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Detroit Bar revs up Orange County's music scene

Indie, experimental, hip-hop or beat — these sounds and more, from emerging bands to radio stalwarts, take the stage of a happening club in Costa Mesa.

May 27, 2011|By Nate Jackson, Los Angeles Times
  • Rock and roll is the main staple at Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa.
Rock and roll is the main staple at Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa. (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Driving 40 miles south on a jammed freeway to an aging Costa Mesa strip mall was never a nightlife priority for Ricky Alvarez. But inside the balmy crush of a sold-out Aloe Blacc show, howling rapturously and cradling a half-empty Red Stripe, the Saturday night schlep to Detroit Bar was paying off.

"This is the first time I've been here," said Alvarez, 36, of Whittier. Dim Art Deco lighting reveals a retro-feeling room, with tweed wall cushions and a row of analog TVs blazing over the bar. A tight crowd of twentysomethings sport graphic tees, Motown revival wear and patterned minidresses. More familiar with the L.A. bar scene, Alvarez had heard murmurs about the Detroit Bar, now in its 10th year, as a respected Orange County haunt. "Finally, when it came to seeing Aloe Blacc, I had to come check it out," he said.

Bookended between a coin laundry and Famous Subs and Doughnuts, Detroit Bar has grown more important musically over the last decade, moving up from hosting baby bands to legends like the late Elliot Smith and the Wu-Tang Clan. Now it's the premier venue nurturing O.C.'s surging punk, indie, experimental, hip-hop and beat scenes. And it's not just local: Detroit Bar has attracted the attention of SoCal tastemakers like KCRW-FM (89.9) in Santa Monica, which regularly calls attention to the shows there.

"Before, it seemed like Orange County artists would always have to go up to L.A.," said Blacc, a Laguna Niguel native.

After the rowdy show, his neon orange button-up shirt, herringbone vest, tight pants and tilted fedora remain impeccable. Blacc — born Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III — played the Detroit Bar many times since the early 2000s with his hip-hop group, Emanon. In the past, regular club nights like Root Down and Abstract Workshop helped bring an "L.A. mystique to an otherwise suburban, stale place," Blacc said. These days, events like Dubtroit — a monthly dubstep night — cause considerable cross pollination between O.C. and L.A. DJs.

Still, Detroit Bar functions as part of a constellation of relevant local venues, which includes enduring standbys La Cave, Tikki Bar and Avalon Bar. These watering holes, each with its respective scene, tend to become feeder venues for Detroit Bar as buzz-worthy acts move up the food chain. Unlike the extravagant ultra lounge vibe of Sutra — which books plenty of its own national and world-traveling headliners — a packed local gig at Detroit Bar carries the proud imprint of paid dues. Short of playing House of Blues Anaheim or the Grove, it's a declaration that an artist is making serious noise in the local scene.

The idea for Detroit Bar came in 1995, when Dan Bradley opened 1950s-style diner Memphis Cafe in Costa Mesa with partners Diego Velasco and Andy Christianson. Memphis Group — his Costa Mesa-based organization — also owns Tin Lizzie Saloon, Memphis at Santora and an events and catering business. The group started putting on shows at the Memphis Café.

By the late '90s, Memphis' music scene had outgrown the café, fueled by acid jazz, funk and renowned trip-hop monthly Bristol Sessions. In 2001, a former punk rock dive bar called Club Mesa was up for sale. Its larger 3,800-square-foot space was a perfect new vessel. Original booking agent Chris Fahey nabbed English post-rock outfit Stereolab for its first show. Since then, it's been a tour stop for acts from Modest Mouse to KRS-One.

"It was kind of a natural progression from a small restaurant trying to do music that's better suited in this larger club environment," said Bradley, 44.

On the bar's calendar this month are Peter Bjorn and Jon, EMA, Thao and Mirah, and Jessica Lea Mayfield, all moving through on national and international tours.

Longtime Detroit regular Andy Garcia has frequented the bar since the mid-'90s, soaking up suds and house music during the Club Mesa days. In the last few couple years, performances by Talib Kweli and Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan have been some of his fondest Detroit memories.

"Anything new or unexpected going on around [O.C.] tends to show up at Detroit," said Garcia, 36, of Buena Park. "It's always been a very open space when it comes to live music."

It's also a status marker for O.C.-bred bands like Cold War Kids and Local Natives, whose residencies at the bar have come before or just after they go big-time.

"For me it's crazy to see we just had a band here and then next week they're on Carson Daly," said Ken Tustison, a sound engineer at Detroit who's been there almost seven years.

Despite outside attention and 10 years of ups and downs, Detroit Bar helps to triage the time-old cultural brain drain of fans and local artists flocking to L.A. by nurturing a community of thriving local bars and sonically adventurous acts.

"I always thought that if people had more choices, they'd stick around," Bradley said. "And I think that's finally happening."

Detroit Bar

Where: 843 West 19th St., Costa Mesa

When: Shows nightly

Price: Cover charge varies

Info: (949) 642-0600,

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