ALVIN’S ON CASS
DETROIT’S LIVE MUSIC LEGACY LIVES ON
Alvin’s on Cass, is one of the longest standing live music clubs, within the city limits of Detroit. Built in the early 40’s, Alvin’s served as a delicatessen for the original owner and namesake Alvin Stilman. When Alvin’s first opened, it consisted of the counter and kitchen area you see today in the front half of the club.
During the late seventies, musicians began to congregate outside of the deli to play music, attracting crowds to their door step. As a result, Alvin’s grew in size to add music to its menu. The warehouse behind the deli was acquired during the early eighties, adding the "Twilight" bar, then the stage. The original scene reflected the music of the times, jazz, rock and blues. During the last 15 years, the sound became “heavy”, at either end of the spectrum from metal, punk or rap. Alvin’s saw several ownership changes during that time, and a progressive decay from the original sites luster.
COMMON MISCONCEPTION #1
“Alvin’s is a dump”. New owners Stacey and John Jazz bought Alvin’s and closed it for about a year. They used this time to clean it, fix it up, and were mindful not to fix what was not broken. States Stacey, “tried not to take anything away from what it was”, leaving the walls the same with exception to the removal of a half wall around the seating area. Only the glue residue remains, as the natural brick was exposed lending its appeal to the interior. The bathrooms were gutted, “because they were awful”, and there is a deliberate focus on keeping them clean. “The smell is gone”, says Stacey, citing that Alvin’s is now clean and smells good.
“The big thing we’re trying to do is bring the music back.” Good acts, quality talent, and artists from “back in the day” are coming around to play Alvin’s again. The music lineup has something going on every day except Sunday, when they are closed (some exceptions have been made to accommodate the availability of touring acts).
Although there was not a complete list of shows left behind, it is rumored that the likes of Mitch Ryder, Iggy Pop, and Bo Diddley have played at Alvin’s. Bob Seger, was noted as a patron, but never recognized to have performed at the club. Kid Rock, Eminem, to the Sun Messengers have been mentioned on the unconfirmed roster of later-day performers at Alvin’s.
There is no doubt, the uniqueness of Alvin’s rests on its distinguished legacy. New owners Stacey & John, are focused on restoring that history and creating some of their own. Bringing back previous greats like Mitch Ryder and Rare Earth to play Alvin’s. Hitting high notes with performances by The Hell Drivers (now the Rockets), (Alto) Reed & Dickinson Band, and slide guitar ace Jeremy Spencer (original member of Fleetwood Mac). During the Mitch Ryder show, he told stories of his days playing Alvin’s, and how thrilling it was to be back there again.
Alvin’s has featured various types of music over time; hip hop, house, rock, blues, jazz, and reggae. Much like the past, the Jazz’s are keeping a variety of music formats on the Alvin’s stage. It is not the same every night, “it’s something of quality, from talented people.” Warm up acts are typically eager to please, trying to make a name for themselves. The opening acts blend well with the main performance, “making it a good fit.”
Talented residency acts like Johnnie Basset, Carter Brothers, Skeeto Valdez, Zap Toro, and open jam sessions on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s make Alvin’s a music lovers bonanza on weekdays. Wayne State students are encouraged to come in and play during open sessions, where there is no cover on “all ages” nights.
COMMON MISCONCEPTION #2
“Alvin’s is open AGAIN”, but this is not the same old, same old. Alvin’s is clean, vibrant and serves food. Open all day, every day at 11 am, except Sunday – and serve food until closing at 2 am. Previously, Alvin’s was only open when there was a show, and in recent years no longer served food.
The Alvin’s food menu has the predictable hamburger & fries, accentuated with meatball appetizers, Tuscany chicken sandwiches and for desert, deep fried Twinkies. The menu may be limited, but has something for everyone (vegan, vegetarian, and meat lovers). There is nothing predictable about the great preparation, and care that is given to the food served at Alvin’s. Very reasonably priced, quality food, like their own baked Dearborn Ham sandwiches, “just like Grandma’s”, or the Roast Beef that is cooked and sliced on site. As much, as is possible, the food is prepared from scratch for quality and taste. This is not your “run of the mill” bar food.
Alvin’s has a comfortable capacity of just over 300, creating the right environment for a neighborhood bar feel, to this legacy of music in the Motor City. There is a conscious effort by the Jazz’s to mingle with the crowd, making sure everyone is enjoying their time at Alvin’s.
Alvin’s is one of the exceptionally few clubs in Detroit, with such an intimate setting to observe this level of expertise on stage. “You could be buying a t-shirt in the front lobby area, and still see the performers on stage.” The new smoking ban has proven to be a benefit for Alvin’s patrons. Because of Alvin’s layout with the open front; people can still smoke outside on a good day, and not miss a lick of the band playing.
During the colder months, the fireplace warms guests seated in club chairs, playing backgammon, or on their laptops as they enjoy the live music atmosphere.
It is a difficult time to start a club like Alvin’s. The Jazz’s are committed to keeping ticket prices low to cover the costs for the acts, and their food & beverage prices are reasonable in keeping with the new economy. They do not subscribe to Ticketmaster, which avoids the additional fees for their patrons. Instead, they are using online ticketing through their site, processing payments on PayPal. This makes Alvin’s a greater value for music lovers in the Detroit area, and those visiting the city. Included with that ticket price, you get to see quality acts up close, in a great environment.
Consider the alternative; $80 ticket, $20 to park, $8 a beer and a distant view of the group, that you can only afford once or twice a year.
However, the economy has made it hard to decide on who to play and when, for the artists sake, as well. It is a lot of work, but Stacy is enjoying what she and her husband are doing, and quite a departure from her 25 years in banking. The investment in music, fun and providing a quality place for their patrons is something to be admired. From professionals to construction workers, students to professors from the university, Alvin’s is a place to enjoy a common interest.
Getting the talent to the club, and making it affordable is another challenge for the Jazz’s. The small 10 foot x 10 foot dressing room, with only one entrance to and from the stage, is not exactly the Taj Mahal for musicians. However, the heritage and appeal to perform at Alvin’s has been validated by the likes of Mitch Ryder, Alto Reed, Johnny “Bee” Badanjek, Jim McCarty and others. Performing artists will arrive early, and hang out in the club while the opener is on stage. The ability to interact so closely with their audience is a treat most artists do not get to experience. The patrons benefit from the opportunity to meet and chat with the performers before or after shows, in this “warm setting.” People have brought in their albums, photos, vintage ticket stubs and mementos to be signed by the artists.
The vibe in Detroit is very strong, and today’s Alvin’s is purposefully maintained in the spirit of the original club. Inscriptions on the walls have been neatly preserved where possible, and encouraged. The promotional posters carry on the format of the past, by a new generation of local designers. Alvin’s also hosts non-music artist themed shows (art, glass, and live bands), dedicated to local talent, “Detroit is still a creative city.”
COMMON MISCONCEPTION #3
“Parking sucks.” Between the just opened parking structure next door, and street parking in the area, there are ample opportunities for a full house. It is a downtown club, you park on the block, but that is the natural feel of an urban area. Alvin’s is beginning to grow back to what it once was, it is one of the great places to go for live music and a good time in Detroit.
“We’re here, we are here to entertain and make you feel comfortable”, confirms Stacey Jazz. “Great sound, great food, great drinks, great prices,” from some down to earth people. Alvin’s is a “nice place to hang out”, in a clean, safe and comfortable environment. “Keep watching the schedule (click on image below)”, because the word is getting out in the musician community, and they are coming to Alvin’s for shows.
SEND US YOUR ALVIN’S MEMORIES TO MYTWOCENTS@BEARDEDHAG.COM FOR OUR FEEDBACK PAGE
CLICK ON IMAGE TO CHECK OUT THE ALVIN'S WEBSITE