Categorized | Arts & Culture

East Lansing Rock City?

[1]This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no foolin’ around. This is Lansing.
We ain’t got no Mudd Club or CBGB. We’ve got Mac’s Bar and the Temple Club. But in the last few years, and especially over the last few months, the Lansing area’s finest live music venues have had the draw of the aforementioned-Talking-Heads-referenced New York rock institutes. But with the news of a major booking company movin\’ out of town – the future of the scene hangs in the balance.
Psychedelic freaks/indie darlings Animal Collective sold out the Temple back in February. Alt-country siren Neko Case stopped by a month later. On April 17, mega-hyped hip-hop act Spank Rock shook Mac’s while drawing a sizeable Monday-night crowd. The man responsible for bringing these broken, breaking and just-about-to break acts to town is Steve Lambert, owner of Lansing-based Hood Booking, who plans to leave Lansing this summer.
“What I do is bring the big city to Lansing,” Lambert said. “The big city acts, the bands that are right now, making a name for themselves, covers of magazines, I try to bring those to Lansing, to give that big city vibe. Go to Mac’s Bar, it feels like New York or something like that. And it does on some shows, and the people in there, it’s like a Williamsburg, Brooklyn fashion show in there, which is cool and I like to see that.”
But are the people of Lansing and East Lansing turning out for these glimpses of major metropolitan entertainment? Lambert said that much of the crowds for his shows come from outside of Ingham County, and that he does little to try to draw students away from the lure of Grand River bars.
[one]“Bar people, like the Rick’s and Riv crowd, you know they’re just gonna go to the bar, they don’t care about bands and music, they’re not into that stuff, which is fine. The biggest thing, I guess, is bringing a mix of all different kinds of music, so you know college-oriented bands bring out their friends that do just go out to the bars in East Lansing and stuff like that, but other than that, I don’t even try to compete with that.”
“You cannot compete with ridiculously low drink prices seven days a week, you know. The turn over in East Lansing is so huge on alcohol sales it’s just, why even try?”
A lack of alcohol sales nearly killed Mac’s in late 2005. After a change in ownership, the bar underwent a few changes to guarantee the kind of money being made by its flashier East Lansing contemporaries. Several amendments were made to the drink menu, to make sure the people coming to shows were buying booze. For instance, all-ages shows were discontinued, a highly talked about change.
There’s also a new coat of paint on the inside, and some of the bar’s more idiosyncratic decor is gone. Personally, I found it quite heart-rending to enter Mac’s for a show in late March and not be greeted by the massive posters of Johnny Cash and the Rat Pack doing what they did best—being pissed off and hobnobbing, respectively.
To hear Lambert talk about it, the changes are mostly superficial, and the possibility exists that the all-ages show could be resurrected. “Honestly, we could probably start them up again,” he said. “It was really just a preliminary kind of thing. Initially it was like, ‘Let’s just do some 21-and-over for a while. Then, it was like, ‘OK, we’re back, it’s full-blown, now everything’s 18-and-over…unfortunately, those [all-ages shows] were so successful, way more successful than when I do them at the Temple Club, way more. But this town is not much of an all-ages thing, most people are 18-years-old anyways.”
As owner of Bunches Continental Cafe, East Lansing’s “original hipster coffee house,” Dave Bernath went through plenty of changes to keep his restaurant/concert venue afloat. Originally just serving coffee and pastries, the restaurant added a full menu and then eventually acquired a liquor license. Though they had already been putting on shows, the liquor license gave Bunches an added twilight hour pull. “Alcohol and bands, it makes for a bigger night-time ticket,” Bernath said. Bunches stayed open through two subsequent changes in ownership was in operation through the early 1990s, when it closed it doors for good.
Bernath owned Bunches from 1980 to 1982, during which he put on shows and hosted local acts as well as national acts like Gun Show, Bad Brains, and a pre-fame R.E.M. At the time, it was a bit of a bargain to bring the Athens, Ga. alt rock luminaries to East Lansing.
“I paid them 300 bucks to come play, and there was like 30, 40 people there,” Bernath said.
And what of the performance? It was, he said, with a hint of indifference, “OK.”
Bunches was somewhat of anomaly, with “fine dining by day and punk rock by night” as Bernath put it. This mixture of interests had the tendency to turn off clientele on both ends of the spectrum, and — during rowdier shows — create harrowing circumstances straight out of a restauranteur’s worst nightmare.
“There was glass tables…we had nice chairs but then there was glass tables that I was afraid people were going to jump on and break,” Bernath said. “Luckily, no one ever went through a table, we got a couple cracked, but no one ever went through one. I don’t know any other punk rock place that had glass tables that could have survived, it’s kind of unique.”
No one ever went through a table, but Bernath went through “thousands” of dollars while running Bunches.
“It gets frustrating after a while,” he said. “So I retreated out of the restaurant business up to retail here.”
Even while bringing to town acts such as U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, Fishbone, X, and Buddy Guy, other East Lansing venues suffered a similar fate. The names of the acts will live forever in the annals of popular music, and at least one of the venues — Rick’s American Cafe — is still in operation, but Bunches, Dooley’s, and Small Planet now exist merely as ghosts of East Lansing concerts’ past. After incurring 31 liqor violations and $127,000 in fines in nine years, Dooley’s had its liquor licensed revoked and closed in January 1996. The Small Planet ceased spinning in the summer of 2000.
Jon Howard, manager at Flat, Black and Circular booked many a show at Small Planet, but putting on concerts eventually became too much of a financial risk. He saw little support from students. “I found it was impossible to get students to come across the street to Small Planet,” he said. “It was absolutely impossible.”
Being on campus just might be a boon for ticket sales. And if students wouldn’t cross Grand River for a show, they’re probably even less likely to head down Michigan Avenue towards Mac’s.
“Steve, you know, he’s got some great bands down there and I’ve been to see them and there’s like 10, 20 people there,” Bernath said. “You go across over here to the auditorium of kivas for so-so bands, and there’s hundreds if not thousands of people.”
After a fall semester nearly devoid of on-campus music events, the Resident Hall Association busied the bills of the university’s auditoriums and the Union ballroom with five shows in March and April. It was an impressive undertaking, but students couldn’t have been blamed for experiencing a sensation of deja vu when reading the lineup. After all, it has only been two years since Mustard Plug, Guster, Ben Folds, and Switchfoot last graced MSU stages.
Nonetheless, those gathered outside the MSU Auditorium for the April 19 Switchfoot show were an enthusiastic bunch. Some, like secondary education freshman Luke Swanson, made the short walk from the dorms to the show. Originally from Ann Arbor, Swanson said that when it comes to concerts, East Lansing had just as much to offer as his hometown.
“It’s just about the same atmosphere, they’re both college towns, lots of bars and places to play,” he said.
[two]A Lansing-area show doesn’t have to be put on by Hood Booking to draw out-of-town fans. Ryan Van Cleef, 21, and Crisy Henderson, 20, made the three-hour trek from Valparaiso, Ind. to East Lansing. When asked what brought them so far, they answered, in unison, “SWITCHFOOT.”
Come August, Lambert himself will be an out-of-towner. He’s leaving for the Washington D.C.-Baltimore area, but it’s nothing against Lansing — he’s got two job offers and his girlfriend will be attending graduate school in the area.
“I’ve always been super critical of Lansing, you know, but it’s Lansing, man. It’s got 150,000 people here, I’m trying to sell it to like 10 percent, and that’s hard…\” he said.
Lambert is uncertain whether the current quality of concerts would continue after he leaves. \”I wish Lansing all the best when I leave, but I don’t know if those bands who have come through here over the last five years will come through here any more. Or maybe they will, who knows?\”
And what must happen in order for these acts to keep Lansing and East Lansing as a stop on their tour itineraries? The bands need to see their fans and the fans need to see their bands. “For it to continue to be strong, people have to come out and attend the shows, because if there’s no attendance for the shows, then there’s no reason for those bands to come back to Lansing,\” Lambert said. \”Not every show has to be packed, but it has to be moderately decent.”

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