Blowout In Hamtramck Gears Up For Music Fans

The Hamtramck Blowout is an annual celebration of Michigan bar bands. It has evolved into a don't-miss event for the music industry in its search for "the next White Stripes" or "the next Eminem," both of whom made their bones at the Blowout. The bash is in its 12th year.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From Michael Jackson to Motor City, here is the sentiment you wouldn't expect to hear coming out of Detroit.

Mr. CHRIS HANDYSIDE (Author, "Fell in Love with a Band: The Story of The White Stripes"): We're really, really stinking lucky, (laughing) you know, and the rest of the country must be really, really stinking unlucky.

(Soundbite of laugher)

BRAND: The reason why Chris Handyside feels so blessed is because of the local music scene in Detroit. That's where they have something called the Blowout this weekend Celeste Headlee reports.

CELESTE HEADLEE: The Metro Times Blowout started 12 years ago on a shoestring budget.

Mr. HANDYSIDE: Hey, I got some curtains. My dad's got an old record player, we're show people. Let's put on a show, right?

(Soundbite of electric guitar)

HEADLEE: Chris Handyside co-founded the festival as a fundraiser for the Detroit Music Awards. The idea was to broke as many local bands as possible to play in the tiny bars and clubs of Hamtramck over the course of four days. Simple, right? But more than once, musical history is made, as with The White Stripes who played the first and second years of the Blowout. The band was struggling, and Handyside wasn't sure if they'd play.

Mr. CHRIS HANDYSIDE: And the White Stripes indeed, you know, got it together and came out as a band and just killed. It was a magical experience, you know, people were singing along to their songs, and it was a brilliant moment.

(Soundbite of music)

HEADLEE: Eminem has also played at the Blowout, along with Outrageous Cherry, the Detroit Cobras, and the Von Bondies. Bryan Smith is the feature editor for the Metro Times. He says when he moved to Detroit, he was blown away by the number of great musicians here.

Mr. BRYAN SMITH (Editor, Metro Times): I said, wow, it must be something in the water because I can't think of anything else to say.

HEADLEE: This year, 200 bands will play in 15 bars over four nights in Hamtramck. The diminutive town is two square miles and filled with blue-collar workers. At one time, it had the highest concentration of bars of any city in the country.

Mr. SMITH: When you walk into some of the bars, there's still a 60-year-old dude nursing a Schlitz or Shtroh's at the bar and he'll look up and he'll nod. And the 20-year-old hipster will sit down next to him and they'll have a conversation.

HEADLEE: Hamtramck is overrun ever year during the Blowout. An estimated 5,000 people turned out last year to listen to the bands.

Mr. SMITH: It's a frighteningly well-attended, scary, big, loud, noisy festival.

HEADLEE: Bryan Smith says the music you hear is often very original and very good. Remember, this is the birthplace of Motown and Techno. It's also the city that gave us Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, George Clinton, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop and the MC5.

Mr. SMITH: A lot of my friends that have moved away from Detroit and tried to play music elsewhere just can't find people that have the right feeling. People outside of Detroit don't have a musical foundation that's connected to all this history.

HEADLEE: Matthew Smith is with the band Outrageous Cherry. During the first year of the blowout, he played with four of five different bands. He doesn't know the exact number.

Mr. MATTHEW SMITH (Lead Singer, Outrageous Cherry): Yeah, I don't remember any motivation. I just remember a bunch of bands going and jamming, like the same thing we normally do but with everybody all, you know, doing it at once.

THE OUTRAGEOUS CHERRY: (Singing) Concrete sidewalks in the sun Can't stop all on the run You know, I get it Get out while you can Get out while you can…

HEADLEE: Chris Handyside says there's a sense of musical community in Detroit that goes back to the 1940s. And although many of the musicians dream of making it big, the idea of music as an industry doesn't influence the sound.

Mr. HANDYSIDE: The music industry here such as it is doesn't really exist, right? So you're working in a vacuum. The people who do create music here are expressing an idiosyncratic vision because they have nothing to lose.

Mr. SMITH: We just became musicians and kind of didn't bother to notice the Motown had disappeared and that the whole music business had collapsed. We just carried on as if Motown was still happening.

HEADLEE: Matthew Smith says bands here aren't striving to be the next new sound. They have one foot in the present and one in the past.

Mr. SMITH: The idea of musicians really developing to a higher level - to the level of their heroes from the past, you know, is a really big thing in Detroit.

HEADLEE: No one here is claiming that Detroit has better musicians than other cities, but Chris Handyside says the bands here are uncommon with a distinctive sound.

Mr. HANDYSIDE: We have such a unique culture where people are replicating the sounds of the factories or, you know, blowing off steam of depression. You know, like years of economic malaise and they're screaming, and it never stops.

HEADLEE: And Matthew Smith says when people don't make it big here they don't box up their guitars, store them in the attic, and take a job at a bank. They go on playing for the sheer joy of the music.

Mr. HANDYSIDE: We live in a really horrible, messed-up city, but we envision a different world than the one we're living in. So may be the first step towards making a better world is to create a soundtrack to a different world.

HEADLEE: And once a year, that vision becomes a little more real in the sleepy city of Hamtramck. Two hundred bands and thousands of people will descend onto a few city blocks, sit on swaying wooden bar stools and listen for the sounds of the new Detroit. Celeste Headlee, NPR News.

ALEX COHEN, host:

Day to Day is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com, I'm Alex Cohen.

BRAND: And I'm Madeleine Brand.

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