Since the glory days of the old Pretzel Bell, bluegrass music has been heard only occasionally in Ann Arbor bars and clubs. But what goes around comes around again, and the Wednesday night bluegrass shows at the Circus are a phenomenon of the moment among university upperclassmen and twenty-somethings who’ve stuck around town. Bluegrass Night has sometimes had lines out the door, and it has intermittently expanded to Thursday nights as well. On any night, socializing is happening not just inside but outdoors, on the upstairs club’s metal mesh staircase, and that’s a sign of a healthy nightspot.
There’s no cover charge, you can come as you are, and the importance of cheap beer in Bluegrass Night’s success is not to be minimized. PBRs in a can are just $1.25, and beer at that price, along with a big crowd of people to talk to and flirt with over music of moderate volume, is hard to find in Ann Arbor. And the stimulating sound of banjos and mandolins rubs off to some extent on everyone in the room. The bands typically play two sets, and as the second one gets going young people crowd toward the stage and begin to move to the motor rhythms of the music.
Bluegrass Night has grown over the past year or so in a pleasingly organic way, and you never know what will happen on any given night. In between sets I’ve seen songwriter open-mike segments and, on one evening, burlesque dancers, clowns, and even a sword swallower.
The bands themselves are a mixed bag. For the most part they’re not traditional bluegrass groups, but rather young players who use the bluegrass instrumentarium–banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, and bass–but whose attitude comes from rock and its Americana offshoot rather than from the quiet country traditions of the South. Other nights, though, you’ll hear pure traditional groups like Livingston County’s Lonesome County Band and new folkies like the Lansing songwriter Jen Sygit, along with the likes of the Bearded Ladies, the Chicken Chokers, and other products of the area’s newly vibrant roots music scene.
No doubt a new musical flavor will soon enough lure away some of the current Bluegrass Night crowd. But others, as they get older, may climb the two blocks to the Ark and hear the bluegrass bands presented there for more contemplative listening. Bluegrass Night is enough to warm the heart of an old ‘grasser, and it continues Wednesday nights through November and beyond at the Circus.