It’s not every day two Grammy winners bring their live music to a smaller, intimate venue in East Lansing, but this weekend, the Bailey neighborhood is in for a real treat. Saturday, Dec. 10, at 7 p.m., Pump House Concerts is hosting Grammy winners Don Henry and Jon Vezner (The DonJuans) for their holiday-themed show.
The concert will take place in the Orchard Street Pump House (368 Orchard St.), a city-owned, neighborhood-managed community center. The former water pump facility from the ‘30s was converted to a one-room space in the ‘80s.
Dudley “Smitty” Smith started the monthly concert series with his late-wife in 2008. He says the concept is much like a house show, inspired by Smith’s time frequenting popular hangout spots for singer-songwriters in Nashville.
A few years after the start of the concert series, organizers launched Pumpstock, a music festival in East Lansing’s Bailey Park in the heart of the Bailey Neighborhood.
During the pandemic, the indoor Pump House Concert Series was mostly on hiatus and is now an occasional event instead of being held monthly. Smith said the upcoming December show is a special one.
“Both artists have played at the Pump House several times before,” he said. “Don Henry was the second ever Pump House concert in 2008 or 2009.”
Smith met Don Henry during a performance at the iconic Bluebird Cafe in Nashville and became friends over the years. He invited Henry to stop in East Lansing while on his tour. Jon Vezner was part of a quartet group that performed every December.
“Don and Jon are both Grammy-winners,” Smith said. “They wrote the song, ‘Where’ve You Been’ quite a while ago, and it was a number one country song.”
The tune was the first song in country music history to sweep all major song-of-the-year honors including Grammy, Academy of Country Music [ACM], Country Music Association [CMA], and the Nashville Songwriters Association International Awards. Since then, Don and Jon have performed with Joey Ramone and David Crosby, and had their songs recorded by Ray Charles, John Mellencamp and Miranda Lambert. Together, they bring a certain sense of musicianship and veteran experience to the stage.
While the talent is impressive, Smith said it’s the atmosphere of Pump House concerts that is special in its own right. The listening room setting is very different from a crowded bar gig.
“Most people experience music either in a concert hall or a small venue like a bar. Music in bars is not bad, but I find it annoying to try to listen to a performer through the noise of the people drinking at the bar, the couple in the corner breaking up and theTV playing the football game,” Smith said.
“In Nashville in 2008, when I lived down there, listening rooms were very popular. When the music starts, people are quiet and remain quiet other than applause. There’s no talking going on … everybody focuses on the music and the musician. The Pump House is like that.”
Not only does the intimate setting prove enjoyable for the concertgoers, but for the performer as well, Smith said. Typically, the shows host about 50-60 attendees.
“People are focused on the musician and their music, so it’s very rewarding for the musicians,” he said. “There can be a lot of interaction between the musician and the audience: storytelling and people build a relationship with the artist and feel kind of close to them, even after one show.”
“It’s a great way to experience great songwriting. The songs these people write are little stories. Each one is a very well-crafted, four-minute story, often with some great guitar playing. A lot of people really appreciate that.”
Smith compares the concerts to simply hanging out with the musicians in a living room. In fact, he’s become friends with many of the musicians, inviting them into his home for dinners and staying with them in their respective homes while traveling with his family.
While the shows take a lot of behind-the-scenes work, Smith and his wife Kristin McCool do it because they love bringing high-caliber talent to the East Lansing community. Smith lived within a block of the Pump House for almost 30 years, and feels a strong connection to the Bailey neighborhood.
“We’re both MSU alumni, so we’re already really invested in the East Lansing community,” McCool said. “East Lansing is very near and dear to our hearts.”
The Dec. 10 show is donation-based, with a suggested contribution of $20. The money goes entirely to pay musicians. Tickets can be purchased at the doors beginning at 6:30 p.m. The show starts at 7 p.m.
Typically, tickets are not sold in advance, but Smith said if anyone is concerned about reserving tickets in advance due to long travels or needs special accommodations, they can reach out to him via email to secure seats.