BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY —
Frog & the Beeftones are making the leap north.
The Lansing-based band will bring their blues-influenced classic rock to Ivan's in Schuss Village at Shanty Creek today and Saturday, Jan. 26. The shows, from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., will be their first in northern Michigan since drummer Art "The Hammer" Phelps joined the band in 2006.
Led by guitarist Steve "Frog" Forgey, the 'Tones have been rocking the mid-Michigan area since 1985. Now they play about 165 shows a year for audiences everywhere from the Lansing Lugnuts' Olds Park and The Green Door Blues Bar & Grill, to WKAR-TV's "BackStage Pass" and the Capitol Area Blues Society.
They've also played gigs with national acts like Molly Hatchet, Blue Oyster Cult, Rare Earth, Larry McCray, Stonewall Jackson, Edgar Winter and Mitch Ryder at clubs, county fairs and festivals around the Midwest.
"We don't do it for a living, we do it for fun," said Phelps, 60, who grew up playing in garage and basement bands, then took a two-decade hiatus for family pursuits. "I'm actually having more fun now at my age than I did in my 20s and 30s."
The seasoned band — "We have 200 years of playing," Phelps said — is known for its tight sound, high energy and musical proficiency, and its diverse set list, including "Satisfy My Soul," "Tell Mama" and the classic "Unchain My Heart." But the main draw is front man Forgey, whose lightning-fast fingers — rumored never to miss a note or produce a muddy sound — defy his unconventional stance.
"He's phenomenal," said Phelps, of Portland, Mich., the only band member to have been raised in Lansing. "He plays left handed but he plays the right-handed guitar. He just turns it over and plays it.
"It's amazing to watch his fingering, that he can find those notes and that his brain can make that connection."
Robert Farmer, of the Midwest booking agency Rose-Robert, recently started working with the band and said he expects Frog and cohorts to become one of his most-booked blues bands.
"Frog & the Beeftones have been kicking up the Great Lakes area live music scene for years," Farmer said in an email. "I have heard of 'em, but just this summer saw them. WOW and WOW again! (They're) worthy of every booking we can get them."
Forgey, keyboardist Kurt "Coop" Hasselschwert and bassist Mike Jessup grew up in Jackson, where they went to school together. They have played on and off together since. Meanwhile Phelps, who had gotten tired of the weekend grind in smoky bars, stopped playing except in church and to teach.
"I took 20 years off until we raised our kids and took care of our parents," he said. "Finally my wife decided I needed to have more fun."
At the suggestion of a Los Angeles friend, who knew Forgey from his work as an appraiser at Lansing music store Elderly Instruments, the couple went to see Frog & the Beeftones play.
"I was blown away by their set list," Phelps said. "They did everything from Merle Haggard to ZZ Topp. I said, 'Man, I could do that,' even though I wasn't looking for a band." Before long, he was sitting in on Thursday jam sessions hosted by Forgey at the Unicorn Tavern in Lansing's Old Town.
"I figured I'd get my itch scratched and be a happy camper and go home," Phelps said. "I did that for a year. In 2006 Frog called me and offered me a job with the band."
Now that he's past his youth and the hope of making it big, the drummer said he's enjoying making music more than ever.
"Those kind of dreams are well past me now, but who knows?" he said. "Look at Keith Richards, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney."