In Manchester, live music creates a sense of community

An invaluable sense of community is created when you bring music to your town. 

From the local cover band to the singer-songwriter at your favorite pub, music has the power to pull people together. 

When that music is an identifying feature of your community, your hometown can become a destination. Manchester Underground Music and Art is reinforcing the bonds of this small town while attracting guests from around the state.

Each month, Manchester Underground Music and Art invites music fans to experience talent from a variety of genres, such as singer-songwriter, folk, country, bluegrass, rockabilly, and blues. Their shows take place at the River Raisin Distillery. 

Customers at the River Raisin Distillery in Manchester.

The space is casual and welcoming. What had once been a welding company has been transformed into a community space for gathering with friends and family. The monthly music shows by Manchester Underground Music and Art add a compelling reason to share an evening with friends in this quiet town in rural Washtenaw County.

Back in the early late 70s, rolling on the back roads of Manchester, the dream of Manchester Underground Music and Art was born. John Mooneyham and Steve Girbach were high school friends with a passion for music. 

“John and I love music, 'live' music especially,” Steve Girbach says.

When Girbach moved to Manchester in 1977, there was a performance theater in town called The Black Sheep Repertory Theater. Lots of national acts played there: Muddy Waters, John Hartford, Doc Watson, Mose Allison, etc. 

“It was a very cool space on the second floor of a building downtown that is now apartments,” Girbach says. “(Mooneyham and Girbach) also shared an apartment together that was once the home of the Koda family. Cub Koda was lead guitarist and vocalist for Brownsville Station. Rumor has it 'Smokin in the boys room' was written about Manchester High School — a badge of honor for us.”

The pair’s band rehearsed in the lower level that was painted with funky art. 
“Again, rumor has it, Cub painted it,” he says. “So, there is a musical history here, we just wanted to keep it going.”

Initially, their dream morphed into a band called The DTs, which lasted for several years, playing gigs in Manchester. Eventually, the band folded, and Girbach moved away. The dream of live music in Manchester hibernated for nearly 30 years.

In 2017, Steve Girbach moved back to Manchester. 

A weekly breakfast meeting with his old friend rekindled the Manchester Underground Music and Art flame. Mooneyham then set up a Facebook page, which Girbach recalls sprung Manchester Underground Music into life.

“I like to have all my ducks in a row. But John thought it would be a good idea to just launch it. It actually was a great idea,” Girbach says. We immediately had interest, and it put pressure on us to really make it happen. If we would have waited for me, it may not have ever happened. I credit (or curse) John for bringing me back into the music fold. I was completely out of it. He kept planting seeds in my head.”

Their vision for Manchester Underground Music was simple: Create a monthly music series featuring musicians performing original music. Instead of the music being in the background, they wanted it to be the main feature — a listening room concept where the music does not have to compete with the clatter of coffee cups or pub chatter. The only thing Mooneyham and Girbach needed was a performance space.

Jennifer Westwood and Dylan Dunbar perform outdoors.

They began to scour Manchester for a place to showcase original music. One spot that showed great promise was the Alber Mill. 

“We looked at several places around town: A room at the closed school, basements, and second-floor spaces in buildings around town. I actually walked through the 'Mill' looking for spaces. When I walked down to the lower level, I thought the space was darn near perfect. A bit small, but funky (in the very best of ways). It turned out to be perfect,” Girbach recalls.

The first show at the Shoppes of Alber Mill took place on May 12, 2019. This maiden voyage of Manchester Underground Music and Art featured Michigan artists Jim Roll and Carol Gray. The lower level of Alber Mill was filled to capacity with patrons on folding chairs near the stage area, standing along the upper stairwell, and even sitting on the steps descending to the lower level. The small space provided guests with an intimate musical experience. After this first show, word spread, and Manchester Underground Music was off and running.

Unfortunately, COVID put a halt to indoor live music. When gathering outdoors was safe, Manchester Underground offered a ray of sunshine with a few outdoor shows in the River Raisin Park. These shows were well received as they provided a much needed outlet for everyone who felt trapped and isolated due to the pandemic.

Due to the pandemic, Manchester Underground Music lost its original home at the Alber Mill. 

Mike Austin, a mutual friend and Manchester resident, suggested the River Raisin Distillery. “Steve and I pitched the idea to Joe (at River Raisin Distillery) and his team last summer, and they liked the idea. It took a while to get things scheduled, but they have been extremely supportive,” Mooneyham says. 

“Both my wife and I love live music and we wanted to host bands to provide another event for Manchester and the surrounding area to do,” says Joe Jarvis, co-owner of Raisin River Distillery with his wife Krista.  “Currently, we have expanded the space that we host Manchester Underground in and are looking to move outdoors in the summer.”

The reboot of Manchester Underground Music and Art took place in November 2022 with Michal Katon. The Hell, Michigan, resident drew a strong crowd thanks to his powerful boogie and blues style. “The Boogie Man from Hell," as Katon is known, made for a great choice to reinvigorate live music as he had played many times in the past at the now defunct Black Sheep Tavern and Pleasant Lake Inn.

Zachariah Malachi and the Hillbilly Executives.

Today, Manchester Underground Music and Art is the only venue in the Manchester area offering live original music. Crowds average 40 to 50 people per show, but the space at the River Raisin Distillery offers room to expand. 

“I think we could accommodate 100. I'd really like to get there. We just need people to believe in what we're doing,” Girbach says. “We promote live, original music. Take a chance and support live music!” 

The Manchester Underground Music team now includes Jason Heinrich (events coordinator and graphic design) and Berkeley Tistle (sound engineer).

The partnership between Raisin River Distillery and Manchester Underground Music and Art is paying off not only for the River Raisin Distillery, but the town itself. 

“Manchester is kind of a desert for things to do. Sure there are the parades and once a year events but nothing monthly for people to enjoy,” he says. “Being that we are on the west side of town it brings people through our downtown to see all that Manchester has to offer, which is growing.”

Check out a Manchester Underground Music and Art show at the River Raisin Distillery at 480 West Main St., Manchester. You can find information on upcoming shows on the Manchester Underground Facebook page.

Brenda and Chuck Marshall have been chronicling the beauty and culture of Michigan for over ten years. Their stories, filled with local insights and experiences, are published on In addition to his writing, Chuck is passionate about photography and has become a prominent documenter of Michigan's vibrant music and craft beer scenes. Together, they promote Michigan one story at a time
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