New and improved Pig reopens
The club that first attracted faithful patrons to its small basement blues room revamps and expands its upstairs quarters as it makes plans for the '90s
By HARMEN MITCHELL
NEWS SPECIAL WRITER
We opened unofficially last weekend,” said Blind Pig manager Todd Headrick of the club’s newly expanded upstairs music room, “and 99.9 percent of the people who have seen it say they like it.”
Headrick seemed relieved, and with good reason. In with nearly two years since the former EMU student took over the bulk of the club’s managerial responsibilities, he has turned it from a problematic nightclub-restaurant into a successful sports bar (the 8-Ball Saloon) and now, after nearly a month’s remodeling, a spacious rock-and-blues concert room.
Headrick booked two Ann Arbor perennials to perform over the Labor Day weekend: George Bedard and the Kingpins and Steve Nardella’s Rock and Roll Trio. “George and Steve are Ann Arbor history, in terms of music,” he said.
For the official grand reopening, there will be a two-night festival featuring artists from the club’s namesake record label, Blind Pig Records. Headlining tonight will be blues guitar legend Buddy Guy, while Saturday will feature Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Appearing on both nights will be Joanna Conners and her Bluesmasters, Peter “Madcat” Ruth’s Pressure Cooker and Steve Nardella’s Rock and Roll Trio.
There was something inevitable about the process by which the tiny basement blues room that seated 60 and the equally tiny restaurant upstairs came to expand and take over the entire building, said Headrick.
“I knew it was time to change things at the Timbuk III show in April of ’87,” he said. That show — in which a new, critic’s-darling band was booked at an exorbitant guarantee, and then flopped - made Headrick realize that the club could not count on live music to support the music room, and that it would have to develop other audiences that had nothing to do with the upstairs bar and its music.
The 8-Ball Saloon was conceived around the idea that there was a substantial crowd that wanted a sports-oriented atmosphere. It also provided a place in downtown Ann Arbor where patrons could shoot a game ol pool or throw darts.
To say that the 8-Ball has been successful is putting it mildly. In fact, the 8-Ball has been so successful that it has stratified the club’s audience and pointed the way to further changes. With music in the back room and lower prices downstairs, a virtual void was created in the front bar, said Headrick. The exception was on busy concert nights, when it served as a sort of overflow room.
So, construction began. Now, where there were two cramped rooms, there is a spacious club with good sight-lines, and one long bar. The old decor (Chicago speakeasy motif with posters from grade-B gangster epics, clutter, odd sight-lines and a maze of standing rails, booths and stools) turned packed shows by Martha Reeves, the Cowboy Junkies and Mitch Ryder into nightmares for patrons. Now, there is a modern, art deco-inspired decor, and an array of photos and paintings of rock stars, which is more in keeping with the musical background of most of the patrons.
Headrick is vague on the specifics of what sort of acts he plans to spotlight in the new room. “We want to keep a variety of music - I don’t want to stick strictly to the blues - and the only things I don’t do are jazz and folk.” Still, the club’s heritage is blues, and this weekend’s Blind Pig Records’ blow-out will be followed a week from now with a festival of artists from the Detroit-based Blues Factory label; that will feature a half-dozen artists like Chicago Pete and the Detroiters and the Robert Noll Blues Mission on Sept. 16.
With this weekend’s opening, the club makes a commitment to the audiences it has cultivated so successfully in the past. And, if anybody’s mourning the days of blues in the basement and nachos upstairs, they aren’t complaining too loudly. Ann Arbor is a changing town, and the Blind Pig evidently plans to keep up.
The Blind Pig Records Festival will celebrate the Blind Pig's (208 S. First St.) grand reopening tonight and Saturday. Headlining tonight is Buddy Guy; Saturday's headliner is Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown. Joanna Conners and her Bluesmasters, Peter 'Madcat' Ruth's Pressure Cooker and Steve Nardella's Rock and Roll Trio supporting both nights. Advance tickets are $12.50, and are available at any Ticketmaster Outlet. For more information, call 996-8555.
NEWS PHOTO • ROBERT CHASE
The Blind Pig reopens officially this weekend after being closed for a month of remodeling. Patrons who come to the Blind Pig Records Festival tonight and Saturday will find the two upstairs rooms have been transformed into one streamlined concert venue.