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Folk

Women folk

Detroit’s all-girl old-timey outfit surprises

Photo: Doug Coombe
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Published 3/1/2006

The Syreens can find the soft touch in even the toughest critic. For starters, they're one of the few all-female roots music outfits you'll see around town. And they also go great with biscuits and gravy.

It's Sunday morning at the Steak Hut in southwest Detroit, and the greasy spoon is standing room only. Hung-over scenesters, the après-church contingent, wily coeds and a few senior citizens fill the place. The four Syreens have crammed themselves into a tiny nook at the back of the beanery. They're so cramped that their banjo and fiddle threaten to conk the heads of passing breakfasters. No one seems to mind.

A bubbly young woman plucks at an upright bass, while an equally fresh-faced fiddler lowers her instrument, closes her eyes as if to pray and begins to sing. The clanking of silverware and sizzle of grilling sausage accompany them. With the smell of butter and eggs and burning toast, it feels like home. It's almost too precious, really. And the way the whole thing began is like a scene straight out of a saccharine Sundance Film Festival entry.

Amanda Lynn, a 22-year old Minnesota-born traveling street musician, was playing one afternoon outside of Cass Corridor bakery Avalon International Breads. Bakery employee Jennifer Bagwell — also a musician — was so taken with Lynn's fiddling that she spent her break singing along. (Full disclosure: Bagwell is a former Metro Times staffer.)

"I knew she was from out of town," Bagwell says, "but I had to ask her, 'If you ever come back, I'd love to play with you.'"

Lynn did come back, and has since put down roots in Detroit. After spending the last few years traveling the country, with little more than a fiddle and a willingness to play for just enough money to stay on the road, Lynn has taken a shine to the Motor City. Beaming, she says, "It feels good to settle down. I think it's amazing here."

Lynn also plays washtub bass and guitar with the duo Two Dollar Breakfast, an old-timey outfit whose name was derived from the Sunday morning gig at the Steak Hut. The Syreens are filling in for them on this morning. Lynn's Two Dollar partner, Steve Christiansen, is on tour to sell merch for his buddies, the Electric Six.

Bagwell's enthusiasm is the nucleus of the Syreens. Through social connections and mutual appreciation for music, she's the one responsible for putting the band together. The other two members are bass player Katie Skowronski, a bubbly 21-year old, and Angela Belanger, 41, the guitar-playing elder. There's no denying the enigmatic musical sisterhood of the group as they sit down for an interview. Louisa May Alcott couldn't have created more vivid characters.

Skowronski is the clown of the clan, given to broad smiles and giggling fits — the perfect yin to Belanger's more serious yang. She dabbled with metal bands as a teenager and later learned how to play the upright as part of her music education curriculum at Wayne State University. Belanger's also been playing since she was a kid. After the breakfast show, she settles into her seat and is greeted by her 6-year-old daughter Estelle.

As the beautiful little girl climbs on top of her mom for a bear hug, Belanger pokes her head over the child's shoulder to talk. "I was in a bunch of punk bands, worked at Proudland Recording Studio in Chicago," she says, "but this is the first band I've been in since I came back to Detroit."

Estelle grins proudly and canoodles her mom. "She's our toughest critic," Bagwell says of the pint-sized crasher.

The Syreens practice at Belanger's house, and this pleasant interruption seems to be par for the course with them. "Band practice is full of kids, dogs, food, beer — you can't separate the chaos from the band," Bagwell says.

They must be doing something right, because the Syreens' familial appeal has even won over the finicky 6-year old. "I'd rather she see me do this than vacuum the floor and dust," Belanger says.

None of them expected the amount of attention they've gotten in their short, six-month tenure. Lynn is even a little conflicted about it. She thinks it's a bit premature. "I remember thinking, 'Don't pay attention yet. We're not ready. We're still figuring it out,'" she says. But there's no going back now — the people have bitten into the down-home feeling of the band. Who needs perfection when it's already this much fun?

The Syreens' repertoire is a grab bag of genres. Their twanged-out version of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," for example, can't be categorized as either jazz or bluegrass. But who cares? It's fun.

Though Skowronski brings a lot of bluegrass tunes to the mix, Lynn emphasizes the importance of writing originals. Bagwell's appreciation for the group is steeped in the tradition of her hometown, New Orleans. "I learned to play from my dad," she says. "It's important to me to preserve this."

Says Belanger, "It's easy to be sincere [when you play music like this]."

"And it's feisty too," Lynn adds. "Bluegrass is the tae kwon do of acoustic music, and old-timey is the street-fighting stuff."

They're four friends, unfazed by the range of ages, proud of this thing they've created together. But don't take the Syreens as a novelty act. "Just because we're all-girl," Bagwell says, "doesn't mean we're a gimmick."

Eve Doster is Metro Times listings editor. Send comments to edoster@metrotimes.com.

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