Detroit means many things to many people. To some, the city will always be synonymous with Motown, or perhaps the Grande Ballroom rock scene that spawned the MC5, Stooges, Nugent, etc. To others, it’s all about the urban hip-hop and techno scenes.
More recently, rockers have been able to revel in the contemporary garage rock that exploded out of the city in the late ’90s/early ’00s (White Stripes, Dirtbombs, Von Bondies). In 2014, the Detroit music scene is vibrant and certainly more eclectic that it’s ever been, with all of those styles smashing together into one, genre-defying scene that’s blowing minds wide open. Bills featuring rappers alongside indie rockers, punks and alt-country dudes are not unusual in Detroit – in fact, they’re encouraged. The economic instability that the city faces on a day-to-day basis gets a lot of press, but great music continues to spill out of Detroit and, for a music journalist, there’s no better place to live.
Blowout, now in its 17th year, is the largest local music festival in the world. 300 bands across three cities (Detroit, plus the neighbouring Hamtramck and Ferndale) in four days – few bands play the festival year-after-year, highlighting the incredible volume of talent that the region has to offer. A ton of bars and venues get together to host the festival – it’s like Detroit’s own SXSW. Headliners this year include Death (the first black punk band, not the death metal group), the Electric Six and the Detroit Cobras, though it’s the smaller bands on the bill that should get the most attention. The likes of Eminem and the White Stripes have performed at Blowouts past at the start of their careers, usually opening up a bill at a little bar somewhere off the beaten path.
There were plenty of highlights this year, incredible sets by both complete newcomers and Detroit vets. Ponyshow is Jason Stollsteimer’s new band, alongside fellow former Von Bondies Don Blum and Leann Banks (pictured, above). True to form, there are big tunes and deliciously awkward musical sidesteps. Nice Hooves includes Dave Graw in the ranks, formerly the frontman with local hardcore troupe Bang! Bang!, and the music is typically ferocious, with a strong rock ’n’ roll vibe.
Garage rock vets the Detroit Cobras and The Hentchmen played strong, raucous sets to enthusiastic crowds, and Death (recently the subject of the excellent A Band Called Death documentary movie), rolled back the years with some rough ’n’ tough pre-punk. An the Saturday night, the Electric Six played just about every song you’d want them to play, despite the fact that Dick Valentine looked hammered.
Easy Action features hardcore icon John Brannon (also of Negative Approach) on vocals, and that band blew any casual festival-goers into submission. More rock’n’roll than NA, and certainly more melodic, Easy Action lives in the shadow of the singer’s “big brother” band despite arguably having the better tunes. Of the smaller bands, the news kids on the scene, Siamese have a sort of Muse-meets-Sisters of Mercy thing going on, while FAWN would be bigger than the Arcade Fire in a just world – all of the epic choruses and meaningful lyrics without the pretension.
The Blowout Festival is kind of like an appetiser sampler plate at TGI Friday’s for local music fans in Detroit – you get to check out bits of lots of great bands, and decide who you want to see more of through the year. The fact that this writer was out for four nights straight and didn’t see any bad performances speaks volumes.