“Chop’s Deli is amazing, and [owner] Brad [Corpening] is the man,” says Mike Blair, lead songwriter, singer and guitarist for Wilmington’s Americana folk-rock act Mike Blair and the Stonewalls. Put simply: Blair’s one of the nicest guys in Wilmington. Upon meeting, you just want to hug him. Why? His laid-back welcoming demeanor feels … well, easy. Not to mention, town pride bubbles from within. He appreciates roots and supports locals; and why wouldn’t he? Blair’s lived in the Port City his entire life—all 28 years of them. It’s quite common to see him shopping for vinyl at Gravity Records or noshing on a Manhattan at Chop’s. More so, he manages to inspire others to see the great progress being made locally, which includes a burgeoning music scene.
“Music in Wilmington is in a season of growth and great bands are coming up all the time,” Blair says. “Stray Local is a fantastic group; I really dig how they play. Free Clinic is great; Ben is a sweet guy. Jesse Stockton is one of my favorite people to hear play. Big Al Hall, along with Possum Creek, is a mainstay in the music scene and also in all the Stonewalls’ hearts. Sean Gerard is rocking with Onward, Soldiers more, and Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine are doing their thing, which is great. Eric from L Shape Lot crushes it so hard when they play. More bands are coming up everyday. I think Wilmington is gonna be alright.”
Adding to its constant evolution is Mike Blair and the Stonewalls’ self-titled debut, featuring 13 tracks, to be released at their debut party at Bourgie Nights this weekend. Armed with a smooth falsetto, Blair effortlessly emotes and easily evokes honesty and vulnerability through and through, which mandates introspection upon any of its listeners.
“An old friend of mine said once, ‘You can always tell the kind of week Mike is having by the songs we writes,’” the ginger notes through his thick beard. “I always thought that was funny, because it’s true for the most part. . . . I know self-titling a record can be a little bold for some bands, but what you have with us from a lyrical standpoint is a group of songs from when I was figuring things out in my life. And I still am, but the season was different when these songs came to me.”
Much like their 2011 EP, “The Print,” the majority of the album is based on a few struggling relationships that Blair endured three to four years ago (he married his life-love Courtney Klemm over the summer after a two-year courtship). “One was more sustaining than the others, but that’s what life is about: figuring what works and what doesn’t,” he says. Working through the finality of a committed romantic relationship—moving past heartache and re-emerging into the world of meeting new people—can be heard in “Why Can’t I” and “Breaking Down.”
“‘Why Can’t I’ stands out because there are impulses, musically, that are unrestricted,” Blair says. “Our little motto in the group is: ‘Put the piece first,’ and I think we obeyed what the song wanted musically. ‘How I’m Young’ is about realizing [that] just because you’re single, [it] doesn’t mean you need to always try to flirt with or entice someone . . . these songs definitely reflect the last couple years.”
In fact, had it not been for the hardships, Mike Blair and the Stonewalls may not have existed at all. A few years back, Blair was working a temp job as a constuction worker from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and coming home exhausted. He spent evenings focused on music and books. Then he came across a James Taylor interview about songwriting.
“I remember he said something to the effect of, ‘You have to live some life in order to write songs,’” Blair says. “A lot of creating is output, and I think at the time I was doing too much, so I slowed down to take a breath, to let out my energy in other ways. “
That led Blair to Keith Butler, who invited him to see local act Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine at Satellite. “And, as they say, the rest is history,” Blair notes.
Made up of siblings, including Blair’s sister Sarah, along with brothers Michael and David Graham, as well as Keith Butler Jr., Nathan Purifoy and Sean “Howie” Howard, the band recorded “Mike Blair and the Stonewalls” with Logan Manner in Blair’s apartment. They finished the record’s mixing at Hourglass Studios in Wilmington.
“With this being our very first full-length album, we wanted a quality recording and a more rounded-out sound with other instruments, like horns and strings,” Blair says. “Afternoon” showcases a sophistication of brass that doesn’t feel like a forced mess of swing music threading the Stonewalls’ quintessential roots rock.
“Musically, I obey the melody and from there, a song is structured,” Blair explains. “The guys follow through with the vibe I want to set by adding their input musically as well.”
As primary songwriter of the group, Blair focuses on penning unabashed truth. It’s this credence of self-reflection that makes his nonfiction songwriting powerful. He manages to simplify the feelings of the human condition without losing their might.
“I know it’s a good place to start when I’m admitting something I wouldn’t tell someone in a conversation,” Blair says. “‘Why Can’t I’ stands out: ‘I sip on what I find/on mornings I’ve lost my dreams.’ The way the guys arranged it is beautiful to me. It’s demanding but distraught.”
Though faltering relationships may have inspired some of “Mike Blair and the Stonewalls,” the bond the septet has formed has become ironclad. “We joke this is the longest relationship any of us have been in,” Blair says. “We’re friends first and band mates second. I love playing with these guys, but it’s even more fun getting together for a birthday party or cookout.”
After four years, they’ve grown up together, musically and in life. More so, their trust has strengthened—not just in following their sonic ambitions but fulfilling their overall goals.
“It takes time and a lot of trial and error to grow as a band,” Blair notes. “We have learned how to share and work through ideas. Each of us works on being better at the instrument, and I do my best to write, hopefully, better songs each day. I trust them to play the best they know how on each song, just as much as they trust me to write the best songs I know how to write.”
In coming months, they’ll take to the road to tour for the release of “Mike Blair and the Stonewalls.” Plus, they’ll continue their side projects: Butler plays with Temple5, Keith Butler Trio, and Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine, while Michael makes surf music with Michael Graham and the Heroes, along with his brother David and Purifoy. This weekend they will band together for their album release party. Stray Local will open the show; doors are at 9 p.m.
Mike Blair and the Stonewalls
Opening act: Stray Local
Sat., Dec. 6, 9 p.m.
127 Princess Street
Tickets: $5 at door