My favorite Detroit dive bar: The Old Miami

The building at 3930 Cass Avenue in Detroit doesn’t look like much. A short, squat brick square with a green awning proclaiming it as “The Old Miami,” the space has actually had several different names throughout the years.

In the 40’s and 50’s it was called The Miami Lounge and was an after-work hang for car salesmen in the area. The 60’s saw it transition into Ken’s Lounge, a sleazy joint popular with prostitutes and pimps and the site of several shootings. It then did a brief stint as the New Miami, but a fire quickly ended that life.

In 1979, the building was purchased by a local Vietnam Vet, who created The Old Miami (Miami is both a nod to its former name and an acronym for Missing in Action Michigan) as a haven for all war veterans. Over time, as more young people and struggling artists have moved into the neighborhood, The Old Miami has stayed true to its roots as a veterans bar. Only now, the vets rubs elbows with the new crowd.

On any given day, you’ll likely find the older generation camped out at the bar, while the city’s younger residents sprawl across the beautiful backyard (complete with porch swing and fish pond) hidden behind the building. On summer nights, it’s the perfect place to catch one of the bar’s many live music shows.

The Old Miami gets my vote for best dive bar in Detroit because there’s no pretense here. It’s as much a space for veterans as is it for those fighting a different kind of battle, working to make Detroit a better city. It’s a true community bar, the kind of place where everyone knows your name, even if they’re likely to forget it by the next time they see you. Plus….all the drinks are served in plastic cups, and you just can’t get more dive-y than that.

Budget Travel: Minneapolis, Minnesota

Minneapolis. What comes to mind? Prince’s purple jumpsuit, Francis McDormand’s accent in the movie Fargo, the Mall of America and six months of winter.

Perhaps the larger of the Twin Cities (Saint Paul being the smaller) is not on the tourist map, but it often gets props for being a nice place to live. (Forbes called it most affordable city to live well. The Minneapolis suburb of Plymouth was rated the best place to live by CNNMoney).

So it’s a fine place to live. But why visit?

First, there is the food…then the live music, the art, the coffee shops, and, of course, the fact that Minneapolis is second only the New York in number of theater seats per capita.

Bring your coat (and if your ears are delicate, a hat as well) during the winter, but don’t expect ice fishing weather from April to October. That is when the city’s lakes, trails, and outdoor events make it a budget traveler’s dream destination.

Get In
It will soon be cheaper to fly to Minneapolis. Southwest will be launching flights to and from Chicago Midway in March. From Chicago, you can get a connection to any city in the US that Southwest flies. That will drive down airfares to MSP, once a stronghold of Northwest. Names like Megabus, Greyhound and Amtrak are also players in the transit game. Minneapolis sits in the cross-hair made by Interstates 35 and 94. It is reachable by car in a day from virtually anywhere in the Midwest.

Getting Around
The bus and train system is better than average for a mid-sized city, but still far from perfect. This is a driving city, especially if you want to take advantage of outdoor activities. Summer is bicycling weather and most of the urban destinations are within pedaling distance of one another. Buses and the new light rail system both allow bikers to bring their wheels on board.

What to do
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is free every day and often holds special events and exhibits. The nationally famous Walker Art Museum has free admission on the evening of the first Thursday of every month (with plenty of events and activities on offer). The adjacent sculpture garden is open year round, but is mainly a summertime attraction. The Como Zoo (actually in Saint Paul) does not charge for entry and is known for its polar bears and penguin exhibit. It is also free to peruse the art galleries in the growing hipster hot-spot of Northeast Minneapolis (Nordeast).

Theater prices can vary greatly. The Orpheum and Guthrie put on world-class stage productions, but tickets are highly priced unless you luck out in the rush line. There are plenty of other professional theaters and live music venues. These vary in size from a few thousand to a few seats. City Pages (print version is free at pretty much every restaurant, coffee shop and bar in the city) has a complete list of weekly events plus a collection of liberal editorial rants and naughty adverts in back. There is no better source for what happening and what’s cheap each week.

What to do (summer)
An evening stroll around Lake Harriet or Lake Calhoun, capped by a stop at one of the neighborhood bars or cafés in the area, is a pleasant (and cheap) way to spend a few hours. If you are on the prowl, such a trek can easily be seen as a chance to check out some attractive joggers. If that’s too low-brow, there’s the Shakespeare in the Park series during the summer and $2 movies at the historic Riverview Theater near the Mississippi River Road.

Where to Eat
Ethnic eateries line University Ave in St. Paul (from the State Capital to Snelling). These offer a filling, good meal for under 10 dollars. There is a similar strip in Minneapolis on Nicollet Ave. Sandwich shops, bistros, and cafes offer cheap fare throughout South Minneapolis and near the University of Minnesota.

Where to Drink
Nordeast is one of those hip artsy neighborhoods. Though its desirability is growing, there are still plenty of spots catering to the “I’m hip and creative but rather poor” crowd. Lots of these have live music or events on the weekend evenings (and good people watching every night of the week). If you are looking for some fun of the beer-in-a-pitcher variety, virtually any venue on or near the U of M campus will do.

Minneapolis offers a genuinely laid back trip. Cold weather or warm, there is plenty going on. And no, not everyone talks like Francis McDormand in Fargo.

More Budget Destinations on Gadling

Band on the Run: Rockin’ Out in Buffalo’s Allentown

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life.

We drove over the border yesterday to a sunny early evening in Allentown, a Buffalo neighbourhood that was the location of our gig last night – a bar called “Nietzsche’s.”

is cool. It’s got the vibe of a community of artists, preservationists, historians, antique-lovers, and good chefs. The latter was easy to peg via the smells of incredible cooking coming from several local restaurants and taunting our hungry selves when we really needed to be unloading equipment and setting up for sound check.

This district of Buffalo is one that we’ve been in many times. I always feel comfortable here. It’s an area of the city that borders the downtown and seems to embrace diversity. There are rainbow flags and biker bars, gourmet restaurants and late-night snack stands, funky modern galleries flanked by dusty bookstores.

One of the bookstores also sold music and had displays of their used cds and cassettes in old-fashioned kids’ wagons out on the sidewalk. Love it!


Historically, I learned last night that Allentown was named after the original settler to this land, Louis Allen, who bought the land in 1822 (around 29 acres) and used it to farm cattle. It is said that this very street, Allen Street, was his original cow path for transferring his herds from one edge of his property to the other. In 1832, he sold his land to the encroaching city and it was developed into both residential and commercial structures. Now, the Allentown region stretches 36 blocks or a half a mile squared.

After the gear was hauled in (thanks to some friends and Kenny, the resident and helpful sound guy), I stood on the street and just looked left and right to take it all in. I imagined a bunch of cows in place of the pedestrians and cars. I wondered how they’d react now to the pavement, the bright colours, the sounds of a nightlife hub starting to come alive in the early evening. Maybe they’d just graze the leaves of low-hanging trees and ignore us all. Maybe they’d leave their paddies expertly deposited on the sidewalks in disgust and wander away to greener parklands.

I wandered a block or so to truly appreciate the paint job on the local bar called “Boddington’s.” (At least, I think this is the name of it, although I know that’s also the name for a beer. Does anyone know?) It’s painted purple and decked out in rising flames as though it were a motorcycle or hot rod. They’re beautifully painted – must have taken forever! – and the neon beer signs in the windows were like the feather in the artist’s cap.

When I came back in a few minutes later, the gear was already half set up and I had to hustle to catch up to everyone. I unpacked my guitars and pedals plugging everything in while simultaneously chatting with Kenny about his last six months or so since we’ve been there last. He asked me about China and I asked him about some good artists he’d mixed lately.

It’s always nice to come to a place and actually know the people there. I always feel welcomed at Nietzsche’s.

This venue is definitely a rock room. The old wooden stage and banisters have the faint stench of stale beer and cigarettes (although it’s now non-smoking in there.) Maybe its name has inspired proliferation, but the bathrooms are home to so much graffiti that it takes a long time to pee, I find. I can’t help but read peoples’ philosophical outpourings. (It’s all well-placed, I’d say!) There are also great installations of paper mache artwork hanging in the room from the ceiling and a wonderful busted and slightly crooked ceiling fan that hangs right in front of the stage. I always laugh inwardly at the notion that at least there will be one fan, crooked or not, that will be in front of the stage when we play.

Kenny also has a collection of small tinker toys and dinky cars that are permanently stationed at his soundboard. I asked him if he ever finds some have disappeared after the shows he has in there. They’re fairly visible and my pessimistic self figured there’d be some drunken theft here and there. He said, “Yeah, of course. But, they all just appeared anyway so it doesn’t really make a difference.” I smiled at that idea. I liked the image of these little toys just coming and going as they were meant to, not permanently attached to his sound board or to the decorative role they are temporarily playing. Sort of like a toy liberation movement. People as pawns.

After the show, we hung out for a while in the parking lot with friends before pulling away from Allen Street and staying just a few blocks away, still in Allentown. We rarely stay over in Buffalo since it’s often just a one-off show that enables us to return to friend’s places in Toronto after we play, but the tour rolls on today into more U.S. cities.

I woke up this morning having dreamed about cows and toys taking over the city when the people have all disappeared. Buildings crumbled, trees growing out from broken windows and grass taking back the asphalt.

I guess we’ll never know.

Until that day, Allentown‘s worth a visit. In fact, a spontaneous night out to Nietzsche’s will probably introduce you to a great band you’ve never heard of. They have music every night and sometimes even a late and an early show.

When was the last time you did that?
Ignore the listings. Just take a stab.

Order a drink.

See what happens.

Band on the Run: Normal in Normal, Illinois

The musical traveller, Troubadour. Road Rat. Whatever you want to call it, this blog will hold the stories that take place when travelling musicians are not on stage. What happens between the shows? What happens behind the scenes?
Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

Normal, Illinois is blessed with a conversational name. I’m sure that every resident has heard this question more than once: “why is this town called ‘Normal’?” I, of course, had to ask also, but I consistently asked people who were also visitors like me. I got several shrugged shoulders, some snickers at the irony and one set of rolled eyes before I got any kind of real answer.

You see, we were in Normal, Illinois for the National Women’s Music Festival. This festival has been going strong for over thirty years and traditionally is a gathering place for women who are not considered “normal” by the status quo: strong women, independent women, bisexual women, lesbians, etc. I’m talking messing with gender roles here.

You get my point. Of all places to bring a women’s festival, I think this is the town. How to normalize non-traditional choices, identities, behaviour? Bring the gathering to a town called Normal and think nothing of it.

Just act normal.The town of Normal is relatively small with only about 50,000 inhabitants. It is called “Normal” because this was the site of a major teacher’s college, or “normal school” as such a school was called a hundred and fifty years ago. The original teacher-training school that became the town’s namesake was Illinois State Normal University, which later evolved into the general four-year university it is now and dropped the “Normal” from its name: Illinois State University. (source)

We arrived by plane into the little airport in Bloomington, Indiana (Normal and Bloomington are like “twin cities”) and, like many travel experiences via United Airlines or American Airlines (this was the latter), I received only one of my two checked bags. Thankfully, the one I received was my guitar and so I still had the means to do my job. . .

just no clean underwear or toothbrush.

Exhausted and needing a nap before the gig, I piled into the van that picked us up and lay horizontal on the bench seat as we drove the full fifteen minutes across the state line into normalcy. When I finally sat up, the van was parked outside of a university dorm where all of the attendees and the performers were being accommodated. Here we were at the famous Illinois State University and most of the students were gone for the summer.

(For those of you who have followed my writing, I just spent three months in Beijing living in a dorm room at a university there. Now that I’m back on the road with my band, I was prepared [excited?] for a hotel situation. Funny how the minute you imagine going up in the world, the world reminds you of what level you’re meant to be at.)

I hauled myself and my guitar up to the 7th floor via the clunking elevator that smelled suspiciously like sweaty gym socks, along with Lyndell Montgomery, my fellow band member who had just travelled in with me. Lyndell was still gratefully chatting with the festival rep who picked us up and who was escorting us to our dorm room. In fact, Lyndell had been carrying on a cheery conversation with her during the whole drive back. I had become monosyllabic due to lack of sleep and she was filling in the social gap extremely well. I made a mental note to thank her for that once I woke up.

We lumbered down the dark hall of the seventh floor and we were greeted by sweet notes taped to the door from our drummer (Cheryl Reid) and our two beautiful crew members (Desdemona Burgin and Julie Turner, photographer and stagehand, respectively) who had already arrived the day before. A friend greeted us in the hallway with hugs and love (and two shiny apples to snack on!) and she offered to help me find whatever I was missing from my undelivered luggage. I smiled my gratitude weakly but sincerely and everyone ushered me and my weary eyes towards the bed inside my dorm room. I must have looked terrible because there were several concerned faces bent on getting me to sleep!

When I woke three hours later, there was a toothbrush, clean underwear (brand new from the DITC vendor in the craft area) and a new t-shirt (from the same vendor) waiting for me to put on before we had to file down towards dinner and our performance. Not only did they want me to sleep, but they wanted me to smell better too! Can’t blame ’em!

I was so touched. Thank you.

The concert went well. We had two excellent guests join us on stage: Trina Hamlin on harmonica (she’s AMAZING) and Zoe Lewis (who does a killer fake trumpet sound). Both musicians expertly filled in some melodic holes for us in two of our songs. Both were a joy to share the stage with.

After the concert, we returned to the dorm and a huge pile of the festival performers all had a serious game of ping pong together. In fact, this was a full-out tournament that included six simultaneous balls in the air, four players on each side (two front players with paddles and two back “court” players to catch the stray balls using rolled up cardboard or other paddle replacements). There were mountains of screams cascading with laughter.

Scenic despite the scenery.

The concrete walls and fluorescent lighting of the basement recreation room in this dorm building had never seen such sunshine. We were recreating the space with every flying ping pong ball and yelp of fun.

Here we were on the grounds of the school that started the town – the original “normal” school. I love that this location (not just the town!) was the site of this year’s National Women’s Music festival. A place of learning and teaching hosting an event that offers the same: workshops and performances by women who have strong voices, who reach outside of traditional roles and prescribed behaviour and seek new ways to express, to be, to live.

The National Women’s Music Festival is a great experience, for all. Men can attend the musical performances as well; it is not an exclusive event. That’s what makes it revolutionary, I feel. This is what separates it from other women’s festivals and elevates it, for me, regardless of having to sleep on a campus for one more night this summer.

I eventually did get my luggage, just before pulling out of town the following day with our whole crew piled into my drummer’s van. We drove the full ten hours back to Canada sharing lively stories from the past three months of everyone’s separate adventures. It was great to be reunited again.

Back on the road.

Celebrating women’s music and women’s issues by simply being us — being normal.

In Normal, Illinois.

(Group shot above from left to right, back row: Martin Locke, Tret Fure / second row: Jane Weldon, Lyndell Montgomery, Me, Desdemona Burgin, Trina Hamlin, Julie Turner, Cheryl Red / laying on top: Jamie Anderson.)

Band on the Run: “Our Way Home” to Beautiful British Columbia

The musical traveller, Troubadour. Road Rat. Whatever you want to call it, this blog will hold the stories that take place when travelling musicians are not on stage. What happens between the shows? What happens behind the scenes?
Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

Interior British Columbia is stunning.

I didn’t need to go there to remember that, but of course beauty strikes us when we see it and we’re forced into memory with every glance. And, I’m not complaining. Each glance brings a quick breath in and a gracious smile.

We used to tour across Canada every summer which gave us the chance to be in British Columbia in July or August annually. In the past few years, however, we have done fewer cross-Canada road trips and have opted to fly to destinations more regularly. If nothing else, it’s better for the lifeline of the vans that we drive! And also, I think yearly cross-Canada touring for six years consecutively is deserving of a medal.

And a break.

So, when we arrived in Castlegar, BC in July in the middle of the afternoon and stepped out of the little airplane to the lush green, low mountains, churning river, waterfalls… well, I was reminded of British Columbia’s beauty and grateful to see it again.

We were in Castlegar for a total of eight short hours. It was too brief, but full to the brim with amazing inspiration before we had to roll out of there in a rental car bound for Vancouver in order to make our morning flight. In those eight hours, I met amazing people and took part in a brilliant event called “The 2nd Annual Our Way Home Peace Event & Reunion.”

This region of British Columbia is where the Doukhbor communities are. This is a Russian Christian sect who left Russia en masse in 1899. A huge portion of this group settled in the Castlegar (and surrounding regions) shortly thereafter. They chose Canada “for its isolation, peacefulness and the fact that the Canadian government welcomed them” (according to Wikipedia). Today, it is estimated that 30,000 Doukhobors live in Canada while another 30,000 live in Russia. The largest and most active Doukhobor organization, however, is here in Canada.

Every place has such unique stories.

I had heard about this religious group, but never met anyone who was Doukhobor. The man we met almost immediately and whose house we were to use as a resting pad (i.e. nap stop) spoke to us in English with a very evident Russian accent although he has lived in Canada his whole life. He grew up in the Doukhobor community, though, which was more isolated than many communities and now lives in a private home just a few kilometres from the event. He is currently grey-haired and his face is lined with stories and laughter.

He sat in the front seat of our vehicle to direct us to his home. He chatted easily, telling us about the region and its history. Later, he also sang in the Doukhobor Men’s Choir who started the evening entertainment. Apparently, prayer meetings for this group were dominated by the singing of a cappella psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. So, singing is very traditional to the Doukhobors. Their performance filled the hall with harmony in both Russian and English. I closed my eyes and just listened.

A perfect start to a perfect evening.

And speaking of the hall: it is called the Brilliant Cultural Centre. The event was brilliant and so, too, was the space. Simple and large, and filled with open smiles on the faces of all those in attendance.

After hearing the choir and before hearing some of the speakers, I took a walk outside and I was greeted by the Arlington Northwest Memorial, a dramatic representation of the costs of war consisting of grave markers representing the more than 3,000 U.S. service men and women killed in the Iraq war. This display is sponsored by the Veterans for Peace Northwest chapter (Washington state) and is amazing to take in with your eyes or your lens. There was also a section for Canadian deaths, which was striking. I walked around the whole site, reading the names of the markers I could see, feeling acutely aware of death despite its not being a real cemetery.


I felt solemn when I came back into the hall. I quietly found a spot and sat down to take in the words of Arun Gandhi, MK Ghandi’s grandson. The audience gave him a standing ovation when he took to the podium and he gestured for us to sit with a soft smile. He was gentle (as I imagined his grandfather must have been,) but he stood there solidly and delivered a short but simple speech about non-violence and forgiveness. I sat back and took it all in the way one absorbs a slow sunset from a country porch on a late summer’s evening.

The artists and speakers were all incredibly diverse and articulate. One of my heroes, Holly Near, was in attendance and we greeted each other with a big, warm hug and welcoming eyes. She has cut off her signature hair since I saw her last and looks as radiant as ever – perhaps even more so. She was there with Pat Humphries and Sandy Opatow, who sang beautiful back-up harmonies with her during a brief snippet (read: tease) of her performance, which was to be held the next day. I am glad I saw what I saw, though, as she always inspires me and of course I wasn’t going to be there the following day to smile at her from the audience.

Our performance took place shortly thereafter and went well. This was my first show with Lyndell Montgomery since March. It was a joy to hear her music again alongside of mine. The audience welcomed us with open ears. Even though we had to head off quickly when the performance was over, I was touched by the warmth that was offered us and the kindnesses we were offered with every interaction.

Backstage, to one of the women making food for the participants (delicious, organic, vegan food for us – thank you!) and after she offered me something to drink, I said: “Thanks so much. That’s so kind.” She looked me a moment and then turned her head to one side with a coy grin and said: “Everyone’s kind here, sweetie.” I laughed.

She’s right.

We pulled away from the Our Way Home Peace Event & Reunion waving goodbyes and balancing wrapped-up road food on our laps. I felt like I had just left my family’s house after a big family meal.

And so we drove into the sunrise.

The long drive was fuelled by the sparks of inspiration and empowerment that were flying around this event and were in all of these interactions. And, I know that these sparks will yield yet more fire for the ‘good fight,’ the belief that this world will find peace, that this environment will survive…

That the beauty will remain.

To stun us every time.