Looking back on 45 years of music and memories at the Blind Pig

Let me say this up front: although I was a U-M student at exactly the right time (1989-1993), I did not see Nirvana play the Blind Pig either time – opening for the Flaming Lips in October 1989, or headlining in April 1990. Nor did I see Smashing Pumpkins in 1991, Pearl Jam that same year, or Dave Matthews in 1994.

So who did I see at the Pig back in the day? His Name is Alive, Crossed Wire (multiple times), Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Map of the World. (Possibly Throwing Muses too, though my memory's hazy on this point.) I saw bands that had found some success, and regularly drew young fans and crowds to the then-smoky club, but weren't fated to ever land on the cover of Rolling Stone.

That's OK. I still had a great time. I remember asking HNIA's former frontwoman Karin Oliver, seated at the Pig's bar between sets, to sign my red flyer for the show. (She seemed surprised but delighted by my request.) During Crossed Wire shows, I danced up a storm while jockeying for position, hoping to catch lead singer Chris Moore's eye. And I shamelessly belted my favorite Toad tunes, closing my eyes while harmonizing with Glen Phillips.

Lots of locals have been revisiting their personal history with the Pig lately, since Swisher Commercial listed the building for sale in February. Though whoever buys it may choose to keep the space a music venue and bar, the Pig's location within Ann Arbor's exploding downtown business district makes it a hot prospect for a broad range of potential buyers.

No one knows what the future holds for the Pig. But we can know its history, how its identity has changed over time, and the place it's held – for years and years – in Ann Arbor's live music scene.

In the beginning …

Pig cofounder Tom Isaia had been a Loyola University sophomore studying abroad in Italy when he both grew interested in coffee culture and got to know his future business partner, Jerry Del Giudice, another Loyola student. Isaia transferred to U-M while in Rome, but went on to spend another year studying abroad (in Tokyo) before heading to Ann Arbor for his senior year. During that time, Isaia often found himself scribbling plans for a cafe/club in notebooks during class.

"I didn't have a career in mind," Isaia says. "I was a student without a vocation. But Mr. Flood's Party (a legendary Ann Arbor bar and music venue on W. Liberty St. that was open from 1971-1986) had a big influence on me. It was this raucous, fun bar (for) both townies and students – it didn't matter who you were. Everybody flooded into Mr. Flood's, and I thought that was so cool."

Isaia decided he wanted to open a European-style cafe with live entertainment, and he drafted Del Giudice as his partner. "He was a year ahead of me, so he'd already graduated and was married with a new baby in Chicago, working as a substitute teacher," Isaia says. "Probably over his wife's objections, who'd likely been wary of this plan, he moved to Ann Arbor with (his wife) Laura and the baby, and we started putting the place together."

The place in question was a then-empty First Street commercial space that had once been the offices of Ann Arbor Central Mills, a Stretch and Sew fabric shop, and Moe's Laundry.

"When we came in, there were these stainless steel containers filled with diapers," Isaia says. "This was back when people turned in their diapers for cleaning, in the '60s." Isaia, a Detroit native, named the place ("The Detroit riots started because police raided a blind pig, so it's a historical name," he says). After he and Del Giudice established a bar and modest stage in the basement space, the Pig opened its doors on March 30, 1972.

"On opening night, we had this guy from Flint, who worked at the Chevy or GM plant there, play," says Isaia. "He was an old blues one-man band, with a guitar on his lap, a harmonica on one of those holders that go around your neck, and a bass drum with a foot pedal. He called himself Dr. Ross, the Harmonica Boss. And the crowd was huge. With no advertising whatsoever, not a stitch, there was a huge line on opening night, and we were packed. … We'd driven back and forth to Lansing that day to get our liquor license, and we opened that night. We ran out of beer. It was crazy, great fun."

Isaia bought one of Ann Arbor's first-ever espresso machines for the Pig in 1971, before the venue opened (and when there were few to no cafes in town). The cafe had an extensive wine list, used cloth napkins, and served high-end beers, cheese plates, and mixed nuts. Although the venue didn't have a grill, Isaia and his staff bought bread and olive oil from Detroit's Eastern Market to serve crostini, cooked in a toaster oven.

Del Giudice came to focus on the live music end of the business, bringing blues legends including Robert Lockwood Jr. and Roosevelt Sykes to Ann Arbor from Detroit, Chicago, and beyond. For a time, the Brooklyn Blues Busters were the Pig's house band, classical string quartets played on Sunday nights, and Boogie Woogie Red presided over Monday nights.

The Pig thus became Ann Arbor's premiere blues club in the '70s, with an added outdoor cafe built by Isaia and his team. But in 1979 Isaia and Del Giudice were ready to move on to other adventures, so they sold the business to Dave Whitmore. Isaia went on to found Coffee Express Roasting Company in Plymouth, while Del Giudice returned to Chicago and further developed, with San Francisco-based Edward Chmelewski, the blues-centric indie music label Blind Pig Records. Indie distributor The Orchard purchased the label's catalog in 2015 for an undisclosed sum.

"(Whitmore) was a nice guy," says Isaia. "He took the place as is. He kept the blues going and he did pretty much everything the same. He didn't really want to change it."

But just a few years later, in 1983, Betty Goffett bought the Pig for her husband – Liverpool, England native Roy Goffett – and that's when some big changes got underway.

Pig 2.0

The Goffetts had a markedly different vision for the Pig, beginning with acquiring the adjacent building – a woodworking studio called the Treehouse – and building a larger stage and dance space within it at street level. They installed air conditioning; the club's original, tiny performance space became a beer cooler; and a new downstairs game room/pub called the 8 Ball Saloon – a funky-smelling dive bar that's still a favorite hangout for many locals – was introduced.

These build-outs resulted in a themed look, with mirrors and photos of Chicago film mobsters on the walls. And while bluesmen like David "Honeyboy" Edwards and Willie D. Warren occasionally performed at the Pig during this time of transition, the new owners seemed to be taking the club in a new musical direction.

But there were hiccups along the way. Michigan Theater chief development officer Lee Berry, who previously worked for many years as a talent buyer with Prism Productions, recalls hesitating to book blues guitarist Robert Cray for a local show in 1984. Cray's contract strictly stipulated not mentioning his appearance as Otis Day and the Knights' bass player in the 1978 blockbuster Animal House in promotional materials.

"In the end we passed, because at that time we thought, 'People aren't going to know who he is just by his name,'" says Berry. "But Roy Goffett booked him and there were flyers all over town saying, 'See Otis Day and the Knights at the Blind Pig!' Well, you can imagine the mess that caused. So Cray's agent started telling people, 'Don't play at this club,' and (the Pig) started having trouble getting people to come in and play. That's when (Prism) entered the picture."

The Pig's grunge heyday

Prism took over booking for the Pig at the start of 1985. Berry says the Goffetts gave him and his team "free rein" to book any artist that would draw a crowd.

"Having a finger on the pulse of what was happening was key," Berry says.

He and his team sought suggestions from a handful of local radio and record store employees, who helped shape what many consider the Pig's golden era. Acts like Sonic Youth, Soul Asylum, Cowboy Junkies, Screaming Trees, Robyn Hitchcock, and Soundgarden played on the Pig's stage through the mid-'90s. This put the Pig in competition with other music venues in town – like the Heidelberg and Rick's (where the Pixies, Blues Traveler, and Phish once played) – but Berry noted that once the Pig expanded, its downtown location gave the venue a distinct advantage.

"A lot of national acts that we'd bring to Rick's … were happy to go there, because it was once the only place in town that size," says Berry. "But when the Pig became available too, they weren't so interested in Rick's anymore. … The Pig was there at the right time."

Local bands still got plenty of time in the spotlight as well. Blues-rocker Laith Al-Saadi, who grew up in Ann Arbor and became a finalist on NBC's singing competition The Voice in 2016, first performed at the Pig with his first band, Blue Vinyl, at age 15 in the early '90s.

"It really set the bar in town in two different ways," says Al-Saadi. "First, it measured whether your band had made it or not. It was always important to make sure you were good enough to play a show there. And I think it's been such a standard for the counterculture in Ann Arbor. … The Pig is still the bar in town to play."

Venturing into hip-hop and The Bang!

Local musician and talent buyer Jason Berry worked for Prism Productions and also booked shows for the Pig until 1999, when he hit the road for six weeks to manage a tour. He was fired from Prism soon thereafter, but his close relationship with the Goffetts led to a storage room at the Pig being cleared out to make room for an in-house office for him. He's been the venue's talent buyer ever since.

"They loved me because I was all about the venue," Jason Berry says. "I didn't care about anything but the wellbeing of the venue, and they appreciated me for that."

Jason Berry had grown particularly close to Roy Goffett. "I kind of fell in love with the man," Jason Berry says. "I started coming here every day for lunch. Roy would get drunk off Courvoisier and I'd play some pinball and he'd tell me stories. He'd teach me what I should know about booking the club."

Jason Berry initially knew little about booking national touring acts, so he took some knocks from experienced agents and other local buyers for a while. Roy Goffett's death in 2001 leveled him. Jason Berry packed up his car and moved to New York for a year, but he continued to book the Pig from there. And when he returned, he steered the Pig in new directions.

Detroit was quickly becoming a hot spot for garage rock at that time, thanks to bands like the White Stripes, but Jason Berry wasn't particularly a fan of the genre. "So my niche became hip-hop," he says. Over the years, Jason Berry has brought Wiz Khalifa, Funktelligence, Macklemore, and more to the Pig's stage (although the Stripes did play the venue in 2000 as well).

The early 2000s also brought Jeremy Wheeler's monthly DJ dance party, called The Bang!, to the Pig. The event's original venue, East Quad's Halfway Inn (or "Half Ass"), closed in 2002. The Bang!'s flamboyant décor, outrageous costume themes, and throwback musical selections have made it an increasingly popular event for U-M students over the years. "We've done close to 150 Bangs there now," Wheeler says. "There'd been nothing at the Pig like that back then."

The Pig's legacy

Jason Berry believes that one reason for the Pig's survival through all these years and changes is that its lead team – Betty Goffett, general manager Faith Wood, and himself – has been working together now for an astonishing 20 years. Betty Goffett, 87, has refused press interviews about the sale of the venue. But Jason Berry describes her as a "second mom" to himself and other members of the Pig team.

"After 20 years, how close we are to Betty – it's emotional for all of us," Jason Berry says. "In a way, I don't give a damn about what happens to the Pig. I got to do this for 20 years. … And I just want Betty to get what's coming to her, as much as she can get. She could have sold this place a million times and cashed out, but in the end, honestly, I don't think it's about the bands or the legacy of the venue. She loves us."

The potential end of the venue has prompted deep concerns from many in the local music community, including music promoter and band manager Matthew Altruda.

"I always refer to the Pig as our sandlot," Altruda says. "Yes, you can say bad things about it, but at the end of the day it's still our sandlot, and without it we've got no place to play baseball. … For a musician to play in the same space where Kurt Cobain played? That's sacred ground. That means something."

Claudia Leo, musician, booker, and founder of the label No Fun Records, fears that the possible loss of the Pig at this moment could cause the further erosion of the local arts community, which has been getting priced out of Ann Arbor.

"This is not on the Pig's shoulders," says Leo. "They've survived the best they could. … But life in Ann Arbor is much more expensive than it used to be. The demographics have changed. … If we lose this place that's been a permanent venue for live entertainment, a place for rock that doesn't naturally fit at the Ark, it will change the landscape tremendously."

Even the Pig's sometime critics feel its nostalgic pull. "I always found it hot, crowded, grungy and wonderful in a non-pretentious way," says Roger LeLievre, a former DJ at Nectarine Ballroom (now Necto Nightclub) and music reporter for The Ann Arbor News. "Yep, the doormen could be assholes, the bathroom situation left much to be desired, and no one could ever accuse it of being overly – shall we say – fancy. And that was a key to its charm."

Al-Saadi, who played what may be his last show at the Pig a couple of weeks ago, confesses it was a bittersweet experience.

"So much great rock and roll has come through those doors, and I'd be sad to see a place like that go, especially if there's nothing to replace it," Al-Saadi says. "The city will have to think about whether it really wants a thriving scene and nightlife – the kind of place, like New Orleans, where a venue has its doors open and you hear a band playing and even if you don't know them you like what you hear and step inside to check them out. … Ann Arbor has the potential for that kind of music scene, but it has to embrace that, get past the snobbery, and put its money where its mouth is."

Blind Pig Slide Show from Doug Coombe on Vimeo.

Jenn McKee is a freelance writer with a long history of covering arts and culture in the Ann Arbor area. She also has a pair of blogs: The Adequate Mom and A2 Arts Addict.

All photos by Doug Coombe.


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