concert at the Grand Ledge Performing Arts Center.
“I’ve had these songs in the works for quite a while,” he says.
The EP features Brown front-and-center as singer and guitarist. (He also recorded most of his own drum tracks, of course.) While Brown has been working on these songs for years, this EP may not have seen the light of day without some friendly peer pressure.
Brown says he performed at a singer/songwriter even in Bay City in July.
“After the show, a friend of mine said, ‘We’re giving you a deadline and you have to release some music.’” That friend, fellow Saginaw native J.J. Bamberger, booked a November gig for Brown at the Dow Event Center’s Red Room in Saginaw. He told Brown that he needed to have his release completed for the gig.
“I was bullied into making the EP,” Brown says with a laugh.
While the songwriting is the heart of this EP, the release’s production really makes the songs shine. Brown enlisted the help of several veterans of the Michigan music scene to fill out the sonic spectrum.
Longtime friend and musical collaborator Andy Reed (formerly of the Verve Pipe and Jedi Mind Trip) plays bass on the EP, and Jake Greenwood of Vandalay adds keyboards to the mix. Even Lansing recording guru Glenn Brown gets in on the act, playing ukulele on the EP’s closing track.
“The fact that I have all these people I respect and admire musically playing on this record, that is the best reason for making the record,” Brown says.
The record also features a very special cameo by Brown’s drum teacher, the late Bob “Bubba” Grudner. Lansing residents may remember Grudner as the drummer for the Zen Ponies, Acme Jam Co., or the Blue Avenue Delegates. He also recorded and toured with Mark Farner of Grand Funk
Railroad and recorded two albums with Dolly Parton.
Grudner, who died of lung cancer in 2004, recorded the drum tracks for Brown’s “Call Me.” Grudner’s faux-tapdancing woodblock part drives the Tin Pan Alley-influenced number.
“I played him the track and asked him if he wanted to play on it,” says Brown. “He brought his oxygen tank with him to the studio and recorded the drum part.”
Through the EP and through conversation, it becomes clear that Brown is engaged with the present, but always deeply aware of the past and those who came before him. The title of the EP alludes to a street on the east side of Saginaw, the cover photo is of the house on that street that he grew up in.
“That house — that part of Saginaw, really — has gotten a real ass-kicking,” Brown says. “People have broken in and stripped all the pipes and wiring for scrap. It’s a real mess.”
Despite its current state, the house still brings back happy memories for Brown. “My parents were the cool parents,” he says. “My brothers played in rock bands, they let them practice all night in our basement.”
Brown credits his parents with laying the foundation for his musical exploits.
“There was always music on in the house,” he remembers. “My parents instilled a love of music in me.”
Though the album was completed in November, Saturday’s performance will be the first chance to hear these songs live in the greater Lansing area. For Brown, the opportunity to perform live is a special opportunity.
“The process (of recording) was so fulfilling,” he says. “To do the live show takes it to another level.”
Concert-goers can expect to hear the songs from the EP, as well as reworked versions of Verve Pipe songs.
Brown may even sprinkle in a few new songs.
“I’m already getting songs ready for another EP,” he says.
Local singer/songwriter Abbey Hoffman will open Saturday’s show. Hoffman sings with the Lansing Unionized Vaudeville Spectacle, and recently released her own solo album, “This Too Shall Pass.” Hoffman recorded her album with Ryan Wert at Elm Street Studios in REO Town.
“I learned about Abbey through Ryan,” Brown says. “I just love her voice.”
Hoffman will also join Brown’s band as a back-up singer later in the evening.
While Brown has toured the world and experienced all the trappings of success with the Verve Pipe, he still remembers the humbling gigs that came before the success. One particular gig stands out in his memory.
“(The Verve Pipe) was going to open for a band called the Dopes at Rubble’s in Mt. Pleasant,” he says. “They wouldn’t move any of their gear off of the stage, and they wouldn’t let me use their drums.”
The band mostly fit on the tiny stage, but Brown had to get creative.
“I set up my drums off-stage in front of the kitchen door,” he says with a laugh.
The drummer for the Dopes, the one who wouldn’t let Brown use his gear, was none other than Doug Corella, who would later join the Verve Pipe as keyboardist/percussionist.
Through the highs and the lows of success, simply being able to make music has always been the driving force in Brown’s life.
“It’s not the fantastic living or chance of fame that motivates me, it’s the process of making music that is so fulfilling,” he says. “The rest is just frosting.”
Donny Brown Album Release Concert
7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 14 $10 advance/$5 students/$15 at the door Grand Ledge Performing Arts Center 820 Spring St., Grand Ledge