July 03--It's fitting that Concert of Colors has become a Detroit tradition, because when it comes to music, Detroit's tradition is diversity.
The mix-and-match festival will rev up its 21st edition Thursday night as it begins a four-day journey with seven Midtown venues and about 60 musical acts.
Two decades after it was founded as a cozy world music showcase at Chene Park, Concert of Colors has blossomed into one of the city's signature summer events.
-- Schedule: Concert of Colors
In recent years, the free festival has, in one sense, broadened its focus by turning inward -- emphasizing homegrown Detroit sounds alongside the smorgasbord of global artists and indigenous forms.
"Detroit is such a mecca of great music," says blues musician Robert Jones. "You think of all the diverse cultures, all the folks who came here to work and brought their music with them. It helped to break down barriers. Even when people weren't overtly receptive to something like the civil rights movement, they were listening to each other's music."
Jones will have a good vantage point on this year's Concert of Colors: He'll be in the thick of the action at both ends, performing Thursday in Mike Ellison's "Stepping into Destiny" ensemble piece (Charles H. Wright museum) and in Sunday's closing Don Was Detroit All-Star Revue (Orchestra Hall).
In just three years, Ellison's production has become a CoC highlight, a colorful, energetic show that traces the evolution of American music from antebellum field hollers through the blues and into modern sounds.
"There are a lot of moving pieces," he says. "We don't approach it as a local show -- it's a production. It's nonstop engagement."
Ellison -- who as MIKE-E made a name in the slam poetry world -- has enlisted players such as vocalist Kenny Watson, saxophonist DeShawn Jones and drummer Eric (Rainman) Gaston for this year's show.
"My goal is to present the broad view of Detroit in one show," he says, "and show that we're all part of one continuum. The museum has an educational mission, so my goal every year is to entertain, inform and inspire."
Ellison's production was already popular enough by last year that many fans were turned away at the door. That prompted CoC organizers to book a simultaneous show Thursday night around the corner at the Scarab Club, where the Sun Ra-inspired jazz outfit Planet D Nonet will perform.
"This way we can accommodate everybody, and it's a great way to start the event," says CoC founder Ismael Ahmed.
As it has since 2008, the festival will close with the All-Star Revue, curated by Ahmed and Was, the Oak Park-born record producer who also hosts the freewheeling session.
This year's revue will include MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer (possibly in tandem with drummer Dennis Thompson), rocker Ty Stone, country singer Katie Grace, rockabilly band Horse Cave Trio and bluesmen Emanuel Young and Howard Glazer, among others.
Robert Jones and his wife, billed as Sister Bernice Jones, will take part with a set of holy blues, in the style established by artists such as Mississippi Fred McDowell.
The All-Star Revue "has become the signature event at the Concert of Colors," Jones says. "You get to hear so much music coming from so many directions, from quality artists."
New this year is the inclusion of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), which will host Saturday's official afterparty with a set by the Khmer rock 'n' roll ensemble Cambodian Space Project.
Produced by Dearborn's Arab American National Museum, CoC has come to rely on diversity of a different sort. With its own internal budget dropping from $900,000 several years ago to about $150,000 this year, Ahmed says the festival has gotten a crucial hand from the Ford Foundation, with additional support from institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts and Midtown Detroit.
"It really is still a diversity festival," says Ahmed. "Our aim, which is to make this a more comfortable world for everybody, is still ringing true. We've got U-M and MSU cooperating to run our outdoor venue. The important thing is that people are crossing all kinds of lines to come together to do this, and I think that's really neat."
Concert of Colors
With Mike Ellison, the Family Stone, Ozomatli with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Don Was Detroit All-Star Revue and more
Begins at 6:30 p.m. Thu., 4 p.m. Fri., 2 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Various venues, Midtown Detroit
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