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M897 Artist Spotlight: February 2017

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LAITH AL-SAADI

Al-Saadi - Ann Arbor's Soul, Blues & Rock Sensation

Story by LCC Radio Reporter Sarah Spohn

First it was the church choir at four years old, next it was theater productions at The Michigan Theater at eight, then it was the piano, followed by the French horn in Laith Al-Saadiseventh grade. At thirteen, he became interested in guitar. What was next for Ann Arbor native Laith Al-Saadi was decades of guitar playing, sharing stages with some of blues and rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest names, national exposure on a hit NBC television show and an ever-growing fan base.

Laith reminisces when he first became interested in guitar. Though he’d learned many other instruments before, he didn’t really dedicate time to practicing. His mom wouldn’t even pay for lessons.

“I bought a method book and a Beatles book and taught myself how to play guitar,” Laith said.

Over winter break of his eighth grade year, Laith taught himself just enough chords to pass the audition for his school’s jazz band. Fast-forward to the end of high school, and Laith was spending his whole afternoon in the band room after lunch. He was playing piano, bass, formed his own jazz fusion band and had a blues band, Blue Vinyl.

Blue Vinyl went on to be the first Ann Arbor high school band to release a CD and also got to open up for blues big names Buddy Guy, Luther Allison, Tommy Castro, and play blues and jazz festivals in Michigan.

College continued to fuel Laith’s passion for guitar and instrumental study. Having attended Western Michigan and the University of Michigan for bass, guitar and vocal classes, Southern blues were never far from the Northerner. He began playing gigs six nights a week, three shows each night, performing both solo and later on, with his band, in Traverse City and Bellaire.

Perhaps the phrase – “Look ma” is best applicable for the little kid who never wanted to practice his instruments, who now, was playing three shows a night. Laith’s music began to take him even more places to make mom proud.

In 2006, he opened up for B.B. King at the House of Blues in Chicago, and again in 2014 at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.

Laith Al-Saadi“Opening up for B.B. King probably was one of the biggest deals of my life,” he said. “I was incredibly influenced by B.B. as a singer and guitar player. I kind of think of him as like the most well-known blues player that has ever been.”

Aside from the Delta blues and moody Muddy Waters music, other influences for Laith include classic rock bands ranging from The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Band and the Grateful Dead.

“I love music and I like whatever touches my soul,” he said. “The blues is just a common thread through so much music that I like. The blues is a truly American art form that kind of weaved its way into almost every facet of American music. So for me, I think a lot of the music that I personally gravitated towards just had a bluesy edge to it. Whether it was rock ‘n’ roll or Ray Charles or Louis Armstrong, or whether it was country stuff, I like the stuff that seemed to be a little more soulful and maybe had a bit more of a bluesy influence,” Laith said.

What followed for Laith was a risky move in his musical career. He decided, after much contemplation, to pause his steady, full-time music career in Michigan to audition for NBC’s hit singing-competition T.V. show, “The Voice.” Being authentic and remaining true to himself were constant thoughts in the singer’s mind during time spent in Los Angeles.

Also inspired by fellow Michigan musician Joshua Davis (and former M897 artist), Laith realized the show didn’t make him an automatic sellout. Laith spoke about Josh’s time on “The Voice,” which took the Traverse City singer all the way to the finale – finishing third.

“He represented himself really well, and picked wonderful music that I think he really liked, in fact, loved. That showed me that doing the show could be done with plenty of class and plenty of authenticity and that that would actually be the best thing to do,” Laith said of Josh.

Being a blues guitar player and singer, Laith brought a new kind of artist to the forefront, on a national stage. And with that brought some apprehension. Week after week performing for the celebrity judges and on the screens of thousands of people, he never felt like he’s the type of musician America would choose. Instead, he focused on picking songs that were representative his musical career and who he was as both an artist and person.

Laith Al-SaadiAs a surprise to Laith, American audiences were far more in-tune and in touch with their bluesy selves and continued to vote the Ann Arbor native through, all the way to the finale.

“I picked music I loved and even further, they embraced stuff I didn’t think they would,” Laith said. After singing an Albert King standard, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” the show’s producers asked him to play even more blues music, including B.B. King.

With these meaningful songs, there was an evident contrast from pop ballads and country songs that his competition was playing. With this new style also came new viewers.

“I know, even from the producer’s reactions, that I definitely brought a different demographic to the show,” Laith said. “I didn’t expect to win, but it’s just cool that I knew I brought a different type of viewership.”

Happy with the outcome, coming in fourth place, the classic rocker was grateful to not be tied into a winner’s contract. Since the show, he has been able to cut the bar gigs and play theaters full of concertgoers specifically there to see his music. For now, he’s just trying to keep the momentum that was built during the show.

“We’ve played some fantastic shows in some very iconic places and it’s really cool the doors that it’s opened and how much it kind of permeated through America,” Laith said. “When you think about it, that’s 16 million people that have watched you for a whole season. I have gone to places that I had never set foot in before, and sol out pretty good-sized venues and that’s amazing. I’m very grateful.”

During the celebrity duet performance, Laith sang with Joe Walsh (James Gang, Eagles) and after the show wrapped, Joe’s management reached out and invited him to play with his band’s and Bad Company’s concert on the stage with country star Keith Urban and guitar session player Waddy Watchel for “Rocky Mountain Way” at DTE on June 22.

The 39-year-old singer calls the experience “one of the highlights” of his life. “The fact that he liked me enough to extend that after the show, and that actually is a real relationship that will continue; it wasn’t just a one-off that I got to play with him on NBC, and then it was done… it’s very, very cool,” he said.

Laith Al-SaadiBeing home as a full-time musician in Michigan is never something Laith takes for granted. Some of his favorite venues to play include the Blind Pig and Ark in Ann Arbor, Blissfest up north, and Bluesfest in Old Town Lansing.

“We do have a great, great state,” he said. “And there’s so much that I love about being a musician in Michigan. There’s just great people around, great talent, and it’s really diverse.”

Up next for the blues rocker is opening up for Lynyrd Skynryd at 20 Monroe Live, Grand Rapids’ newest art deco venue, on Feb. 3. He’s also busy recording and writing music and assessing whether the indie route or a label is the right choice for that release. He’s also got plenty of Michigan dates on the list for a great summer of gigs. Be on the lookout for more soulful renditions from this Ann Arbor singer songwriter.


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