Motown. Hitsville. Rock City. Detroit’s musical history is evident in obvious (and not so obvious) ways. Artists from Detroit have gotten a fair amount of attention and radio play over the past several decades. However, some of the small venues throughout the city where local artists transform into national figures, go under-recognized. There are many spectacular small concert venues throughout Detroit and unless you, or someone you know, is already familiar with these spaces, it’s possible to miss them. That’s unfortunate because the small spaces are often those with the most character, where audiences can get up close with both performers and the venue’s history.
Here, I’d like to present you with a short list of some of the best small venues in Detroit which I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. This list is far from exhaustive, and obviously sways toward my personal experiences so far. I invite you to use the comments section to start a horizon-expanding to-do list of places where everyone must go see a show. Till then, here are a handful of my Detroit favorites:
Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave.)
The Magic Stick is part of the impressive Majestic Theater complex. On the lower level, you’ll find a restaurant and bar, bowling alley (with a stage above the alley!), and the Majestic Theater. The Magic Stick is located upstairs, and is consistently recognized as one of the best live music venues in the city, where a range of national and local acts are featured. While each part of the complex is special in its own right, the Magic Stick remains my favorite for its small size and universally high-quality experience.
Nancy Whiskey (2644 Harrison St.)
Opened in 1902, Nancy Whiskey bills itself as “Detroit’s oldest party.” And a party it is! This neighborhood bar in Corktown is nestled, quite literally, in a neighborhood. Inside, Nancy Whiskey feels like a house retrofitted with a bar and tiny stage inside. What this old building lacks in acoustics, it makes up for in character and the friendliness of its patrons.
PJ’s Lager House (1254 Michigan Ave.)
A part of Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood since 1914, PJ’s website implores you to “live life loud.” If you’d like to try your hand at that, see a show there—when this place gets going, it’s a no-joke kind of loud. And fantastic. Most of the bands who perform at PJ’s are local and generally fall into a sub-category of rock. It’s a great place to go to experience, up close, some of what Detroit’s music scene has to offer.
The Shelter and Saint Andrew’s Hall (431 E. Congress St.)
At 431 E. Congress St., you’ll find two different venues. Above ground, is Saint Andrew’s Hall which boasts a capacity of 1000 people. Below-grade, however, is a truly special place for fans of small concert venues—The Shelter (capacity: 400). Here’s how a friend, Bruno, who visited in the summer for a Movement Electronic Music Festival after-party described the venue: “It was hot and sweaty and a little dirty.” If you enjoy Detroit at least partially for its grit, see a show at the Shelter. The venue hosts both local and national acts and offers a high-quality concert experience with no pretense. It’s a beautiful thing.
Tangent Gallery/Hastings Street Ballroom (715 E. Milwaukee St.)
Tangent offers what I believe might be the least judgmental space I have yet to encounter. It’s a safe space, and all are welcome at this renovated warehouse in what was once Detroit’s historic Paradise Valley commercial district. In addition to hosting musicians from a range of genres, Tangent is also home to many exhibitions and performance art events. While the acoustics might not be perfect, the space is comfortable, welcoming, and truly intriguing. You’ll be hard-pressed to find many more venues with an outdoor “living room”, complete with fire pit.
When I started thinking about writing about small venues in Detroit, I polled some friends who were more than happy to share their favorites. As the Awesome Mitten’s Joanna lamented about Detroit’s music scene: “Man, we’re lucky.” I couldn’t agree more. Here are a list of more great places in the D, which I hope to feature in a future article:
What’s missing from this list? What’s your favorite small venue in Detroit?