Teenage dream: Neighborhood catalyst Hamtramck Blowout turns 14

The dog end of another winter is staring and wearing us down. And, yet, we Detroiters have had the good fortune these past 14 years to have an indicator that spring is around the corner that is oh-so-much-more reliable than a Pennsylvania rodent.

The annual Hamtramck-based music festival known simply as The Blowout is upon us and for four nights, at 14 venues, with more than 200 bands and musical artists, we will gorge on the bounty of our city's music scene. We take the Blowout for granted, but it's taken a lot of weird turns and funky detours to become the institution it is today. In fact, it's probably best to think of Blowout as a kind of perpetual adolescence for our scene.
For, the beauty of the Blowout's 14th birthday is that this fest was born a teenager. Awkward, loud, always a bit frazzled and confused. Kicking, stomping and leaving stuff all over the place. Hormonal, unpredictable and always coming home with weird new friends. Literally born shouting "WTF not?!?!" But, ultimately, we Detroiters know it's our kid under all that eyeliner and questionable fashion and bluster. So we love it to death.
Over the last 14 years, Blowout's grown up a lot, honestly. From its ambitiously-humble beginnings at six venues and a few dozen bands to its current bustling, genre-spanning sprawl at 14 venues (a nice coincidence, eh?), the growing pains just kept-coming.

Origin of the peculiar species
In 1998, we Detroiters were still a couple years away from being flush with the imaginary wealth of the dot-com bubble, but young folks were still just inventing businesses left and right that tried to solve problems with the status quo. So it was that I found myself sitting with Brian Boyle (now publisher and founding partner in the media group that publishes Model D) in a conference room at Metro Times' offices downtown. I was the music editor and he was the promotions manager. We had been tasked with coming up with a fundraiser idea to support the Detroit Music Awards. But neither of us was very pleased with the way the Music Awards were representing the thriving underground that Metro Times covered every week.

With a bit of panic, coffee and inspiration from South By Southwest (SXSW) running through our systems, we figured why not try to solve the problem of supporting an out of touch music awards ceremony by being part of the solution -- by showing them first-hand a different way of looking at the scene besides a closed-feedback-loop popularity contest. Honestly. That's pretty much what we were thinking. The logical place to hold this festivus for the rest of us was the city with more bars per square mile than any other -- Hamtramck. Walkable, well-stocked, and home to many of the musicians who would play those first few years. Obviously, we weren't much more than extended teenagers ourselves at the time.

So through panic attacks, rented gear, lots of leaps of faith by folks like Art Lyzak at Lili's and Paycheck at, well, Paycheck's, the techno fellas at Motor, the goodwill of hundreds of Detroit musicians who took a leap of faith and did us the immense favor of committing to something that might have bombed, the work dozens of volunteers, there we were, on closing night of the first Blowout, blown out, but smiling at the notion that a couple thousand folks had been excited enough to come out and see some really fantastic music.
Now it can be told: The first year of the Blowout, I passed out on the floor of Brian Boyle's guest room in his house on Caniff (but a stumble from Motor, close to where Small's is now). Flat out zonked after a weekend of running around like a lunatic, questionable driving, serious jam enjoyment, too many beers to count and god knows how many ad hoc troubleshooting moments. It was utter chaos. 72 hours of it. And after this weekend of debauchery, when I had played a headlining slot with the Dirtbombs at Paycheck's to a packed house, when I had rode the wave of rock to euphoria, when my pillow was a bag of door cash we couldn't deposit, who was my company passed out on said floor? Not a winsome foal of an indie scenester or a flock of fellow rock fans collapsing post-afterparty. Nope. It was Boyle's pup Sophie. No, glamour was never really part of the Blowout equation.

The good shepherds
Blowout is now a teenager, 14 years old, happening at 14 venues.
This event wouldn't be where it is without the guiding hands of the Big Three promoters that have shepherded it through the years. The first couple years, as I've mentioned, were the brainchild of Brian Boyle -- who simply wanted to see everyone have fun and pull off an event by the skin of our teeth.

After Boyle left Metro Times, Anthony Morrow stepped in and added a few flourishes of professionalism and hustle and the kind of shuck and jive that allowed the festival to grow to more than a dozen venues, expand beyond Hamtramck to include a kickoff party at the Majestic complex, and find local musicians rubbing sleep out of their eyes to appear on Fox News Morning show. In short, Morrow made it a franchise and earned the mostly-tongue-in-cheek moniker Tony Blowout. It was Morrow who fended off the first round of backlash in the form of Mid by Midwest, a sarcastic-but-real competing fest organized by some dissenting hipsters who felt that the Blowout didn't represent the scene, man (and, more importantly, didn't pay them, as the Blowout was still a benefit event, technically).

Finally, when Morrow moved on, the Blowout came under the watchful eye, catholic music taste and tireless dedication of Eve Doster. Doster has managed to marry up a boost in the "why not" spirit of Blowout with a level of professionalism that has given the stage over to Detroit's up-and-coming record labels like Loco Gnosis and Gingko and others to do what they may with venue showcase nights -- with winning results. And under Doster's watch, the headlining artists get paid. Doster's tenure is best characterized as a combination innkeeper, curator and superfan. It's now a bona fide professional event, running on a combination of its own steam and a constant supply of interesting new music and returning favorites.
Most of the bars in the city's mythical pantheon of watering holes have been tapped at one point or another over the past 14 years to host music, utterly unprepared to do so though they may have been. For those bars, the Blowout can be a rent-maker kind of weekend.
Just for the sake of some napkin math, let's assume a (relatively conservative) 2500 wristbands are sold over Blowout weekend. At $20 a pop, that's $50,000. And that's awesome because it means that the event can be staffed and headliners can get paid, the shuttle buses can run, the event can be produced and everyone gets to rock out. The streets are filled with music fans from near and far. Polish, Middle Eastern, Indian, Mexican-Asian, coney islands and other eateries plus, let's pick an indie business out of our hat, the Hoard House, all stand to benefit. More awesome. Check.

Now, most of those wristbands are sold to dedicated music fans from in and around Detroit. This is a weekend out. Thus, said music fans will want to get their hall pass worth. If a beer's $3 a pop and the average Blowout fans enjoys five of such beverages over the course of a night -- and if you've been to Blowout, you know that's conservative, too. They go to two nights. So, $30 of beer, plus $6 tips. Round up to $40 per and you're looking at $100,000 into the bars of Hamtramck on the low end. Obviously, results may vary, but there's a reason Paycheck at Paycheck's -- the sole venue that's been on the roster from day one -- stocks up extra beer every year around this time. It'll be gone by next weekend along with many, but not all, of the fans that come through his joint.
And after 14 years, it's become clear that -- though hugely popular locally -- one of the underrated things about the blowout is that it, ironically, hasn't become our version of SXSW. That was its intention, kinda. But it's encouraging that it hasn't become a competitive free-for-all, awash with corporate cash and trend-chasing dipwads. As it is, whenever I talk to out-of-towners or marginally-connected in-towners they often have only the foggiest clue what I'm talking about. That means they're ripe to be exposed to the phenomenon that is Blowout. And if they do go, they will go in with fresh eyes, not jaded consumerist/scenester baggage.

They'll catch at least a few bands they love and keep an eye out for those bands throughout the year. And they'll return to Blowout and add to their repertoire. Blowout's a perfect way to visit the scene. The equivalent to a yearly constitutional vacation to Cabo for a roofing contractor during the off-season. Recharges the ole batteries. And we're now to the point where kids conceived during the first Blowout could be old enough to play this year's.
The only thing certain about the Blowout, the only safe prediction, is that any music fan with even a hint of a yen for musical kicks and an open ear can get good and connected with their inner teenager, throw themselves with appropriate abandon into the fray and emerge feeling tired but rejuvenated. After 14 years, the Blowout seems to prove that the path to the fountain of youth means getting lost every once in a while.

Postscript: Blowout moments snarkily recalled

Eminem's legendary "performance" at Roadrunner's Raft in 1998. No one knows if he actually showed up. Lose yourself in that uncorroborated factoid.

In 1998, White Stripes play to 10-12 people at Paycheck's. A year later, White Stripes play to sweaty, packed house at same venue. Where are they now?

The Devil's Robot performs a Blowout record shortest set in 1999 at Cloud 9. Four minutes of noise, and fire before the bar kicked the robot out of the venue. Ironically, a few years later the building that housed the bar in fact burned down.

Dan DeMaggio's spoken word magic at Small's, 2009 -- specifically barbs aimed at East Side residents -- causing people to actually walk out! Well done!
Deastro at Painted Lady, 2009: Turning well-served Red Wings fans, hip kids and skeptical middle-aged African-American ladies into dancefloor mates all while dealing with technical difficulties and covered in an outfit made of pom-pons.

In-your-face punk-rock puppet troupe, the Gepettophiles perform at an all ages day show at Holbrook Café. None of the dozen or so attendees were under 21. Year unknown.

A blast of silence to honor some founding venues now long gone: The Attic, Motor, Lush. May the eternal groove be with you.
And a salute to those that have reinvented themselves: Roadrunner's Raft (now Atlas), and Lili's (now Painted Lady). Rock on!

Chris Handyside is a former Model D editor and once toiled as music editor for downtown-based weekly the Metro Times. He fell in love with a band called the White Stripes and dared to write a book about it.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here
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