Don’t come yet, a message on my phone reads at 10:04 p.m. I’m sitting in an Uber outside of the Blind Pig. It’s empty, the next message says.
My friend and I shimmy out of the Uber. We’re supposed to be meeting another friend, whom the messages are from, inside the venue for something called the “Ann Arbor Soul Club.”
“It’s an event we started coming up on nine years ago. There was a University grad student named Robert Wells, and he suggested the idea of doing a night out here,” said Brad Hales, owner of Peoples Records in Detroit and co-founder of the event that occurs on the first Friday of every month. “Basically, it’s like a European style night, where DJs seek out these obscure records that were never played on the radio. They weren’t commercially successful, and they’re really hard to find. (We don’t play) the soul music that Americans grew up on the radio with.”
It’s 10:37 now. We’re eating ice cream. We’re staring at our phones. We’re trying to kill time. We’re deciding when we should go.
“From 9:30, when we begin, until about 11, when people tend to arrive en masse, we can play ballads and earlier ’60s R&B stuff to set the mood and kind of get things started,” Hales said. Seems we’re right on time then.
As we shuffle into the venue at 10:45, with the masses Hales described, I’m aggressively reminded of my underaged-ness when they mark me those fateful Ms (for minor!). But I continue on, unaffected. The Bling Pig, if you haven’t been, is intimate; the space holds only a bar, a couple circle tables, a dance floor and a small stage. On that stage, the DJs are busy spinning, only a few beers and a collection of 45s with them.
“(We have guest DJs) nearly every other month or third month. Soul music DJs and fans from around the globe often travel here, and the night can be a fun stop for them. We’ve had friends visit and spin from mostly the UK, but also Germany and Switzerland, as well as many from all over the States,” Hales said.
Tonight, it’s Nick Soule from the Windy City Soul Club in Chicago, playing with resident DJ Breck T. Bunce. Hales usually DJs, too, but couldn’t because of a persistent illness. Around the bar stand a few 40-somethings, but the dance floor is almost exclusively full of college-aged students.
“When we started, the night definitely got more townies and people that I had known from living there in the mid-’90s. Now none of them show up. It’s all younger students,” Hales said. “You can tell they’re there for the first time if they’re saying, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you take requests, but are you going to play Al Green?’ ”
These students seem to know exactly what they’re doing, though, swinging and jiving and grooving (and any other dated dance term I can use here) to the song playing. But, I have no idea how to dance to soul music. Our generation has been trained to just, like, bump and grind on things. Introduce rhythm into the equation and it gets tricky. So my friends and I stand off to the side at first, observing that, contrary to Hales’ observation, there are in fact some “townies” sprinkled among the students: the group of lumberjack-looking men drinking IPAs, the old woman wearing sunglasses inside, the singular 70 year old drinking whiskey.
When we finally make our way onto the dance floor, the moves begin to ooze out of us. Limbs brush against one another, hairs fall out of place, sweat drips from foreheads. But we don’t care because the music is fun. Not until I hear “Get Ready” by The Temptations, recognizable only because Fergie has sampled it, do I realize this music is also incredibly significant: It helped create most of today’s sounds.
“I grew up hearing rap music and wondering what it was made from, those little samples they got, where those original sounds were from. Growing up hearing that kind of thing led me down a path to older music,” Hales said.
And he didn’t have to look much further than the greater Metro Detroit area, birthplace of Berry Gordy’s Motown Records. Arguably the most significant movement in soul music, Detroit soul introduced the world to the infectious tunes of The Supremes, the melodic styling of The Temptations, the sensual vocals of Marvin Gaye and the all-around revolutionary music-making of Stevie Wonder. When Motown Records moved to Los Angeles in 1973, Detroit’s soul seemed to leave with it. The Ann Arbor Soul Club just wants to help us find it again.
“Our state served as a cultural organ donor for the rest of the world,” Hales said. “People here threw it away, and people elsewhere embraced it and kind of saved it from the trash bin of time. So I think it’s extremely important that we do represent our area and give that kind of night a presence. You should hear it here. It’s from here. People should definitely learn about it.”
We leave the Bling Pig at 12:30 a.m., sweating and smiling, aware that something great just happened though not sure quite what. Students continue filing into the venue, bringing with them both the soul and spirit that both the music and the city need for revival.
Check out Peoples Records’ website for more soul sounds: http://peoplesdetroit.com/. Hales also suggests you watch the movie “Northern Soul,” now available on Netflix, to give the Ann Arbor Soul Club some context.