Whether you’re a regular in the late-night music scene or just looking for occasional live entertainment after dark, the Great Lakes Bay Region has plenty to offer. I spent the past several weekends exploring local nightlife (tough job, I know), and discovered a trove of talent and unique destinations: Full bands, stripped-down acoustic sets, dive-bar karaoke, and everything in between.
Here are seven great places to visit when it comes to nightlife entertainment throughout Isabella, Bay, Midland, and Saginaw counties:
112 W Michigan St, Mt Pleasant
Big Smile plays a recent show at Rubble's Bar
Rubble's Bar is one of those establishments that you stumble upon while exploring downtown and immediately realize you found something special. You can easily visit multiple times throughout the year without seeing the same band twice. You'll find a mix of country, rock, jazz, blues, acoustic, and plenty of high-energy karaoke nights.
The facility is split in half, with a bar & dining booths taking up one side. A smart seating setup, small dance floor, and plenty of stage space take up the other half. An opening exists in the wall between the two sides, allowing patrons from the entertainment section to order drinks without missing a beat.
Visitors enjoy live music at Rubble's Bar
The Rubble’s staff was all smiles on the evening I attended. After paying a modest $5 cover charge, I entered the entertainment section and was met with shockingly well-done classic rock covers by Big Smile, a band native to Mid-Michigan. The drink menu is pretty standard, with a full bar and a small variety of beers on tap. Prices are competitive and the staff manages to be fast, efficient, and super friendly.
Depending on the entertainment, you may get very different crowds. Rubble’s late-night karaoke is pretty popular with nearby CMU students, so look to those nights for more of a college scene.
702 Jefferson Ave, Midland
Rebel Line interacts with patrons during a recent show at 702 Bar
Located just a short drive from downtown Midland, 702 Bar is well-known among locals not only for their efforts to bring in talented entertainment, but also for being one of just a handful of locations in Midland where you can dance. While entertainment is typically rock and country focused, they also regularly host karaoke and increasingly-popular comedy nights.
I showed up at about 9:00 p.m. on a Friday when Rebel Line was just kicking off their set. The country and rock band plays hits from as far back as the 70s, but on this night mostly stuck with fan favorites from the last couple decades. Just two years ago, lead singer Travis Paten was voted best country vocalist in the Great Lakes Bay Region by Review Magazine, and the band clearly knew how to keep the audience energized.
702 keeps festive strand lights up all year
702's interior was decked out for the holidays during my visit, although the colorful strand lights criss-crossing along the ceiling are a permanent fixture. A billiards table takes up one corner in case you're feeling competitive. Drinks are in the low-to-mid price range with a full bar and a variety of beers on tap. 702 also serves lunch and dinner, and word is if you have an appetite for a burger and fries you won't be disappointed.
2609 State St, Saginaw
White's Bar in Saginaw, MI
A Saginaw staple since 1937, White's Bar has played host to literally thousands of live shows, including a few artists you may have heard of: Bob Seger, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Tina Turner (safe to say their careers took them to places that didn't feature a tip jar on stage). While popular among the Saginaw nightlife crowd, the building itself isn't huge - easily the smallest in square footage among those I visited. Good thing then that what they lack in space they more than make up for in entertainment. If in-your-face loud is what you’re after, White’s is a must-visit.
I found plenty of regulars and an all-around friendly vibe from staff and patrons alike. Bartenders stick with the old-fashion free pour method vs. measuring out cocktails, so drinks are served up quickly, which helps move things along as it can get rather crowded. They also feature a decent mix of domestic and craft brews, along with standard bar fare if hunger hits.
A patron takes a video of the entertainment at White's Bar
The tunes on the particular night I visited came from Ray Torres and Friends, a local band that played plenty of blues, funk, and rock. While they were heavy on instrumentals, Ray could definitely hold a tune, and spent plenty of time doing just that. White's tends to lean toward blues, jazz, and rock acts, with the occasional comedy night or other special event thrown in.
White's is for the live band aficionado who wants to sit with friends and enjoy the artistry that goes into playing a live show from the comfort of their seats. There's no room for dancing, but the entertainment is the central focus. It’s the kind of bar where you’re hard-pressed to hold a conversation. When the artists are as talented as the acts they bring in, that's a good thing.
Hunter's Ale House
4855 E Blue Grass Rd, Mt Pleasant
Hunter's features plenty of space for dining and entertaining
Hunter's Ale House is the Yin to White's Bar’s Yang. It seemed fitting then to check out the comparatively massive restaurant and bar just a day after visiting White's. Located a couple miles outside of downtown Mt Pleasant, Hunter's is all about variety. Of all the establishments on this list, Hunter’s is by far the most food-focused (try the hangover pizza). A huge variety of beers are on tap, including several of their own. They also feature a few televisions and a giant projection screen featuring the more popular sporting events of the day. While I caught a few minutes of an NCAA football playoff game during my visit, I was there for the music.
The large stage is set well away from the bar, and a row of booths down the middle of the restaurant almost creates two separate experiences when a live band is playing. Choice is good: You can get right in the action near the stage, or set back in a booth or table and enjoy chatting with friends while the music takes more of a back seat.
Scott Nelson during a recent acoustic performance at Hunter's Ale House
On the night I visited, a local musician named Scott Nelson gave a great acoustic performance, offering a mix of country and alternative hits. I'm also a sucker for any artist talented enough to play two instruments at a time, so when the harmonica came out I perked up. Hunter’s can and does invite full, loud, get-out-of-your-seat bands, but I recommend visiting on a night where you can enjoy an acoustic set. Grabbing a pint of local brew while listening to local talent doesn't get much better in my book.
It's great to see a venue this big mix it up with their entertainment offerings. In addition to live music, you can also regularly find karaoke, trivia, and bingo nights.
Lumber Barons & Stables
804 E Midland St, Bay City
A DJ and laser show can be found during weekend nights at the Fire Bar
Lumber Barons Brewery and The Stables Martini & Cigar Bar are well-known among Bay City natives, but I'm often surprised how many from outlying communities have never been. It's hard to beat what amounts to three unique venues under one roof, all offering some form of entertainment. You could easily spend your entire evening here without ever having to step outside. Here's my recommended order of operations:
Head to Lumber Barons first for dinner - you can't go wrong with their wood-fired pizza and choice of a dozen or so varieties of their own craft beer. On the entertainment front, you'll find karaoke on most weekends, which should be a good primer for your next stop.
Just a short walk through the Fire Bar (we'll get to that soon) and down a hallway and you're in The Stables. As the name implies, the facility has actual stables. The rooms feature flat screens and plenty of comfy furniture, and are available for small groups to reserve for a semi-private hangout. One important note: The Stables is a cigar bar, so they are exempt from the smoking ban (as long as it’s a cigar - cigarettes are still out). While not a smoker, I didn’t find this to be much of an issue.
Hipakritz plays a recent show at Stables
The Stables doesn't disappoint with their entertainment setup, as you'll find a full band most every Friday and Saturday night. Hipakritz was playing the night I attended, rocking out to covers of a variety of classic rock, alternative, and modern tunes. The large concrete floor in front of the stage is a popular area for dancing, and it pretty much stays busy from around 10:00 p.m. to closing time.
If you're still up for entertainment around midnight or so, head back down the hallway and into the Fire Bar. It features a large dance floor, a laser show, a DJ, and plenty of drink specials. The space also includes a pool table and indoor fireplace.
While Lumber Barons is the place to go for food, you can find a variety of unique cocktails at both Fire Bar and The Stables. Prices are fair and servers are fast and friendly.
1201 Evergreen Drive, Bay City
The crowd at Scotty's Sandbar enjoys a recent comedy act
Notably the only establishment on this list that can be reached via car or boat, Scotty’s Sandbar is a large entertainment-focused venue just outside of downtown Bay City. The offerings are varied, so there’s bound to be an upcoming show to suit your tastes.
I decided to head there on a night they featured the Heather Koos Comedy Show. Several comedians performed, none of which I had seen before, but all of which I would listen to again.
A local comedian performs at Scotty's Sandbar
Scotty’s features a large stage and dance area as well as plenty of tables within view of the entertainment. Drink specials were legitimate, including $1 draft beers during happy hour. They offer a limited menu, but the food is priced to sell.
Bartenders weren’t in a huge hurry, but that wasn’t a bad thing. The staff has a very easygoing, relaxed demeanor that seemed to rub off on patrons as well. It was a nice change of pace from fast-slinging bartenders and impatient customers.
Scotty’s is the type of bar that would rather put money into a killer sound system than paving their parking lot, and they’re all the better for it. I look forward to coming back to listen to a full band, but comedy and a cheap cocktail was a perfect fit for this venue.
Ryder’s Bar and Grill
2650 W Midland Rd, Midland
Sensory Overload raises a toast before performing at Ryder's Bar
While there are plenty of variables when it comes to nightlife, I have to say Ryder’s Bar and Grill stands out as the most fun I had while researching for this article. It’s a dive bar in all the best ways: Inexpensive drinks, owners working alongside staff, one or two eccentric regulars, and a location that screams off-the-beaten-path, even though it’s less than a 5-minute drive from downtown Midland.
New owners Kim and Scott Nephew have made some modest renovations since their recent purchase of the building formerly occupied by Overpass Bar. Most importantly, they’ve decided to focus on bringing in quality live entertainment.
Sensory Overload plays during a recent night at Ryder's Bar
I admit I have never been to the old Overpass Bar, so while I can’t make a proper comparison, I know I’ll be back to Ryder’s. The bar was packed when I arrived at about 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night, thanks in part to Sensory Overload, a Bay City-based band specializing in 90’s rock. The large dance floor and plenty of stage space ensures no one who wants to enjoy the entertainment is left out.
Ryder’s doesn’t pretend to be anything they’re not. You won’t find $12 cocktails and menu items you can’t pronounce. You will find a great atmosphere, danceable tunes, and a staff dedicated to making sure you have a fun night.