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Marshall Crenshaw highlights ‘United Sounds of America’ series

Marshall Crenshaw is musical director for Detroit chapter Symphony Center’s ambitious United Sounds Americconcert series.

Marshall Crenshaw is musical director for the Detroit chapter of Symphony Center’s ambitious United Sounds of America concert series.

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When: Friday through June 12; June 16-18

Where: Symphony Center,
220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $25-$70

Information: (312) 294-3000;

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Updated: September 3, 2011 12:34AM

The beautiful irony of travel is how it stops in time. Singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw can still see the afternoon dance show “Swingin’ Time with Robin Seymour” from his Detroit youth. The high-octane Seymour introduces the Hollies’ jangly hit “Bus Stop,” and nearly 75 teenagers start dancing. Like a black-and-white postcard, that moment sends Crenshaw back to August 1966.

“They put the camera on these black girls and they’re singing along to ‘Bus Stop’!” Crenshaw said after pulling over on a drive to a gig in St. Louis. “They know all the words. What a different time period it was. It was almost a cohesive community in the Detroit area. That all blew all apart during the late ’60s. It was always bubbling under the surface and then it happened. Things became stratified.”

Crenshaw, best known for his 1982 hit “Someday, Someway,” is musical director for the Detroit chapter of Symphony Center’s ambitious “United Sounds of America,” which spotlights six distinct musical regions.

The series kicks off Friday with Suzanne Vega’s New York tribute, which includes singer-songwriter Richard Julian on guitar and Chicago ringer Kurt Elling on vocals. The New York segment begins in the Roaring Twenties and spins through Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra while also featuring Chicago native Tom Paxton in a set dedicated to the New York folk scene of the 1950s and ’60s.

The timeless Route 66 is celebrated Saturday when Arlo Guthrie’s posse features vocalist Eliza Gilkyson and singer-songwriters Vance Gilbert and Chris Smither — although the historic roots scene of Springfield, Mo., should have been included with Brenda Lee, the Skeletons and Wayne Carson, who wrote “The Letter.”

The deep heritage of New Orleans is honored June 12 with the national touring project “A Night in Treme (The Musical Majesty of New Orleans)” with the Rebirth Brass Band, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., trumpeter James Andrews and others in a performance narrated by Wendell Pierce, star of HBO’s “Treme.”

A sure-to-be-sultry June 16 session honors Memphis, where Kirk Whalum performs with Stax-Volt legend William Bell in a rare Chicago appearance and the New Memphis Horns, among others. Alejandro Escovedo performs with Roky Erickson and vocalist Butch Hancock in the June 18 Austin, Texas, segment which concludes the series. Each format will be different. Some curators will perform within their regional ensemble, other performers will deliver separate sets.

The acoustically pristine Symphony Center seems an unlikely spot for an American roots music festival. In previous years crossover acts including Ray Charles and John Prine have performed in the 2,400-seat venue.

“I had an opportunity to program concerts without any specific genre in mind, and the orchestra was away on vacation,” said Jim Fahey, co-director of programming for Symphony Center Presents. He’s producing the United Sounds of America series with Danny Melnick of New York-based Absolutely Live Entertainment, which produced the 2009 Blue Note Records 70th Anniversary tour.

“I was walking down Wabash,” Fahey said, “and saw the [beginning of] Route 66 sign and started thinking if that could be a focus. I was at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with Danny last year and we started talking in more specific terms. We talked about how the country was fractured in a lot of ways and if we could bring the country together through music.”

Things became stratified.

Crenshaw has assembled the most impressive group of the United Sounds of America.

He skewed off predictable Motown to include soul vocalist Bettye LaVette, Wayne Kramer of the MC5, Brendan Benson of the Raconteurs, bassist Ralph Armstrong, the great jazz drummer Louis Hayes (Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley), jazz violinist Regina Carter and Mick Collins of the Dirtbombs, who recorded the punchy rock song “Motor City Baby.”

“I don’t know if I should say this, but it was one of those things where in my head I thought, ‘Maybe you should ask somebody else,’ ” Crenshaw said. “But I said, ‘Absolutely, I’m your man.’ It was real easy to find my sense of direction.”

Crenshaw admitted there was a lot of Motor City music to choose from. He narrowed his field to jazz, rock and rhythm and blues. Crenshaw’s distinctive guitar chord progressions blend the precise nature of pure pop with kaleidoscopic jazz.

“There’s a lot of gospel and techno out of Detroit which is interesting, but I’m not very knowledgeable about it,” he said. “The first person I asked was Wayne Kramer. We need a house band, and I thought Wayne and I on guitar would be pretty cool.” Crenshaw was on the U.S. dates of the MC5 tour in the summer of 2004, and Kramer plays two tracks on Crenshaw’s recent “Jaggedland” release.

“ ‘Motor City Baby’ is one of the best rock songs I’ve heard in ages. And Mick Collins just did an album with rock arrangements of electronica tunes.”

Also on the bill: keyboardist and singer Amp Fiddler. “I have his CD ‘The Detroit Experiment,’ ” Crenshaw said, “which is multi-generational and multi-genre. He does a great version of ‘Too High’ by Stevie Wonder.”

Crenshaw’s weekly radio show, “The Bottomless Pit,” premieres at 9 p.m. June 18 on, where he plays stuff from his collection of 3,600 CDs, 45s and LPs.

Fahey said the United Sounds could happen again. “We recognize the fact we’ve selected five cities and Route 66 and there are other great cities,” he said. “We didn’t do anything with Seattle and grunge or Philadelphia [soul] or the hip-hop scene in Atlanta.”

Fahey, 50, is from Des Plaines. He’s old enough to recall the regionalism of commercial radio, especially around Chicago. “We’ve lost something in this country by not celebrating regionalism in food, music or dialect,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that’s the main focus of what we’re trying to do, but it is an important element of what’s going to be shown on our stage.”

Crenshaw, 57, was born in Detroit and grew up in Berkley, three miles north of Detroit. His father was assessor and city manager for the City of Berkley. His mother started going to college while he was in grade school and became a high school English teacher.

“My dad’s last job was in the accounting department at Sinai Hospital in Detroit,” he said before a flickering pause. He continued, “Which is now one of the buildings on ‘The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit,’ ” an online tour of former landmarks now destroyed or in decay.

Detroit is one of America’s rock ’n’ roll cornerstones with fabulous figures including Bob Seger, Eminem, Iggy Pop, Mitch Ryder and Jack White. Even late legendary country music songwriter (“I Fall to Pieces,” “Busted,”) Harlan Howard was born in Detroit.

“Growing up, Detroit radio just wasn’t rock ’n’ roll, ever,” recalled Crenshaw, who lives in the Hudson Valley region about an hour south of Albany, N.Y. “There was ‘Chanson D’ Amour,’ middle-of-the-road pop records on top 40 radio, occasional country crossover records. I didn’t like any of that stuff but I heard it all. I only liked rock ’n’ roll as a kid.

“There was a strong sense of local pride in Detroit. When I was a kid they would always talk up Jackie Wilson records. At the same time there was Jack Scott, who I really still love. I always talk about him because no one else does.”

Born in Windsor, Ontario, and raised in Detroit, the rockabilly-influenced Scott is regarded as the first white rock star to be delivered from Detroit. Scott’s 1959 hit “The Way I Walk” was popularized by the Cramps as well as Robert Gordon. Crenshaw said, “It always intrigued me someone like Jack Scott came out of our area. Then in the ’60s there were local hits on the radio by Bob Seger, the Rationales. I thought they were superstars. And in Detroit they were.”

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