The Lawn Chairs will open for Pieta Brown and Bo Ramsey Oct. 3 at the Bluestem Stage in Ames.
AMES, Iowa — They've played dozens of gigs at cafes, coffeehouses, bars and community events. They perform "guerrilla" concerts at noon on Fridays in the atrium of the Iowa State University College of Design. They've even played (one night only) in Rome's Piazza Trilussa. They're ISU landscape architecture students, faculty and alumni who share an affinity for music—and they're set to appear in their most visible engagement yet.
Known as the Lawn Chairs, the group will open for alt-folk singer-songwriter Pieta Brown and blues-rock performer-producer Bo Ramsey at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3, at the Bluestem Stage, 3329 Lincoln Way in Ames. Tickets are $17 general public, $12 students, available at www.bluestemames.com.
"This is a very big deal to play for a 'listening' audience in a venue where the focus is entirely on the performance—no loud talking, no bar, no espresso machines or coffee grinders, no laptops," said band leader, guitarist and vocalist Michael Martin, associate professor of landscape architecture. "I've attended shows at Bluestem and really appreciate that aspect."
"It's the biggest gig of our career, opening for someone who's actually famous," said vocalist and fifth-year landscape architecture student Molly Murtha, Dimock, South Dakota. "It's exciting and a little nervewracking, but I think we're a good match for [Brown's] style of music."
Lawn Chairs members Mike McCullough, Morgan Van Denack, Molly Murtha, Kyle Schellhorn and Michael Martin perform at the Ames Main Street Farmers Market.
Born on the road
The Lawn Chairs formed three years ago in the ISU Department of Landscape Architecture's annual Traveling Savanna Studio, a sophomore learning community and intensive field-study program during which students and faculty bond on two, three-week-long road trips to observe and record the savanna landscape of the U.S. Martin, a prolific singer-songwriter who has taught the studio several times, drives one of the five vans of students, camping gear, suitcases, books and other equipment used in activities on the road.
"Before I'd connected all 36 students' faces and names, I heard two of them singing along with the radio in the van I was driving. Their distinctive voices blended remarkably and they had an uncanny ability to improvise harmonies," Martin said.
Van Denack and Murtha at Café Milo.
Schellhorn with his handmade cajon at the Ames Music Walk.
McCullough and Van Denack at the Ames Main Street Farmers Market.
Those students were Murtha and Morgan Van Denack, Elmhurst, Illinois, an alto with an eclectic taste in music that ranges from Marvin Gaye to Coldplay.
"I'm extremely shy and never had the confidence to be a soloist, which is why I naturally fall into harmonies. Molly and I fit perfectly—our voices and love of music mesh well together," Van Denack said.
Later during that fall 2012 studio, Murtha and Van Denack joined Martin, who always takes along his $10 "camping guitar," for sing-alongs around campfires. Soon percussionist Kyle Schellhorn, Cedar Rapids, added dynamic notes with his handmade birch-and-maple cajon (wooden box drum), which he used as a camping gear container when it was stashed in the back of the van.
"Things really clicked for me personally when we took a two-hour boat ride to Horn Island off the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Our studio had the island all to ourselves and we got a fire going and the next thing you know, Michael had his guitar and I pulled out my cajon and the girls sang. That's when it took off for me," Schellhorn said.
A closeknit group
Upon returning to Ames after the second road trip that fall, the new group began meeting for informal jam sessions in the College of Design's atrium—a tradition established by Martin and Mike McCullough, St. Paul, Minnesota, a guitarist and mandolinist who participated in the 2007 savanna studio and graduated with a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture in 2011. The two had performed together as a duo called Virginia Creeper, and after graduation McCullough—who then ran a residential design-build company in Des Moines—returned to campus to play with the Lawn Chairs.
"I'm really inspired by the original music and I love that it's a closeknit group of people with backgrounds in landscape architecture," said McCullough, now the founder and executive director of Project Sustainability, an environmental literacy nonprofit organization based in the Twin Cities. "The band is like a family experience. I think that's how all musical relationships are; when you play it's a magical moment."
That family over the years also has included saxophonist Mark Lukasiewicz, who received a Bachelor of Music from Iowa State in 2013, and guitarist/vocalist Jordan Garvey, who graduated with a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture degree in 2014. (They were classmates in the 2010 Savanna Studio.) They've done shows at local venues including Café Milo, Stomping Grounds Café, the Mucky Duck Pub and DG's Tap House, and community events such as Bookends at the Bandshell, Ames Main Street MusicWalk and Ames Main Street Farmers Market.
And in spring 2015, while Martin, Schellhorn and Van Denack were in Italy with the ISU College of Design Rome Program, McCullough—on a business trip in Europe—flew from Germany with his mandolin to perform with them in Piazza Trilussa.
Sharing memories through music
Though the band covers favorite tunes from rock, country, Americana and pop genres, it has developed an extensive repertoire of original music. Martin has penned the majority, while McCullough, Murtha and Van Denack all have contributed a number, as well as collaborations with Martin. Many of these songs were inspired by experiences from their Savanna Studio travels.
"The songs are a way to process and remember what we experience in these fascinating and diverse landscapes. They are also inevitably testaments to the friendships and community of the Savanna experience," said Martin, who will return from the first three-week road trip of this year's studio the day before the Brown concert.
"I think we have survived as a band because that special synergy is there. A great band is not necessarily the best musicians—it's a particular collection of people who each have a unique role that supports some bigger creative idea. In my mind this is a great band—not in terms of fame, but in terms of making wonderful and interesting musical things happen," he said.
"I love that these students have had a chance to put music out there, and the Brown and Ramsey show will allow the audience to hear us in a different way. I think the lyrical content and some of the subtleties of our originals, such as Kyle's remarkable percussion and Molly's/Morgan's vocal harmonies, will be more 'upfront' and be appreciated."
Martin, McCullough, Murtha, Schellhorn and Van Denack will perform at the opener for Pieta Brown and Bo Ramsey Oct. 3. If you miss that gig, you can catch them (minus McCullough) at the Ames Main Street Farmers Market the following Saturday morning, Oct. 10.
Oh, and about the band's name. "People often ask why 'lawn chairs'—something to do with being landscape architects? In a roundabout way, yes," Martin said.
During a long van drive in fall 2012, Martin overheard Murtha and Van Denack discussing strategies for memorizing botanical names of the plants they were studying, including developing mnemonics for unfamiliar Latin terms. One plant was the serviceberry tree, of the genus Amelanchier.
"Am-uh-lan-cheer," said Van Denack. And Murtha replied, "I'm a lawn chair!"
The rest is history.
Michael Martin, Landscape Architecture, (515) 294-8974, email@example.com
Mike McCullough, Landscape Architecture alumnus, (515) 681-3587, firstname.lastname@example.org
Molly Murtha, Landscape Architecture fifth-year student, (605) 505-0358, email@example.com
Kyle Schellhorn, Landscape Architecture fifth-year student, (319) 329-6303, firstname.lastname@example.org
Morgan Van Denack, Landscape Architecture fifth-year student, (630) 279-6251, email@example.com
Heather Sauer, Design Communications, (515) 294-9289, firstname.lastname@example.org