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Detroit Stays Grimy So You Don't Have To: A Guide to the Best Punk Shows in Rock City

Detroit's industrial playground continues to be a breeding ground for rock and punk weirdos. Also, the guitarist from Limp Bizkit lives here.

by Joe Wojtowicz
Nov 2 2015, 10:40pm

Detroit post-punks Protomartyr are only one of the many killer bands from this historically musical city.

The first and foremost­­ thing you need to know about the state of punk music in Detroit is that the guitarist of Limp Bizkit bought a house a block away. Hit me up, OK? We'll be over on Glynn Court with a case of high life.

But Detroit is called “rock city” for a reason besides Limp Bizkit (shocking, I know). This industrial playground has always been a breeding ground for rock and punk weirdos. Underground clubs like The Freezer and Clutch Cargo’s (not the second incarnation in Pontiac!) harvested the DIY and punk scene in the 80s with hardcore bands like Negative Approach and The Necros. Even on the techno and electronic front, the scene in Detroit has been alive and well since Wolf Eyes in the late 90s.

Negative Approach play Detroit, 1981

You’ve heard it by now—Detroit is the cool new place for musicians and artists to live cheap and create. Cool, we've all read that article. But what's actually up in the music scene here? Where do you go to see the best bands? You're gonna need a guide because without some help from a local, every building looks abandoned.

Barrelling through the streets in and out of dive bars and tiny venues, you'll see plenty of ace bands, both local and touring. Detroit is a pit-stop for lots of Midwest bands who tour the North, especially for reunited punk bands like The Queers and the Weirdos who can remember the heyday. Detroit is still as grimy and cool as it was back in the day and that timelessness keeps the punk spirit alive.

It's a tiny scene in a big city. Geographically, Detroit is enormous. There’s virtually no public transportation, so cruising in an automobile is pretty necessary to get around (we do have a lot of bike lanes now and there are pretty much no hills so you can get around on two wheels pretty easily too!). Detroit is most certainly the spot for the grime in music as compared to other big cities in Michigan, like Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, which used to have " target="_blank">gnarly basements shows, but that scene's cooled down a bit. People are opting for run-down venues these days in Detroit.

Let’s start with one band everybody knows: Protomartyr. The buzziest Motor City band by far is eternally on tour, and it’s well established they’re the best band in Detroit, if not the whole fuggin US of A, but every now and then you can catch Joe Casey’s challenging and hilarious pub quiz at Lager House. Kevin Boyer snuck away to Philly, so unfortunately Protomartyr sister act and Detroit underground legends Tyvek aren't around much anymore: RIP.

Protomartyr at Jumbo's Detroit 2013

In Corktown—a booming neighborhood just west of downtown—nestled between the Tigers fans (go Tigers) and 30 bucks a plate restaurants, you'll find a couple of bars that know the importance of cheap beer and a punk band. UFO Factory and PJ's Lager House are within blocks of each other and host gigs galore. UFO opened in the fall of 2014 and has been a hot spot for the underground scene (and bigger names­­ like Jonathan Richman played there earlier in the year). PJ’s Lager House is one of the premiere rock stages for years. PJ, who bought the venue in ‘07, hosts an eclectic cast of performers. Plenty of big ol' names have been on the stage here (think Thee Oh Sees, Nobunny), and between two places, I’ve seen more heavy hitters of the almighty current Aussie scene than I can count on my fingers and toes. No buzzy band is gonna pass up a show in a place with as much music cache as Detroit, and PJ Lagers' is where you're most likely to catch 'em.

Nobunny playing a show at PJ Lagers'

Look. The bars get seedier and music becomes more damaged as you run into the same barflies and people of impeccable taste. Pop into Donovan's behind Matty Moroun's jerk-off hub Grand Central on a Thursday to check insanely grimy DJ nights from some of the city's harshest noise makers. Up in Hamtramck, people cram into little bars with no windows like Kelly's and The Painted Lady to hear loud sounds, drink cans of Stroth's and eat tacos. Classic Detroit, amirite?

Photo by Painted Lady Lounge on Facebook

I digress; there's a whole lot of bands who are heavy on the gig but haven't released records yet. But that's one thing that makes Detroit feel so important right now. Up-and-coming pop-punks Human Skull bring garage kids out to shows, while on the other side of the equation is someone like the angular-sounding, post­punk-y gals Double Winter. Think PRC, filthy Brainbombs/Drunks With Guns bleak vibes.

Photo of Double Winter by PLAYGROUND DETROIT

There’s also Bonny Doon, whose performance regularly makes me feel like I’m watching Silver Jews on stage when I see them and it rules.

Bonny Doon

You should also check out Mountains and Rainbows, Matt Z.'s (he's drummed for Tyvek) jammer's paradise. Their Dad Rock cassette is a feel good mind bender, relaxer on the beach, like petting the cutest dog.

Deadbeat rocking Lager's. Photo via Deadbeat Beat's Facebook

Veterans of the Detroit music biosphere Deadbeat Beat continue to brave the stages of our fair city. Almost twee, almost punk, always spot on. Tunes for best friends and ex-­lovers.

Another great act in the city is Siobhan, ­­the fever dream fringe of techno project from local freak Travis Galloway. When he's not delivering sandwiches or crushing tallboys of Bud, Siobhan is twisting knobs, creating the soundtrack of one of America's bleakest cities. Like being dragged across the cobblestone and craters of Michigan Avenue (the road that literally ate my last car), drinking cough syrup and grinding at City Club.

Yo, don't forget K9 Sniffies! These local freaks have been playing around town for years and are pretty punk rock, if that means blacking out and peeing on people. (It does.) You're not gonna leave Detroit without someone talking about that one time at a Sniffies show.

K9 Sniffies video shoot. Photo by Read Lovette

So if you’re a music maniac passing through the mitten state, don’t be scared. Come to this crazy city and go wild at some DIY punk rock gigs. Or don’t. We don’t really care. ‘Cuz we got the guitarist from Limp Bizkit.