Setting the stage — and the standard

Local musicians sound off on what makes or breaks an ideal venue


If you venture down Michigan Avenue on a Friday or Saturday night, you’ll likely be confronted by the sound of raucous performances blasting from the likes of The Avenue Cafe, The Green Door Bar & Grill, Mac’s Bar and other staple venues on the strip.

Live music is thriving in Greater Lansing, but not all venues are created equal. Some musicians prefer inclusive, welcoming spaces that celebrate all genres, while others just prefer the spaces to be relatively clean.

A Rueful Noise:  Jennifer Toms

For Jennifer Toms, the bassist and lead vocalist of the indie rock ‘n’ roll band A Rueful Noise, a “feeling of community” is what makes a venue great.

“The foundation of excellent venues is owners who care for their musicians, staff and patrons,” she said. “A venue could have fantastic equipment and a busy house, but without owners who are invested in the music scene, that venue may not offer up a creative and supportive environment where both musicians and their audiences feel a sense of togetherness.”

The Avenue Cafe and Displaced Manor, a DIY venue specializing in punk and metal, are the main Lansing venues Toms thinks fit this bill.

“Colleen Kelley, owner of The Avenue Cafe, has built a community that transcends the music being played on the stage through her deep care for the scene. It is a wholly welcoming space. Alexandra Saenz, who runs house shows at Displaced Manor, has also created a very special venue with an electric atmosphere, excellent sound and killer lineups,” she said.

The Stick Arounds:  Matthew Carlson

Matthew Carlson of the power-pop band The Stick Arounds and Harborcoat, a solo project, also pointed to The Avenue as his top venue in town.

“There are always things I would improve in terms of logistics, but Colleen and her team have created a beautiful culture that welcomes everyone,” he said. “They’ve been the center of the city’s scene for at least 15 years, and I am so grateful they’re thriving.”

Carlson appreciates venues that include both standing space and seating options, like The Avenue, but he’s tired of venues with outdated decor and fixtures.

“In this day and age, you can make a venue feel comfortable and welcoming without breaking the bank,” he said. “Too many rooms still have 20-year-old paint jobs, broken lighting and little more panache than concrete walls and floors. Make a few minimal decorative choices that make the space more inviting. Lighting with a bit of forethought can go a long way as well.”

He also wishes there were more spaces that would focus solely on the music being played instead of trying to earn more revenue.

“The Robin Theatre does a good job of this, but almost all music in the area is built around selling alcohol. That’s perfectly fine, but it means that the music is not necessarily the reason folks are in the room. I would love to see more spaces intently focusing on music, but I know the financial mathematics on that are tough.”

Cavalcade: Cale Sauter

Cale Sauter, guitarist of the metal band Cavalcade and founder of the locally operated indie label Bermuda Mohawk Productions, appreciates DIY venues for this reason.

“I will always have a spot in my heart for well-run DIY spaces because they’re usually 100% focused on the music and people just hanging out and having a good time together, not to mention usually taking on certain risks to do all that for little to no financial gain,” he said. “I don’t want to risk putting any of those spaces on blast via name, but there are some thriving in the area right now that we love. As far as more ‘above board’ places around the state, Cavalcade always has a great time playing the Sanctuary in Detroit, The Avenue here in Lansing, the Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids and Papa Pete’s in Kalamazoo, just to name a few off the top of my head.”

Both James Gardin, a local hip-hop artist, and Lindsey Taylor, founder and vocalist of the indie-rock group La La Delivery, just want to see venues do a better job of cleaning between shows.

La La Delivery:  Lindsey Taylor

“Although some of my favorite places are dive bars, I don’t like to see too grimy of places. Clean bathrooms are awesome and can be hard to find in those scenarios,” Taylor said.

James Gardin, hip-hop artist

“I hate seeing no stage at a venue, and I’m tired of dirty bathrooms. I think the hole-in-the-wall, grungy bar aesthetic is played out at this point,” Gardin said.

Like Toms, Gardin enjoys venues with an inclusive atmosphere where “none of the ‘isms’ are allowed to run rampant.” They also need to have “great drink specials, good sound, great sound engineers, and the staff has to be friendly.”

“In Lansing, I enjoy The Avenue because of the community that shows up to events, and I enjoy the Robin Theatre for some of the same reasons. I honestly just prefer spaces where listeners of my music can feel welcome if they show up,” he said.

Taylor said a variety of different elements make up an ideal music venue.

“I’d say booking acts that bring in crowds is the number one goal,” she said. “Good rooms that are equipped for the best quality sound to mix bands properly is important. A welcoming interior where people feel relaxed is important, too. I’ve heard it over and over from friends that they don’t like going to certain venues because of their vibe. It takes a while to build up a successful business, but as long as the vision and drive are there, anything is possible.”

When performing in Lansing, she prefers Mac’s Bar and The Avenue, but for more of a DIY, all-ages space, she also enjoys the Fledge.

“Michigan offers some great spots to play. The Blind Pig in Ann Arbor is also one of my favorites,” she said. “When there’s a decent crowd and good sound, I’d say there’s a lot to be grateful for.”


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