With encouragement from musicians, the public, small businesses, and the city, Port Huron’s close-knit music scene is alive and thriving. The spectrum of tunes playing in restaurants benefits everyone from the laborer grabbing lunch whose meal is made extra special to the musician whose time is validated. Here is a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what’s going on musically in Port Huron, its successes, and how to take part.
All in this together
The community of musicians here is different than larger neighboring areas. Instead of being competitive, entertainers The Mountain Babiessupport and encourage one another. Fledgling acts quickly discover what feels like a family.
Dave Peters of Port Huron’s ambient folk band Mountain Babies calls it “refreshing” pinned against his time living in Chicago. In that large of a music scene, credentials are checked before even being considered for a show where your band might be one of 40 contenders.
“There’s a decent scene evolving (in Port Huron), but it’s still not comparative in size, and I think it keeps everyone more humble and genuine toward each other,” Peters says.
Musician Ill-tone agrees.
“The scene is always growing, and there are artists everywhere! This place has a ton of potential and a lot of talent. Everyone who practices music and continues to put out material helps the cause that much more for this area to become a powerhouse,” Ill-tone of Blacktivity and The Lyricists says. Tone has seen the community grow and change since 1996, finding his own success along the way. He has toured Europe and the Netherlands and opened for members of The Roots, D-12, and Wu-Tang Clan.
If you talk with an acoustic guitarist, he or she will undoubtedly bring up all of their musically-inclined friends, maybe even a local rapper or metal band. The rappers will tell you about a country artist they saw perform. The country artist will plug venues and businesses that support the scene. There’s also electronic, hip-hop, punk, retro, blues, rock, and noise acts, plus countless others.
Though folk and indie singer-songwriter types are commonly found here, Port Huron’s music isn’t confined to one genre, or one venue.
Where to hear
The opportunities for budding musicians in the Blue Water region are unique. They’re able to play both music venues and a plethora of restaurants, cafes, and taverns. Music venues bring fans who sing along, but secondary places with background music bring new listeners who may have otherwise never heard the performer.
What the area is lacking as far as large-scale concert spaces, it makes up for with a wild variety of DIY venues. Port Huron is full of artists who work together to make the most of their resources. Entrepreneurs, who are often entertainers themselves, open up their small businesses to the arts, and musicians create their own places to play and record.
The SchwonkSoundStead is a 1914 house purchased in 2011 by Brendan Kuras. It not only serves as a place to hear some great tunes, it's also a digital and analog recording studio. Randy Willis helps Kuras run it. They both have "regular" jobs, Kuras in IT and Willis as a DJ, but put their extra time and money into a craft they feel deserves it.
“Cultural exchange was my goal and live music is my vehicle for it…[This is] a place for local bands to network with touring bands, grow fan bases, and make records. That’s when the ripple effect influences the community and vice versa,” Kuras says. “Countless people have visited this state and/or region for the first time due to performing or attending a show.”
The no revenue venue’s events are spread simply by word of mouth and Facebook posts. Frank, the dog, greets guests who stop in for sessions, and three guys live in the Schwonk. The casual, eclectic community space isn’t huge, but has hosted over 140 intimate shows, some by international acts.
The PoltroonsWhat the Schwonk is for recording in the community, the Raven Café is for live sets. Live music can be heard at the funky spot Thursday through Saturday, and Vinyl Mondays are the vinyl version of audience-chosen jukebox picks. Owner Sadaat Hossain generally books talent with the “classic coffeehouse vibe,” he recommends larger or rougher acts to LOUD Music and Apparel or the Schwonk, again showing the aspect of working together.
Many, if not most, local musicians played their first few shows at The Raven, such as Mountain Babies and country star Drew Jacobs whose track "The Wedding Song (Never More Beautiful)" made it on the Philippines’ Top Ten list, surpassing Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran.
The same could be says for Lynch’s Irish Tavern. It features live music multiple nights a week, including open mic on Tuesdays (headed by The Poltroons, a band Hossain is in), and hosted Hedwig and the Angry Inch recently. LOUD Music and Apparel, a store during the day, hosts occasional concerts and is a hotspot in the community. Other bars, restaurants, and coffeeshops have live entertainment and deejays, so the opportunities to play and hear are here and plentiful, but they are small.
“The struggles are if there is a national act coming through Detroit that we want to jump on. The promoters are really looking for Detroit-based bands, so they’re taking a risk if they don’t have a hometown opener,” Peters says. “I think they’re becoming a little more aware that they will still draw people even though we’re coming from 50 miles away.”
Folks can hear their favorites at DIY establishments or the many festivals in the region. Whether it is an event based around music, like the very popular Folk in the Woods.
Festivals can’t be left out when considering how to catch local bands. Some festivals have come and gone, but Blue WaterThe Original Perpetrators at Folk in the Woods. Fest, The Blue Water Folk Society’s Thumbfest (Sept. 2 in Lexington) and the Lake Bonisteel Music Association’s BlueChiliGrass Festival (Sept. 4) are three of the many options for fans.
The Blue Water region has its own music awards, an orphaned instrument auction, a musical theater company, and other endeavors that highlight the scene in different ways.
Growth in the music scene is expected to continue. The Port Huron Music Center is seeing a good number of aspiring, young musicians.
The Riviera, a building from 1890 once known as The Bijou and The Grand Riviera, is being redone by brothers Frank and Lee Hoffman. They plan to completely renovate the building's interior and restore the exterior to create a venue with a 500-person standing room capacity that will be open for concerts, as well as special events.
“We have the spaces and the potential. Something bigger could definitely be done if the right people are doing it, the right talent buyers and booking agents,” Peters says.
Fans are friends
Listeners in Port Huron are an important part of the music scene. When The Gasoline Gypsies had their July 1 album release near Detroit, a party bus of more than 30 loyal fans made the trip to support them, and at least 100 more drove separately.
The Gasoline Gypsies' manager, Jack Hunger, started out as a fan who happened upon the Gypsies twice in Alger. After stopping in Port Huron with his wife, Nancy, to catch shows, he was hooked on them and the area.
“It was that mutually supportive vibe between Port Huron musicians and Port Huron artists that kept us coming back, not only to hear The Gypsies, but to participate in festivals, see other artists, and generally fall in love with darned near everybody we met in that unique family. They were always so engaging and nice to us. They made us feel appreciated as fans,” Hunger says.
Port Huron may not be a stop for big name acts right now. Its venues are on the small side; outdoor festivals draw the largest crowds. But the people of Port Huron come out when given the opportunity to hear and support artists, and musicians formed a community here. Along with the city’s growth, that’s why so many of them mention possibilities within it.