Over Valentine’s Day Weekend, the band the Usual Suspects performed their annual Valentine’s Day gig at the Old Factory Coffee Shop.
The band consists of Northwestern professors Dr. Joel Westerholm, Dr. John Hubers, and Dr. Samuel Martin, along with Orange City community members Gary Reinders and Steve Mason.
“Love songs are an important part of everyone’s repertoire,” Westerholm said. “So why not make a whole night of it?”
But the annual concert is not just about playing love songs.
“We started it as a social service,” Westerholm said. “Once a year trying to save marriages for guys who forget about Valentine’s Day.”
The Usual Suspects began when Westerholm and Hubers, although he was not yet a professor at the time, joined together playing backyard concerts in 2000. Hubers foresaw their success and immediately decided that a name would be necessary.
“We were playing at backyard concerts and John came up to me and told me we needed a name,” Westerholm said. “To which I replied, what for?”
Hubers suggested the Usual Suspects, after the movie “The Usual Suspects,” and the name stuck.
Soon thereafter, Huber’s former classmate and fellow alum of NW, Reinders, joined the Usual Suspects on the harmonica. However, Hubers left NW to attend grad school, during which time Westerholm and Reinders continued to do small gigs.
Hubers eventually returned to Orange City to become a professor at NW, and shortly after his return, Dr. Samuel Martin was hired as an English professor and quickly asked to join the band.
“I think I had been on campus for about 20 minutes and they found out I did percussion,” Martin said. “They asked me to join pretty quickly.”
The band was completed a year later when another Orange City community member, Steve Mason, joined to play bass guitar and do sound for the group.
The group shows a wide range of skills and talents in multiple ways. Westerholm and Hubers both play guitar and do vocals. Reinders plays harmonica and does vocals, and Mason plays bass. Martin handles the percussion section by playing the djembe, cajon, and what their Facebook Page, “Usual Suspects,” defines as “various forms of rhythmic racket.”
“Sometimes I play the ugly stick, “ Martin said. “It is a Newfoundland instrument with a stick in a boot with a variety of beer bottle caps and other noisemakers attached to it, topped with a can that you hit with a wooden spoon. It’s one of those instruments you only play one song per concert because your arms get sore.”
Along with percussion, Martin also does vocals and acts as the MC for the group.
“Martin is the fastest at singing and the best storyteller for our songs,” Westerholm said. “We use him when we need the fastest singing.”
Dr. Martin concurs.
“Really they use me when they need a funny voice, like a growl, or for fast singing,“ Martin said. “I do a lot of the Irish songs. The Irish were rapping hundreds of years ago with these songs.”
In addition to their wide range of instruments, the Usual Suspects play both original songs and covers, combining a variety of genres and styles into what they call folk rock.
“There is a lot of rock and roll stuff going on with it,” Westerholm said, “but the acoustic sound is very important to what we do.”
“We play some classic rock with some stuff that’s a little jazzier,“ Martin said. “It’s like rock music with jazz cords. There is also some Irish folk, some blues, a little bit of everything.”
The Usual Suspects also play at a variety of events and locations throughout the year, including the Tulip Festival, NW events such as the dinner on the green during freshman orientation, and their two favorite places to play, The Old Factory and the Fruited Plain.
“At the Fruited Plain, people are there to have fun,” Martin said. “They are there to hang out, so we are more of the background music, but the environment is great.”
Dr. Westerholm says that the environment at the Old Factory is a little different.
“The Old Factory environment is a little tighter and people are listening a bit more,” said Westerholm. “We can play more nuanced songs cause people hear the words.”
The groups enjoys the way their music reaches out to a wide audience and can bring different memories to different people.
“We were surprised by the age range at our gigs,” Martin said. “We thought we were a middle-aged band, but at the past few concerts there have been an even mix of everyone from 70 to 17. It’s neat to hear how the same song can bring different memories to people.”
The group performs next at the Fruited Plain Cafe in Sioux Center, on April 2nd.