Live music's next act in Washtenaw County

It's been nearly five years since Ypsilanti's Woodruff's closed, and more than a decade since Ann Arbor's Firefly Club went under. For years, the Firefly was the area's go-to jazz club; Woodruff's quickly became the main spot for local indie rock, hip-hop, punk rock, and more, thanks to work its operators started years before at Ypsi's now-defunct Elbow Room.


Despite efforts to keep live music going elsewhere, the closures left big holes in the area's local music scene that were never really filled. But that could be changing.


The new Blue LLama Jazz Club is set to open in March, just up Main Street from Ann Arbor's newest bar and live music venue, Lo-Fi. Ann Arbor's legendary Blind Pig was recently sold and revamped, and Ypsilanti's hybrid cafe, bar, and music venue Ziggy's is continuing to grow. With shared values of prioritizing the music, offering intimate experiences, and working out of pure love for the business, these venues and others may be setting Washtenaw County up for a live music resurgence in 2019 and beyond.


Putting music first


Jason Berry admits not much has changed on the surface since he, co-owner Joe Malcoun, and a team of investors bought the Blind Pig late in 2017 to ensure its future as a music venue. But behind the scenes, the 400-capacity club has speedily upgraded sound equipment and implemented credit card technology for the first time in the club's history. Berry says the Pig's new investors have been supportive but not intrusive.

"You definitely feel the community support now," Berry says. "Not that you didn't before, but it's almost been formalized."

Berry, who has worked as a talent buyer at the Pig for more than 20 years, has also gained more freedom as a buyer and booker. He says the change of ownership has allowed him to not only strengthen existing connections with national tour managers but also take the pressure off local shows to fill the Pig's large room. 

"There's just an openness that has enabled us to plant seeds that we can tend," Berry says. "The bands have to feel like, if the (music) is good and the people like it, they're going to be developed. … It's sort of our civic responsibility. We have to make this culture of ours as beneficial as possible. I feel like we've gone a long way with that."


Investing in the scene also means creating welcoming spaces – for musicians and fans – with great sound. Louis Goral, general manager and executive chef at Blue LLama, says while many local bars and restaurants are open to hosting live music, it's often an afterthought for them.


"Our venue is specifically designed to make music sound amazing," Goral says. "We have audio and video recording equipment, and a stage built into the space. We're taking the time and putting the money in to design an acoustically brilliant space that really highlights the artists as they appear in our club."


Small rooms, big flavors


The Blind Pig has put more focus on local talent in the last year – and art spaces, house shows, and under-the-radar efforts always come and go. But a smaller room consistently hosting intimate, local shows in downtown Ann Arbor seems to always be lacking. Enter Lo-Fi.


The newest venture from Nightcap Ann Arbor owners Micah Bartelme and Andy Garris is a 60-capacity bar and music venue blinged out with custom neon light work (including a dragon designed by local artist Jeremy Wheeler) and housed in the lower level of Nightcap's home at 220 S. Main St.


Opened last December, the bar is just getting started with events but plans to host a variety of live music acts, karaoke, and other programming. Garris, who previously managed Woodruff's, says the space could comfortably host up to a four-piece band and sees it accommodating lesser-known acts through bigger names that want to play an intimate show. He hopes to bring a mix of diverse sounds to the venue.


"As long as it's all quality, I think our location gives way to a lot of people giving in and being like, 'They always have something good, so it's worth the ticket. Let's go down there and explore,'" Garris says.


"The exciting thing about the space and the size is we have the flexibility to do a lot of different things and have great energy in the room without having to bring 300 or 400 people to the show," Bartelme says. "That gives us a lot of room to do cool stuff and feature cool bands that maybe don't get the opportunities around here to play as much."


Likewise, Blue LLama will offer jazz fans the chance to get up close and personal with a range of local and national acts playing in different styles. For example, Ravi Coltrane, son of jazz giant John Coltrane, will play four different ticketed sets over the course of two nights for the 100-capacity club's grand opening in April.


Since acquiring a redevelopment liquor license last March, Ziggy's owner David Jeffries says he and his team are still "running every day" to keep up with their business' growth. Jeffries opened the coffee shop and bar with his wife Jo in August 2017. He says he intended to create a music venue focused on avant jazz, hip-hop, techno, and other "flavors" of music, and has since been embraced by those scenes and more.


"It seems like a lot of other clubs are focused on one genre," Jeffries says. "We thought, in this world of social media, that we may be able to vary it more."


The approach seems to be working. After an advertised headliner canceled on a recent Saturday night, Ziggy's hosted an impromptu show featuring local improvisers. Jeffries says that Detroit bassist Ben Willis performed wearing a large, Eyes Wide Shut-stye bird mask to a full, attentive room. To Jeffries' delight, another musician told him that night, "You wouldn't even see this in Brooklyn."


Labor of love


Berry says the Pig's new lease on life and team of "guardian angels" have energized him in a way he hasn't felt since he first started in the talent-buying business 20 years ago.


"I've obviously got these rose-colored glasses on, but so far so good," he says. "I'm just ecstatic, because now I'm in on it … it's just super, super fun."


The two capital "L"s in Blue LLama's name aren't just a reference to business partner Don Hicks' former company, LLamasoft. Goral says the "L"s also stand for the founders' "Love of music" and "Love of food," which he says go hand in hand. He moved to Ann Arbor from New York to take on the new venture and says a lot of venues either emphasize one or the other, even in major markets.


"We really want to execute both at a high level and provide a really exceptional experience in not just Ann Arbor, but the Midwest, and highlight ... regional acts and talent and hit it on all levels," Goral says.


Bartelme and Garris admit dedicating a space to live music comes with risk – and expenses, especially in a market like downtown Ann Arbor – which could be why most don't try it. While the business has to be profitable, Bartelme says it's about more than that.


"We want to create a great scene and a lively entertainment district, and we did feel like there was something missing," he says. "What excites us is creating spaces that we love, and that we want to go to. Hopefully everyone else loves them and wants to go to them too."


Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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