A few weeks back, I went to see Chris Jones & The Night Drivers at a small club in Lake Orion, Michigan. The place is called 20 Front Street, and it was quite a drive to get to from my place in Hamtramck. I was actually closer to Flint than I was to Detroit. However, I had a bit of a quest, and I hadn’t seen a good bluegrass show in a while, so off I went on a Saturday night.
Chris Jones is a great flatpicker, and has a low-lonesome sound, one not often heard in bluegrass. The band is a minimal four piece. Included in the lineup is Marshall Wilborn, a legendary bluegrass bassist, and Grace Van’t Hof, a great banjoist who also brings in the baritone ukelele into some of the songs. Along with Mark Stoffel on mandolin, this is what I consider “comfortable bluegrass.” There is nothing too flashy, nothing too mellow, nor nothing too loud and fast.
As for the venue, this was the first time I experienced it. The 20 Front Street is a combination small theater/coffee shop that is run by some volunteer staff. The performance room itself is quite small, with a stage that rally could not fit more than four or five bluegrass musicians, and I do not see any electric band more than a three-piece there. The seating capacity is only about 90, with a semi-circular theater-style. The sound system is perfect for the space, very small and controlled just enough to bring a slight volume to what is on stage. Looking at the venue’s schedule, a large majority of the acts performing are lone singer-songwriter types or folk duos or trios. In short, it reminds me of a miniature version of The Ark in Ann Arbor.
Lake Orion is a small town between Detroit and Flint that one can see it going for the trendy atmosphere. Lots of micro breweries and upscale restaurants, with narrow, clean streets and parking lots that fill up quickly. Those public parking lots are pretty small in size as well as spaces (the Dodge Ram Pickup that I was driving barely fit in the space that I found, and was difficult to maneuver out!).
The two sets performed (plus one encore) were enjoyable, and Chris, being a DJ on Sirius/XM, knows how to talk to a crowd. The place was packed, which when talking to regulars there, happens almost every show. I guess that being that far away from Detroit, some people would rather see a local show than drive out an hour. Fair enough. On the flipside, I would only venture out that far out from Detroit if there was a band or artist that I really wanted to see. It might be considered more now that I have my Chevy Spark compact back.
So I wanted to get Chris to try out the Sevillana 2208 dreadnaught guitar that I received last year from my friend Cherry in China (https://luegra.design.blog/2022/07/16/this-dreadnought-needs-to-come-to-the-u-s/). He jammed on it for about 15 minutes after the show and seemed to enjoy the tone, which made Cherry happy when I sent her the news.
With bluegrass festivals drying up, especially in the Michigan area, touring bluegrass bands may have to find alternate places to play. The 20 Front Street may be a perfect fit for acts similar to The Night Drivers. While A-list acts such as Billy Strings and The Del McCoury Band are too big to be playing such a venue, there are a number of bluegrass bands that would fit in here if they were willing to travel.
Chew on it and comment.