From co-ops to coffee shops: Your guide to Ann Arbor and Ypsi's underground music venues

Sure, any local music aficionado worth his or her salt knows and loves the Blind Pig and the Ark. But there’s a whole other world of local sounds to be found – if you know where to look.


Ann Arbor and Ypsi have a long history of alternative music venues. Old-timers may remember the days of the Lab and Huron House. But there’s still a wide range of lesser-known places to see a show in town, from those that have long flown under the radar to those that may just be the next big thing. Concentrate profiles three of our community's lesser-known music venues, with an added rundown of others in town (at least those who said we could put their names in print).


Arbor Vitae: A long legacy


Located just up the stairs from Wazoo Records, Arbor Vitae is first and foremost a co-op-style home for six people, and secondarily a music venue for several shows a year. But the venue had a long, weird history before it was ever used for either of those purposes. The cavernous space has served as a dance studio (there’s a layer of sand to muffle sound between Vitae’s polished hardwood floors and Wazoo’s ceiling), a miniature golf course (check out the hole and putter next to the bathroom), and a corset factory (a work table from those days still sits just around the corner from the stairway entrance).


Ian Fulcher, Vitae’s longest-running current tenant, says the place "collects history" and residents are encouraged to keep it that way. "I’ve personally played shows at the houses, the co-ops, where the MC5 lived," Fulcher says. "But there’s no hint of them there now, none of their stuff on the walls or whatever."


One of the most crucial parts of Vitae’s history sits in the literal heart of the space. A central island-like room, the roof of which is often used for a DJ booth during shows, houses architect Rich Ahern’s archives. Ahern moved into the space in 1962 and was instrumental in turning it into a co-op-style artists’ haven. Since Ahern’s death in 2004, Fulcher says Vitae has operated under a "what would Rich do?" philosophy. He says with Ann Arbor’s high "churn rate" a long-running institution like Vitae is crucial to maintaining the "flavor" of the town.


"If kids are coming from home, and that’s where their money is coming from, and home has a Starbucks, then we're going to have a Starbucks," Fulcher says. "We’re not going to have a place like this. I feel like we’re a front-line kind of thing when it comes to that."


Cultivate: Guided by community


When Ypsi's Cultivate Coffee and Tap House opened in 2016, cofounder Bekah Wallace says she and her partners installed a small, wooden platform stage, "thinking music might be a small part of what we do." Concerts have in fact become a regular fixture at Cultivate's Depot Town space, and the musical stylings have become increasingly diverse. While folk shows and Thursday jazz nights have been staples for the venue, music manager Jenny Jones says the programming has also been "drifting into the hip-hop and R&B realm" lately.


"I think the biggest thing is that we have the community in mind," Jones says. "If we have people that frequent the space who are musicians and they want to support the space, their genre is of course going to be played and accepted."


Cultivate's music programming recently expanded again with the new summer-long Sundays in the Garden concert series, which takes place in the venue's large beer garden. But Jones says the series is more about Cultivate's mission of giving back financially to its community than it is about raising the establishment's profile as a music venue. So far Sundays in the Garden has raised $1,350 for the various local charities it partners with each week.


"This whole thing was brought about not necessarily because we want to put a spotlight on us, but be able to recognize the fact that the community has really rallied around Cultivate," Jones says.


Cultivate is indeed a bustling spot most nights, whether there's a concert or not, and Jones says that's thanks to the venue's cozy, welcoming nature.


"It's just one of those really casual atmospheres," Jones says. "You can even bring your dog into the beer garden. You can have your kids running around and playing in the beer garden. ... It's just super open."


Grove Studios: New kid on the block


Rick Coughlin says Grove Studios is "not really the space we envision it being down the road," but he and his two partners in Ypsi's newest creative hub have big ambitions for their project. Grove Studios opened late last year with a focus on offering low-cost rehearsal and recording space for local musicians, but it's also hosted occasional rock shows in the past few months.


Coughlin and his partners currently rent their Ypsi Township space, but they're working hard to buy it soon and have plans for expanded music programming when they do. Coughlin anticipates expanding performance space when that happens, as well as potentially using the space to develop a recorded performance series similar to the popular sessions produced by Daytrotter. Coughlin envisions Grove Studios as an intimate listening venue where music comes first, as opposed to the louder environment of a bar or rock club.


"There's a lot of community things that are on the table right now," he says. "But our biggest focus is on acquiring the property so we can do the buildout that we want to do."


That buildout is based on a concept that would see up to 25 shipping containers installed on Grove Studios' property to house artists' studio spaces. That would free up the existing 6,500-square-foot building on the property to offer more space for performances. The idea attracted a significant community endorsement earlier this year, when Grove Studios won the inaugural Pitch Ypsi $5000 business pitch competition.


Coughlin takes no credit for the idea of building an artistic campus out of shipping containers, noting that the concept has been successfully implemented in other communities.


"It's not a unique idea," Coughlin says. "It just doesn't exist in southeast Michigan."


Coughlin and partners Erich Friebel and Breck Crandell are currently refining an extensive business plan before approaching their bank and a potential investor to fund the next stage of their project. Coughlin says he hopes to buy Grove Studios' building within a few months.


"We want to start as soon as possible," he says.


Others under the radar


These venues are just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a quick guide to some of Ann Arbor and Ypsi’s other lesser-known venues.


Johnny’s Speakeasy: An 18-foot ceiling creates lovely acoustics in this former fruit cellar (and actual speakeasy, back in the Prohibition days). Seating is limited to 70 at absolute maximum, so to get show dates or an exact location proprietor Johnny Williams says you just have to "ask around."


James L. Crawford Elks Lodge: The Ann Arbor lodge’s cozy basement provides full bar service and a variety of music ranging from indie rock to reggae to jazz. Shows can be irregular, but they’re always a blast.


Dreamland Theater: This downtown Ypsi venue is known mostly for its puppet shows, but it also plays host to the occasional concert.


Bona Sera: This downtown Ypsi restaurant is best known for its great eats, but for the past two years its warm and welcoming basement space has made a perfect new home for the annual Mittenfest music festival. Outside of Mittenfest, Bona Sera also plays host to occasional concerts and dance parties.


Encore Records: Ann Arbor music nerds flock here not just for vinyl but also for occasional live shows, which are infrequent but always worth checking out. The diverse acts who've performed here include both local performers and respected out-of-town names.

Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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