Decatur band Harlem Hayfield introduces Rustbelt Soul in Jazz UpFront debut
Decatur band Harlem Hayfield formed in 2019 and spent the pandemic writing original songs at a breakneck pace. They’ve only performed twice in the Twin Cities, including a recent appearance at Make Music Normal. And on Friday, they’ll play Jazz UpFront for the first time with special guest FloWeezy opening.
Much of the evening will be dedicated to songs from Harlem Hayfield’s forthcoming debut studio album, set to be released this fall. But you can also expect to hear tunes from their self-released EP “Strong,” plus a few covers.
For the most part, however, cover band fatigue is what prompted this top shelf crop of musicians to form Harlem Hayfield.
“You’re playing other people’s music, so your heart really isn’t in it as much as it’s another job,” said lead vocalist Mikey Schoneman in an interview. “An unorthodox job, but a job nonetheless. Basically, if we were going to do anything else musically, it was going to be original, and it was going to be something that we’d wanted to hear but nobody was making.”
The original five-piece band included frontman Schoneman with backup vocals from guitarist Brandon Pilger, drummer Graham Wene and bassist Keenan Wilcott, plus lead guitarist Chris Lourash.
Keyboardist and backup vocalist Hugh Sullivan came aboard a bit later.
“I had known Mikey through some mutual friends,” Sullivan said. He met the rest of the band at a Christmas show in 2020. “Brandon reached out to me and asked if I wanted to do some keyboards for the album they were recording. It wasn’t an invitation to join the band.”
Sullivan reluctantly agreed to meet the band and sit in for a practice.
“It was a lot of improvising, and everyone gelled really well,” he said. “By the end of the practice I was like, I think I’m gonna have to weasel my way into this band.”
Harlem in a hayfield
The name Harlem Hayfield nods to some of Schoneman’s greatest influences.
“Hayfield rhymes with Mayfield,” he said, referring to soul music icon Curtis Mayfield.
While Schoneman doesn’t compare the band to the Harlem Renaissance (a two-decade cultural revival of African American artistic expression), he points to the uptick in original music coming out of central Illinois you can’t hear anywhere else.
“We’re Harlem in a hayfield,” he said.
The band employs a smorgasbord of styles, blending Motown, alternative rock, southern rock and R&B; they coined the term Rustbelt Soul as a Google-able term characterizing Harlem Hayfield’s idiosyncratic sound.
“Decatur’s on the tip of the Rust Belt,” Schoneman said. “We’re still trying to be an industrial town.”
And with most of Harlem Hayfield's band members in their 30s and 40s, they grew up on alternative rock, but have “outgrown the angry rock and roll of our youth,” said Schoneman. Rustbelt Soul, he said, has a “smoothness that goes down a little easier.”
Much of the band’s eclecticism comes from a collaborative songwriting process in which each band member brings something to the table.
“Everything we do is in service to the song,” Schoneman said. “Even though we consider everyone in the band expert, top-tier players, people are more than willing to hang back if it’s in better service to the song. I think that also helps us in being a cohesive band that doesn’t bicker and hate each other like Oasis. We know we’re all there for a shared goal.”
While Harlem Hayfield hones a particularity around their sound as representative of the Midwest Rust Belt, they don’t see the genre — or Decatur — as limiting.
“I think we feel like we are trying to represent ‘the every man,’” said Schoneman. "The most successful thing you can do with your music is have it relate to someone else that has never met you or walked in your shoes. The stories are all the same. You have challenges you have to overcome; you have bills you’ve gotta get paid; that applies to everybody in or out of central Illinois.”
And while he says the band is not driven by record sales or screaming crowds, people outside the region are sitting up and taking notice of Harlem Hayfield. A shared gig with upstate New York Americana rockers Jocelyn & Chris at Springfield’s Abe Fest eventually landed a recording contract with Bridge Road Entertainment. The label will produce the band’s first full-length studio album set to be released later this year.
There are pros and cons to signing with a record label, but Schoneman and Sullivan said the resources and knowledge gained during the recording sessions with Bridge Road in Albany help take the band to the next level.
“I’ve been a freelancer and a free agent before, and I’ve had full-time jobs. All of them, throughout my whole career, have been creative,” said Sullivan, who also is a videographer and currently the multimedia director at Illinois State University.
“But I still feel like it’s different when it’s something that’s yours,” he said. “This music is ours. The dream for me would just be to be able to focus all my energy on that. It’s: Wake up and let’s take a look at the music.”
Harlem Hayfield with opening act FloWeezy play at 8 p.m. Friday at Jazz UpFront, 107 W. Front St., Bloomington. There is a $10 cover.
Jazz UpFront's Front Street Music Festival takes place Aug. 19, starting at 1 p.m. The lineup includes New York jazz vocalist Brianna Thomas, Chicago vibraphonist Thaddeus Tukes and Springfield-born country artist Gracia Harrison, from season 3 of “The Voice.” For more information, visit Jazz UpFront’s Facebook page.