The Music Geek's Travel Guide to Detroit

Travel Lists Detroit
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Detroit doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being touristy. Lately, whenever we’ve made the national news, it’s usually been bad.

But, if you visit the right spots, you’ll realize this city’s musical legacy—proud and pioneering as it is—is a rich and remarkable vindication against all the negative things you’ve been hearing about Detroit. It’s the singers, songwriters, performers and musicians who inhabited this city (and its greater metropolitan area) from the ’40s through the ’80s, who would substantially influence (and in some cases, arguably trailblaze through) the genres of jazz, blues, R&B/soul, pop, punk, hip-hop and techno. And it continues today. Here are five spots to check out when you’re in the Motor City.

1. The Motown Museum / Histville U.S.A.

2648 W. Grande Blvd.
This city created its own genre of music, The Motown Sound, and you can visit the actual laboratory where it was brought to life, Studio A. The former photography studio that was renovated into a recording space 65 years ago by the label’s founder, Berry Gordy, is now somewhat of a shrine dedicated to the all of the talented musicians, songwriters and iconic singers and stars who worked tirelessly to turn out too many # 1 hits to count during a whirlwind 10 year period in the 1960s.

There isn’t a long driveway, ornate gate or sprawled parking lot; the Motown Museum sits unassumingly in the middle of a neighborhood near midtown (you’ll need to call ahead for a guided tour with an experienced and knowledgeable museum docent). Breathtaking photos and inspiring memorabilia are on display, images capturing these soon-to-be musical history-makers in the act of creation. How many of us were raised on the immortal songs, captured within the walls of this studio? This is where Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and the oft-overlooked house band, The Funk Brothers, sang, wrote and recorded some of the most pure and perfect R&B/pop music ever made. If you’re making a musically-inspired pilgrimage to Detroit, you absolutely have to start here. Hashtag: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

2. The Max

3711 Woodward Ave.
You have to visit the Max M. Fisher Music Center, if just for the optics and ambiance. For a long time this was known as Orchestra Hall, and it’s still the place to see the world-class Detroit Symphony Orchestra. This elegant concert hall, built back in 1919 and renovated in 2002 (when it was christened The Max), currently hosts an excellent jazz showcase called Paradise Jazz, which is a nod to the hall having formerly been known as The Paradise Theatre during its heydays of the 1940s when it was hosting legends like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Lena Horne. Notable greats in contemporary jazz and post-bop like Wayne Shorter, Kenny Garrett and Dee Dee Bridgewater will be coming through in the next few months as part of the Paradise Series. This is also the place to catch a hip monthly spotlight on more up-and-coming, avant-garde or experimental fare from independent or underground artists curated by the local public radio affiliate WDET.

3. Baker’s Keyboard Lounge

20510 Livernois Ave.
If you’d like a more intimate, stylish and downright cool experience, slide in to the cinematic/throwback art-deco ambiance of Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. Billed as “the world’s oldest operating jazz club,” it started booking pianists in 1934 and the performance room has hosted the legendary likes of Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Cab Calloway and many more. It’s also recently been refitted with new flooring, a new sound system and updates to the kitchen (their macaroni and cheese is turning into a local legend). The luminescence sets the mood, and the mirrors over the stage allow you to see the talented pianists’ (and drummers’) hands at work. You’ll have to drive a ways back up near the northern border of town, but it’s more than worth it. Plus, you’ll be right at the corner of 8 Mile; yes, the actual road that helped inspire the title for that movie about Eminem.

4. Grande Ballroom

8952 Grand River Ave
For those of you who’d like to see it, you can visit the Grande Ballroom, even though it’s been closed since the ’70s. This building is THE primordial soup bowl of Detroit garage rock of the mid ’60s, a gloriously rambunctious style of music, signature to the area, that later morphed into the ganglier, faster, freakier fare fostered by Iggy Pop & The Stooges and The MC5. Those two bands were absolutely integral in influencing what would evolve into punk-rock. The MC5, local boys from nearby Ann Arbor, recorded their most iconic album in this building. The Who actually premiered the songs off of Tommy here, in 1969. Originally designed as a multi-purpose building for the community, featuring an impressive hardwood dancefloor upstairs, the Grande was eventually acquired by a local radio DJ who had aspirations of establishing this place as Detroit’s answer to San Francisco’s Fillmore Theatre. Pink Floyd, John Lee Hooker, Led Zeppelin…they all played here.

5. P.J.’s Lager House

1241 Michigan Ave.
There are plenty of local bands following in the contorted, spasmodic, stomping footsteps of the MC5 and the Stooges still performing today, along with an impressive list of national acts on tour. Though we want to dissuade any sensationalizing of “ruin-porn,” on the way to P.J.’s Lager House you should still glimpse the “haunted,” train station nearby the Detroit River, which, abandoned and gutted, standing like an 18-story square skeleton leering down upon Michigan Avenue. P.J.’s is one of the longer-running and active spots for modern indie-punk, garage revivalism, neo-psychedelic bubblegum shreds and all the other stuff that the vigorous 20/30-something modern rockers are digging these days, including notable national acts like Ex Hex and Speedy Ortiz.

6. The Shelter/Saint Andrew’s

431 E. Congress St
Eminem fans might want check out The Shelter, a basement venue beneath the larger concert hall known as Saint Andrew’s , because this is where the now world-famous rapper got started, competing in Battles in the late ’90s. You’ll recall it was captured, with melodrama and triumph, in his biopic 8 Mile. But, sadly, they didn’t film those scenes here; this is the music-geek’s guide, not the movie-geek’s, though, so we’re pointing you to the real version. The Shelter continues to host impressive showcases of local hip-hop talents and that genre’s local community of MCs and producers have been experiencing a bit of a renaissance these last few years. Both The Shelter and Saint Andrews also feature a schedule of touring bands that tend to run the gamut in genre. Saint Andrews is also where bigger local acts like I.C.P. or The Electric Six often throw homecoming concerts.

7. The Magic Stick/The Majestic Theatre

4140 Woodward Ave.
The Shelter’s not too far from The Magic Stick, located above The Majestic Theatre. This place has a little lore, as well. When the city experienced it’s “garage explosion” back in 2000-2001 and Spin tried to hail the area as “the next Seattle,” it was this multipurpose theatre that served as an optimal spot for bands like The White Stripes to play album releases. But, for you, traveler, it ideally meets the needs of the visitor who’s up for a little bit of anything: a spot to dine in an intimate café and then experience world-famous bands touring through the cavernous main theatre; or there’s more underground/indie-acts performing upstairs. But there’s also a substantially delicious pizzeria tucked in the back and a bowling alley. Said bowling alley is often soundtracked by local DJ’s, so, you’re all set.

8. Vinyl Hunting

Detroit’s music geeks have consistently proven their enthusiasm for vinyl. We might have lost some downright outstanding used record stores over the years to the throes of the economy, but we’ve thankfully seen a recent sprouting of new shops that will cater to crate diggers coming to town. Start up in the burbs at UHF Records (512 Washington Ave., Royal Oak), wind down to Found Sound (234 W. 9 Mile Rd., Ferndale), then speed across the freeway to Street Corner Music (26020 Greenfield Rd., Oak Park). Still looking? Head south to Hamtramck and you’ll find Record Graveyard (2610 Carpenter Ave); but in that same city, you can find awesome selections of vinyl inside clothing and book stores, like Detroit Threads (10238 Joseph Campau Ave) or Lo & Behold! (10022 Joseph Campau Ave). Further south, back into the heart of Detroit, you’ll find People’s (4100 Woodward Ave) and Hello Records (1459 Bagley Ave).

9. The DIY Spaces

Detroit has plenty of what you might call “unconventional venues”—cool, inclusive spaces that bolster the communal spirit of the artists and bands in the area. These are the special places where you make profound discoveries of artists that might not get booked into a more mainstream venue because they’re too weird, they’re too rowdy or they’re too obscure. Trinosophes (1464 Gratiot Ave) is a multi-purpose space down in the city’s historic Eastern Market, serving as a coffee shop, library and gallery by day and concert venue/performance-space by night. Mocad (4454 Woodward Ave), meanwhile, is a contemporary art museum converted from a former auto dealership and designed to retain a certain caustic, unfinished aesthetic inside. It constantly hosts exhibitions curated by talents from all over the art world, as well as some sensational once-in-a-lifetime type concerts. UFO Factory (2110 Trumbull) is the latest to open (at least in a more substantial form, bolstered by a blaze of recent concerts and art installations). This space, located right across from the ghostly empty lot where old Tigers Stadium once stood, recently featured a seasonally-inspired group show called Monster Movie, with aspirations to continually host art shows, movie nights, cool concerts and dance parties, while serving as an ol’ fashioned corner bar on the quieter nights.

10. The Festivals

Finally, we suggest timing your visit around May. If you do, you can likely catch some of the city’s premier music festivals, like its city-spanning all-local showcase (Blowout) and its world-renowned electronic music festival (Movement).

The Blowout (April 30-May 3) was started back in the late ’90s and resembled a smaller, Detroit version of CMJ while exclusively featuring local talents (like back in ’99, with this one band called The White Stripes). It was actually just a grassroots effort to help said local bands raise some gas money for their own tours down to SXSW Festivals—we didn’t have Kickstarter in the 90’s, so a local magazine helped run a three-day festival hosted in a baker’s dozen bars throughout a small city neighboring Detroit’s northwest borders called Hamtramck. Originally hosted in March, the Blowout event has lately been scheduled in early May and now spans Hamtramck as well as Detroit and another nearby suburb, Ferndale. But start your May-time journey in Hamtramck and see if you want a sufficient sampling of the local music scene; while you’re there, we recommend taking some time to really explore the charms of Hamtramck, from its local book shops, boutiques and record stores, to its old school bars.

Quick history lesson: Techno music’s roots lie in Detroit! Some say Detroit even invented that genre, too! We won’t dispute them. Here’s the story, starting back when Disco was dying and Punk was turning into New-Wave, a trio of aspiring producers known as The Belleville Three (Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson), created a cool, caustic, and robotically rhythmic music from analog synthesizers and crude drum machines; a dark and coldly driving dance. Long story short: dance clubs over in Chicago and Europe and, soon after, all over the world, started freaking out over this music back in the early ’80s, and now it’s a genre.

Now on to Movement (May 23-25, 2015): A somewhat far cry from the rainbow-splattered, scantily clad clientele cavorting at the Electric Daisy Carnival, Movement is more for the musicheads (though, there’s no dearth of elaborate and enthusiastic costumes on display). Crowds of up to 100,000 electro-fans converge on the picturesque Hart Plaza (right by the Detroit River) to experience throbbing bass and booming beats from live sets performed by world-class talents including Moby, Public Enemy, Squarepusher, RJD2, The Belleveille Three, Tiga and, yes, Skrillex. Though it’s changed names and incarnations a couple times, next year will mark the 15th such festival for the city, so it’s certainly an institution, and indeed a destination for any fan of EDM, techno, hip-hop, trip-hop, dub… it’ll run the gamut.