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Rock 'n' roll escape artist
by Matthew Jakubowski
Kalamazoo Gazette, Kalamazoo, MI
Sep 3rd, 2004

If it hadn't been for the saving power of rock 'n' roll, Brandon Wiard might be out picking apples rather than guitar licks.

But the 23-year-old pop singer and songwriter from the Ann Arbor suburb of Ypsilanti knew years ago that he wasn't cut out to work on his family's 150-year-old apple and peach orchard.

He first picked up a guitar at 15, and as Wiard (sounds like "wired") said with a laugh, he's "not the first one to shirk the family duties."

His musical calling, despite his somewhat self-deprecating demeanor, hasn't left him disappointed.

His sound has attracted the likes of Andrew W.K. and keyboardist Ben Wilson of Blues Traveler, among others.

Both artists have contributed to the songs -- or videos for the songs -- on Wiard's latest album, "Painting a Burning Building," released in early August on Ypsilanti-based Cerberus Records.

Tonight, Wiard headlines a show at Kraftbrau Brewery. There will be two opening acts, alternative country-rock groups Midwestern Lull and American Cosmos.

Although Wiard has played at Kraftbrau several times before, tonight's show will be his first here since "Burning" was released.

"It's been a while since I played in Kalamazoo. It was on a Sunday and nobody came out," he said of his last show here, which he guessed was about a year ago. "They (the Kraftbrau staff) were nice about it, though. They said sorry and gave me a six-pack of beer for my trouble."

The lush-sounding arrangements on several tracks of his new album have been retooled for tonight's gig. Since many of the new songs use either odd instruments like sleighbells or a six-person backup chorus, Wiard has tinkered with the tunes to suit the four-piece band he'll have with him.

Complex musical challenges like that are a far cry from the Wiard's musical beginnings.

In the sixth grade (he'd rather not mention the private Ann Arbor school he attended because it's been a point of contention at past shows), he was eager to join the school band.

"But the way it worked was that you were supposed to show up knowing how to play your instrument," he said, still sounding a little mystified by the memory.

So he studied elsewhere, a little alto saxophone here, two years of violin there. He picked up guitar at age 15 and dabbles in piano when writing songs.

"All these years I wished I'd kept up with those instruments so I wouldn't have to pay studio musicians," he said with a laugh.

He eventually put together a ska band called the Lamonts ("named after the son from the TV show 'Sanford and Son,'" he said) that turned into a 1960s pop band. A year later, he ditched the Lamonts to form a duo called Star Motel with a friend named Eric Sloat. About two years later, Sloat ditched Wiard to go to college.

In 2001, Wiard went solo. He started playing in the Ann Arbor area and released a demo CD called "To Someone I Know" in November 2001.

Then, without a band, but with several songs he felt good about, Wiard decided to take a friend up on an offer to drive cross-country in November 2003 and be an opening solo act at some clubs in California.

He took along a hodge-podge of his older songs so he wouldn't be empty-handed if someone wanted a CD. He compiled 17 tracks onto one disc, threw in some solo acoustic demos, and called it the "Super Secret Double Awesome Japanese Import B-Side Collection."

He left for California expecting to play for about a month. Due to some booking problems, the trip lasted about a week and a half.

But a trip to Anaheim, Calif., to see rocker Andrew W.K. ended up paying off for Wiard in an unexpected way.

W.K. is a California native who grew up in Michigan. He spent time playing in several Detroit-area punk bands and returned to Michigan to record material for his latest album. Wiard explained that the two had once worked at the same Mexican restaurant in Ann Arbor and had also attended the same school, although Andrew W.K. was several years ahead of Wiard.

After Wiard got a note with his cell phone number backstage to W.K., he was surprised to get a call shortly after the show.

"Is this Brandon? This is Andrew W.K.," Wiard said he heard, imitating W.K.'s deep voice.

W.K. got a chance to hear Wiard's song "Miss Michigan" and offered to help out with the video. In it, W.K. lip-syncs the song while sitting in a wheelchair, "since he'd just broken his foot the day before," Wiard said. The video is still a work in progress that Wiard hopes to complete later this year.

Wiard met Blues Traveler keyboardist Ben Wilson by chance at the Big Sky Studio in Ann Arbor.

"He happened to be finishing up his session," Wiard said. After a brief exchange of e-mails during which Wiard found out Wilson was looking to do some session work with other bands, "he played the Wurlitzer on 'Permanent Smile,' which turned out great," Wiard said. Wilson also added his talents to the song "Caroline."

"It was cool to hear someone who actually plays piano play the stuff I'd written," rather than have to try to play it himself, Wiard said.

Despite his brushes with other artists that have hit the big time, Wiard's no prima donna and is grounded by a dry sense of humor. For instance, toward the end of the phone conversation, he left a store where he'd had to go to cash a check. In the parking lot, he saw a familiar face.

"Hey, there's a guy I was in the studio with," Wiard said. "I wonder if I should go ask him for my microphone back?"