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Published: Thursday, 1/22/2009

Brian Vander Ark has the personal touch


Last summer Brian Vander Ark showed up in the backyard of a home in the Old Orchard neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon.

It was a pristine day, clear and sunny without being too hot. Beer and soft drinks were on ice, a pitcher of sangria was being passed around, and folks scooted their lawn chairs up or sat in the grass to listen to Vander Ark best known for his work in the 90s band the Verve Pipe play an hour-long set.

The setting was intimate and comfortable as Vander Ark s wife and young daughter flitted around, and the musician was at ease with the back-porch vibe as he worked through solo and Verve Pipe songs. The laid-back atmosphere nicely set off his original acoustic-guitar based confessionals with the singer/songwriter explaining many of the tunes before he played them.

Tomorrow night s Vander Ark concert at the University of Toledo will be nothing like that, by definition, given that it will feature a full band and it s in the middle of a bone-cold winter, but it likely will have the personal vibe that the Michigan musician brings to all his work.

Brian Vander Ark will play at the University of Toledo Friday night. Brian Vander Ark will play at the University of Toledo Friday night.

A native and resident of Grand Rapids, Vander Ark hit on the personal shows as a way to augment his income and reach an audience that will never hear him late at night in bars.

I love it, he said in a telephone interview from his home. It s much more gratifying than the clubs, that s for sure. You don t deal with surly sound men and club owners who don t want to pay you [as you play] in a smoke-filled room.

He booked 105 of the backyard concerts last year, working them in as a productive way to kill time if he was on the road for a club show (Vander Ark plays Mickey Finn s in Toledo regularly) rather than sitting around in a hotel room. Or he books two or three in one day in Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois.

Charging between $750 and $1,500 per show based on how far he has to travel, whether the person who s booking him is a friend, or how many appearances he has that day, Vander Ark said half of his income comes from the house shows.

That allows him to pump money back into solo albums such as his most recent, the self-titled Brian Vander Ark, which featured A-list rhythm section Willie Weeks and Joe Vitale with production from Bill Szymczyk, who worked with B.B. King, the Eagles, Joe Walsh, and a ton others.

He s released three solo albums over the years since the Verve Pipe stopped working together regularly. The group was founded in 1992 in Lansing and recorded four albums, its last in 2001. The band is best known for 1997 s The Freshmen, a No. 1 single and a song Vander Ark is pretty much obligated to perform any time he plays in public.

Rather than considering it a commercial albatross, he embraces the melancholic, hooky tune as a way to introduce people to the rest of his music.

I don t think it s a burden. I do pay attention to it because I realize it has the biggest impact, and I think if I could just get that person that liked it to listen to what I m doing now that would be great, he said.

His only regret is that he didn t more thoroughly enjoy the band s mid- 90s popularity.

You always felt like you were only as popular as your next hit song, and even when the song was No. 1 we were like, What are we going to do next, what are we going to do next? There was a lot of pressure to keep at it.

Vander Ark works at a much more relaxed pace now, playing shows in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Toledo, and other cities around Michigan, and writing songs. The band he ll be with tomorrow includes musicians Kristy Kruger and Dylan Sneed, both solo artists in their own right, and they provide a sound that Vander Ark said is more twangy than the Verve Pipe.

He sells albums at his shows and his Web site, brianvanderark.com and unlike a lot of solo artists, he has no complaints about the fractured state of the music business.

I m probably one of the few people who actually likes the target out there now ... people are really hungry for new music, he said. I encourage people to burn my CD. Then people buy all four albums. People are hungry for good songwriting.

Brian Vander Ark and his band will perform tomorrow at the University of Toledo s Doermann Theatre in University Hall off Bancroft Street; doors open at 7 p.m. He will donate a portion of all ticket and merchandise sales to the Danberry Treasure Chest/Toledo Children s Hospital Foundation. Tickets for the all-ages show are $15 and will be available at all Danberry Realtors offices, Ramalama Records, or at brianvanderark.com.

Contact Rod Lockwood at rlockwood@theblade.com or 419-724-6159.

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