East Lansing has a music scene?
Despite a change in the music scene, some current acts thrive in the city
Members of Lansing based band Joe Hertler and the Rainbow seekers perform for listeners of MSU student radio station The Impact February 11, 2011. Hertler and his band continue to play shows across the Midwest. Matt Hallowell/The State News
Tabbert Wakley recognizes East Lansing’s music scene is struggling.
With a lack of venues for musicians to perform at and a decreasing interest in live music, the city’s once-vibrant musical culture simply isn’t what it once was.
But Wakley, who currently is studying music management at Lansing Community College, said he is hopeful he can help revive it.
“I have a passion for building the music scene and trying to bring it back,” he said. “It’s not something that any one person can do or something that can be easily obtained, but as a community of musicians and people that are appreciative of music, it can be done.”
Wakley recently created his own production company, Tab Wakley Music Productions, in order to help put local bands back on stage and get East Lansing residents as excited about hearing live music as they once were.
East Lansing musician Jerry Sprague performs on the bar of Harper's Restaurant and Brewpub Wednesday night. Sprague has been playing college towns across Michigan for the better part of three decades. With turning sixty only three years off, Sprague wonders how much longer he will be able to play college towns, but will never stop if it is up to him "Why would you quit? You know? It's the dream job" Sprague said. Matt Hallowell/The State News
Lansing resident Mike Razz plays a beat during The Kathy Ford Band's set at Lou and Harry's Sports Bar and Grill on Wednesday evening, June 20, 2012. Razz has been drumming for the band for 25 years. Natalie Kolb/The State News
“There’s not a lot of options for an original artist even to just get their name out — it’s a difficult thing,” Wakley said. “The bottom line is the bars can’t pay the bands unless more people are coming in, and people seem to be disinterested in the music, and I think that’s what’s killing it.”
Staging a success
One project Wakley currently is working on is a weekly karaoke-style event at Lou and Harry’s Grill and Bar, 16800 Chandler Road, in which members of the Kathy Ford Band, a local act that performs mostly cover songs, invites aspiring musicians and audience members to join them up on stage and sing a song or play an instrument.
“It’s a really cool opportunity for amateur musicians to play music with some really professional musicians,” Wakley said. “It’s a really cool four or five minutes of fame for the amateur musicians.”
Kathy Ford Band leader and Okemos, Mich., resident Kathy Ford, who has been playing music in East Lansing with her group for almost three decades, said she has grown familiar with the local scene and has noticed it undergo changes throughout the years.
“We’ve been around here for so many years, (and) we’ve played almost every club in this town,” she said. “There used to be a lot more venues for live bands, and there were more nights a week (available for them to perform). I think it’s kind of a dying art really. You’re hard pressed to find live entertainment anymore in Lansing.”
But like Wakley, Ford is confident she can play a role in the scene’s revitalization.
By allowing other people to participate in her performances, Ford said she hopes to recreate the enthusiasm about live music in the community that she used to experience.
“It’s like a drug,” she said. “They really like (performing) with a live band. I think it will get people more excited.”
Switching the scenery
For some local up-and-coming bands, success can be found just a few miles down the road.
Although Seth Rentfrow, the lead singer of Lansing-based pop-punk group Way To Fall, loves East Lansing, he doesn’t perform there often.
Instead, he and his bandmates head to Lansing to play at two of the city’s most prominent music venues — The Loft, 414 E. Michigan Ave., and Mac’s Bar, 2700 E. Michigan Ave.
“East Lansing is one of my favorite places on Earth, and we do 98 percent of our promoting there, but there really were never any venues that we fit into,” he said.
Jerome White, a managing partner at The Loft, said he believes it is important to feature live bands at his venue. On average, White said The Loft brings in about 600 local bands a year in addition to the nationally touring groups it attracts.
White’s dedication to showcasing local acts provides bands in the area who can’t find a place to play in East Lansing an alternative venue nearby at which they can perform.
“Local bands are the backbone of our scene,” he said. “The more involved the local bands feel, the more they like the venue. Not only are our local bands are best advertisers, but for the most part they are our best customers too.”
Although the number of performance spaces is dwindling, and an increasing number of musicians are flocking to nearby cities to perform, not all venues in East Lansing have strayed away from hosting live music.
Tim Lane, director of (SCENE) Metrospace, 110 Charles St., said he prides himself on maintaining one of the few remaining venues in the city in which artists can perform their music live.
“We’re certainly proud of being a venue that local musicians can turn to and attempt to realize some of their creative pursuits,” he said.
Jerry Sprague, an East Lansing resident and local musician, also refuses to lose hope for the success of live music in the area.
Despite the fact Sprague has witnessed many changes in the musical culture of East Lansing during his almost three decades of performing at bars and restaurants, he still continues to do what he loves.
“Most of my career has been playing to college students,” he said. “I used to play a lot more places, but a lot of places don’t have live music anymore.”
Sprague said he typically sticks to cover songs when he performs at bars such as Harper’s Restaurant & Brewpub, 131 Albert Ave., because students enjoy hearing music with which they are familiar.
But looking to the future, Sprague said he plans to play more of his own music, and he is confident his audiences will respond well.
“I am in the process of going more the other way of trying to play my own music as opposed to playing cover songs,” he said. “My calendar hopefully will be filled more with original music venues.”