Venue Spotlights: Lo-Fi Bar

Some venues are more than just bars— they’re launchpads for local musicians. They’re also regarded, varyingly, as a hideaway, a hangout, a haunt, a sanctuary where we reassemble ourselves for whatever the weeks ahead may bring… When Lo-Fi Bar in Ann Arbor opened up at the tail-end of 2018, we deemed it a “neon beacon on a dark winters night.” And that remains an essential component of Lo-Fi’s raison d’etre, assured its owner Micah Bartelme, to continue to be a curator of nuanced nightlife experiences, and to be a luminous showcase for local music that can help bands breakthrough. 

Welcome to a new series where Current is bringing you conversations with the folks who are still tending the beacons of our local live music venues. What has happened since the pandemic’s shelter-at-home restrictions led to the doors of these independent businesses and organizations being shuttered in the name of safety— and what will happen next? Spoiler: no one knows what will happen next. But we’re here today to underline just how important one venue can be, how important all small venues can be, in the sustainability of what we perceive to be “a music scene.” 

“We’re here for the bands who don’t fill 400-capacity rooms yet…

“We’re here for the bands who don’t fill 400-capacity rooms yet… we’re the place where bands can start building their followings and fanbase, and that’s really what’s at risk in the music scene right now,” Bartelme said. “It bodes negatively for all of those artists who rely on (small venues) to get that initial exposure and to take their craft to that next level.” 

Bartelme had been working with local music fixture/bartender Andy Garris through the Nightcap Cocktail Bar throughout the mid-2010s; Nightcap, along with Lo-Fi, is under the umbrella of Bartelme’s BarStar Group. When Bartelme engaged Garris to join him in this new venture— Lo-fi was aiming at providing a genuine resurgence for live local music, a small, but exceptionally-outfitted space right in the middle of downtown, that could be adaptable to host not only music but a variety of cultural events and community functions. 

“It would be rooms like ours that people could cut their teeth in, but also provide the community an outlet to see stuff that they might not otherwise have known was around–that’s what keeps our community going.” 

And Bartelme emphasizes the specificities of differences between small businesses and corporately-backed properties: “I know a lot of family-run businesses and small business owners, myself included, we don’t have that ‘classic boss<->employee structure’, our relationship with our employees is viewed more like they are our family. Some of my employees have been with me for 10+ years— a lot of them were my colleagues before I started my own business and before that, along with that, they’ve always been my friends.”

And that, inevitably, is where we come back to the heartbreaking aspects of this pandemic. Small businesses like Lo-fi went out of their way to support their employees in the first month or so of the shutdown, with a GoFundMe campaign and through coordinating food assistance programs, but the reality is that the hospitality industry took one of the biggest economic hits, and that’s led to unavoidable layoffs. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop fighting for them,” said Bartelme. 

One opportunity for much-needed revenue, said Bartelme, would be for the legislature to allow temporary to-go sales of closed spirits and cocktails from licensed bars. Bartelme said he’d heard back from State Sen. Jeff Irwin (18th District), saying he’d commit to introducing that on the floor. “Hopefully it’s not too little— too late,” said Bartelme. 

What this series will strive to do is to reaffirm the importance of live local music venues. These local spots, like so many other things in our lives, had likely fallen into that category of…, not being taken for granted but taken as a given.

“It’s really, for me, about community. It’s about mixing in with other people and getting to enjoy music and culture that you didn’t know was going on in this town. This is about carving out a space specifically for live performances— and I miss the energy of it. It’s something you can only get from being with people, being in a room with all the ambiance.” 

For this writer, Lo-Fi’s arrival and its opening was particularly exciting— and not simply for the sake of it being a net-positive whenever any city can open more music venues. For starters, of course, there was that signature neon-ambiance, and that dazzling dragon piece created by artist Jeremy Wheeler. It was also great to see Garris, who’d blazed a legendary trail for local music fans back in the mid-2000s at Ypsi venues like the Elbow Room, coming back into the thick of things, so to speak, serving drinks between sets by local indie-musicians. 

But, speaking for myself, the other aspect of excitement sprung from the enthusiasm from, yes, Garris, but also Bartelme, to be a bar that, yes, looked cool, but could also be an inclusive community space where you could celebrate and converse with friends, or just lay low and enjoy some diverse cultural programming. It was a spark— and, just like all venues, we’ve got to make sure it doesn’t get extinguished.

Bartelme says it can be easy to overlook the intrinsic value of these venues as gathering places–because we might have our own preconceptions of “bars” and “night culture” and whatever debauchery those thoughts conjure. But “these are really places where people commiserate, where they exchange ideas, where they share each other’s joys— it’s an incredibly important part of our society. People overlooked that, but I think we’re seeing it, now, without it, and the lack of it. It’s an important outlet for people. There are all these small moments of tenderness and joy between customers and employees. It’s such an important part of our lives and you can see people are really missing it right now.” 

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Jeff covers music for Current, posting weekly show previews and highlighting new bands in the area.

Jeff Milo
Jeff Milo
Jeff covers music for Current, posting weekly show previews and highlighting new bands in the area.

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