Detroit has a well-deserved reputation as one of the country's music capitals. And as it should be, there are plenty of theaters, clubs, and bars around the region. Lately, in some parts of the metro Detroit, it seems like there's a new music venue opening up every month.
But for all of the legendary clubs and hip new bars, there's a lot of music happening out on the fringes, well outside the radar of casual music fans. DIY spots, secret after-hours hideouts, and seemingly unlikely venues are just as important in nurturing a healthy music scene, if not moreso. While this is nowhere near a complete grouping, here are a few of them.
For others, you'll have to dig a little deeper.
Lo & Behold! Records and Books: "A weirdo cosmic healing shack"
In breaking the rules, Richie Wohlfiel has learned how to do things the right way.
Wohlfiel owns and operates Lo & Behold! Records and Books
on Hamtramck's main drag, Joseph Campau Avenue. On the surface, Lo & Behold! is an eclectic record store. Cassettes and vinyl records, both new and used, and many of them from local artists, line the walls. Small run books and zines are tucked away on shelves. A record player spins while the shop cat lounges about.
But for anyone who's been to the small but mighty store, Lo & Behold! offers more than retail. Numerous musicians and bands, be they local, national, or international touring acts, have given performances here. Raucous parties like Folk Blues Night and Stoke-on-Campau Soul Club, a northern soul dance party, have become community anchoring points over the years.
Danny Kroha at Lo and Behold!
On any given day you might find a local band rehearsing, a class meditating, or an Alcoholics Anonymous group geared toward local musicians meeting.
Wohlfiel records and edits at the shop, running his Lo & Behold! label to publish music and literature. For Wohlfiel, a fan of the "poetics and politics" of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lo & Behold! is an opportunity to create something akin to the aforementioned poet's City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco. It's a community hub, a destination.
It's a development that's surprised even him. "I thought this was a record store, but did I create some weirdo cosmic healing shack?" he asks.
It didn't start that way. He thought he'd only be here for a couple months as a sort of pop-up shop to unload the records and books accumulated throughout the years. Having first moved to the shop in late 2010, Wohlfiel had no intentions of building a performance space. But after hiring a pianist to perform the following Paczki Day holiday, Wohlfiel says he heard how good music sounded in this particular space. Looking back, it seems almost inevitable.
Lo & Behold! became an official storefront in the fall of 2011. Performances soon became a big part of what they do. Friends' shows would get cancelled, and he'd offer up his space. An out-of-town band would struggle to find a local venue, and he'd say, why not just have it here.
An accomplished musician himself—he's currently playing with the Detroit Cobras as well as leading his own projects, the Belle Isles and Richie Wohlfiel & the New Wild Mountain Thyme—Wohlfiel says that the space he provides is a reaction against bar culture and the negative things he's experienced playing throughout the years. He wanted to provide a venue that treats musicians more fairly, a place not so concerned with the bottom line.
Wohlfiel has taken a few months off from hosting shows to focus on recording, editing, and releasing new music. This fall, Lo & Behold! is releasing new records from Timmy's Organism and Detroit Pleasure Society, and also his archival Folk Blues Night Volume 3.
But he's gearing back up for another season of concerts and shows. On Tuesday, Sept. 12, he's hosting an in-store performance from Alexa Dexa, a New York musician who composes music with toy instruments and electronic beats production. On Wednesday, Sept. 13, he's hosting a bill that includes Brett Netson, a member of indie rock stalwarts Built to Spill. And he's thinking he might bring Folk Blues Night back this October, too.
"Magic does occur. Magic is the only word to describe what's happened here," says Wohlfiel. "All I ever wanted to know from when I was younger was whether magic was real or not. And it's been proven to me that it is."
Phoenix Cafe: Providing opportunity for all
Since re-opening in January 2013, Hazel Park's Phoenix Cafe
has only grown stronger. The all-ages club on John R Road is a music venue and art gallery all-in-one, a sort of college for creative types. The Phoenix owners don't care if it's a band's first show or an artist's first figure-drawing class, just as long as they take it seriously.
Rock. Hip hop. Metal. Folk. It's all happening at the Phoenix. They typically host eight to 12 concerts a month, Thursdays through Sundays. Tuesdays are the figure drawing classes, Wednesdays the open jam night. The gallery hosts a new art opening every two months, be they solo exhibitions or themed group shows.
Been Frank, who joined the Phoenix team in March 2013, says that they're in the business of creating good energy in a positive space. Not only is art and music being created at the Phoenix, but community, too.
"We're pretty open to anybody expressing their art. We're universal, as far as I'm concerned. We don't turn anybody away," says Frank. "We try and keep good energy around here."
Phoenix Cafe got its start in 2009 as the Emergence Theater, which soon evolved into the Phoenix. The space started as a scrappy, ragtag DIY venue, complete with gnarly carpet and a mishmash of used furniture.
By 2012, a change was on the horizon. The Phoenix shut down for a few months and an extensive overhaul was underway. The carpet, furniture, and drop ceiling were removed. A new stage was built, a new sound system was installed. The Phoenix reopened in 2013 and began to assume its present identity.
"I didn't have anything like this in college or growing up. Nothing like this existed," says Steve Czapiewski, who leads the Tuesday night figure drawing classes. "And now that this is here, I want to see it continue to happen for other artists."
Steve Gamburd, a musician, artist, and one of the Phoenix owners, echoes that sentiment.
"There's not a lot of opportunities out there. You think there is, but there isn't," he says. "These young bands, they can't play bars. They can't play the places they want to play yet, but maybe they'll get to that point. So, this provides them with a venue and an opportunity."
The Phoenix crew is deeply involved in the community, leading fundraisers and forming their own music festivals. Local art fairs in places like Hazel Park, Oak Park, and Berkeley have tapped them to curate concerts. They've worked with other galleries and DIY spots like Tangent Gallery and Sanctuary to host events. The Phoenix team is helping establish an arts and small business school in Detroit's Ralston Building. A live music bar crawl is being formed, too, drawing in local Hazel Park bars and restaurants as hosts.
The Phoenix Cafe is a busy hive of creativity, and a productive one.
"What we're doing here is going to spill over into the community," says Frank. "Not just artists' own personal expressions, but their connections as well."
Cooperatives, libraries, and more
Joel Peterson, co-owner of Trinosophes
Nessa at Trinity House
(Detroit): Having hosted underground shows for decades now, the anarchist collective known as Trumbullplex draws acts on local, national, and international levels. Music, poetry, and much more happens here, with a DIY spirit and an emphasis on community and activism. There's an impressive zine library, too.
Trinity House Theatre
(Livonia): With a name that suggests its history, the Trinity House is an old church in Livonia that's been since transformed into a 90-seat theater. Surrounded by an old cemetery, the Trinity House books some of the area's best Americana, folk, and acoustic artists, and nationally touring acts, as well.
Crow Manor (Detroit): Just a few blocks down from Trumbullplex is Crow Manor, another Trumbull-based living space and occasional venue. The old house may look a little ramshackled, but it's got a lot of energy coursing through it.
The Rust Belt Market
(Ferndale): A lovely performance space exists at the center of The Rust Belt Market, a once-vacant Old Navy store re-purposed as a crafts and collectibles market. While they don't have music all the time, it's worth experiencing when they do.
Tangent Gallery / Hastings Street Ballroom
(Detroit): Burlesque and circus acts, dance parties, art shows, and, of course, concerts are constantly drawing people into the Milwaukee Junction complex. A bit different from some of the more DIY venues, Tangent has a liquor license to complement its alternative programming.
20 Front Street
(Lake Orion): Originally an old creamery built in 1940, 20 Front Street has taken a hollow shell of a building in downtown Lake Orion and transformed it into one of the area's best listening rooms for acoustic music. They've since returned to the building's creamery roots, too, having recently added an ice cream shop that carries Ray's Ice Cream.
Rouge Satellites at the Ferndale Public Library
(Detroit): The coffee shop, art gallery, and performance space tends to host music outside the typical rock, rap, folk, etc. found at any given bar throughout the region, befitting a place from a founding member of the Bohemian National Home. Expect anything from Afro-futurist jazz to gong orchestras, and much, much more.
Ferndale Public Library
(Ferndale): While it may seem antithetical to catch a rock show at a library, that's just what they're doing over in Ferndale. A lot of that has to do with librarian and local music scribe Jeff Milo, who helps book the bands. Their First Friday series can be especially raucous.
All photos by Doug Coombe.