Alternative country band to play at Gabe's


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In the era of social networking, the old saying, "it's all about who you know" has never been more prevalent. For Michael Harrison Berg, the leader of Chicago-alternative country group Van Ghost, who you know is just as important as what you know. And as far as he can tell, his connections and music go hand in hand.

"I started off as sort of a social coordinator, basically asking bands if they were able to perform events around Chicago," Berg said. "While [my] primary focus for the past three years has been in my music with Van Ghost, I still network with other artists through my concert promotion job. In some ways, music is really a matter of networking, and it's one of my better business traits."

Van Ghost will be fully networking in Iowa City today, displaying its folk and bluegrass roots on stage at Gabe's, 330 E. Washington St., starting at 9 p.m. Admission is $7.

Performing live wasn't Berg's first choice in the music industry. Before he started Van Ghost, he had covered just about every aspect in the business.

"I refer to myself as a music-business entrepreneur," he said. "I've been an agent, a manager, a promoter, and I understand the industry from the inside out. It has given me an upper hand on understanding where other artists come from."

Van Ghost's alternative-country sound channels Wilco and Uncle Tupelo, which University of Iowa junior Andrew Martin feels captures a true Windy City sound.

"Their style has that folk-country vibe to it that sounds straight out of the northern Midwest," Martin said. "I think these guys are on the right track and could be the next big thing."

Berg was hesitant at first to perform his music live. But with the support of family and friends, he was able to break through as an artist and pursue a career as the lead vocalist and guitarist for Van Ghost.

"I had some songs I was writing, but I had never really played live before," Berg said. "Then my sister asked me to play a song at a family wedding, and after writing a song for that, I kind of caught the creative-bug spark, and I started writing like a mad man."

After that début performance, he struck gold when a local record label owner caught one of Van Ghost's first live shows in Chicago, which paved the way for Berg to catch his big break.

"We got together a whole new band lineup, stepped things up a notch, and now we're four songs away from completing our first major record," he said.

For its upcoming record, Van Ghost has been recording in the studio with legendary Grammy-winning producer Justin Niebank, who has produced country mega stars such as Taylor Swift, Darius Rucker, and Kenny Chesney. Berg views working with Niebank as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"Working with Justin has been amazing, bittersweet, and very intense," Berg said. "Everyone he's worked with has been more accredited than us, and he holds us to the same standards, which at times can be challenging. But it forces us to live up to his standards, which pushes us toward excellence, and it helps everyone's motivation to have someone like him on the team."

The possibilities are endless on where Van Ghost can grow from here. And the artist remains convinced that his music will soon reach the top.

"Without selling our souls, we're shooting for mainstream success," Berg said. "We have a sky's-the-limit attitude right now, and we really believe in our music and the team we've built around us."

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