You can call yourself a roadhouse, but that doesn't make you one. On the other hand, the Northfield Roadhouse could call itself the Automat, but it would still be a roadhouse. For decades, the unassuming cinder-block building on North Territorial Road, within spitting distance of US-23, has been both a destination for the local citizenry and a way station for travelers heading north or south. In its old incarnation as the Whitmore Lake Roadhouse, it was a part of Michigan's music history. Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5 was a regular there, as was Scott Morgan, plus a host of other artists and bands. Today it's under new
management, and it's where you want to go for a smoky, gritty, townie-style, biker-infused night of brews, grease, and blues.
This is also a restaurant — see Bix Engels's review, p. 50 — so plan on getting there early and hungry, and then stay for the band. Hell, I guess you could just move in. The waitresses won't mind. The night we went, when it was March, wet and cold, our waitress warmly called me "Hon." At least I think she did. If she didn't, she was thinking it.
I don't believe any designers were hired to work on the interior of the Northfield Roadhouse. There are no shelves holding knickknacks and fake-old beer steins. There are no racks of pretend books, nor do I recall any plants. No one stopped us and asked how many were in our party. No one said, "I'll be your server tonight." People smoked and
drank proudly. They were loud. They looked as if they'd been living on the planet for longer than nineteen years. Damn, it was refreshing.
The man in charge of the food was, as it turns out, the man we'd come to see play that Sunday night: Chef Chris. Known throughout the Detroit area — and far beyond — for his high-octane bluesmanship and his ace Nairobi Trio, Chef Chris is an actual foodie when he's not standing like a monument on the stage screaming the blues. The sound of his harmonica reminds me of the sound a wildebeest made when it was attacked by crocodiles in a nature show I saw once. In a good way.
The beer flowed, the place got packed, and the dance floor filled up. Chef Chris threw it down. And when it got up, he threw it down again. My favorite song is one of his own, "You're Going to Jail and Your Car Is Too." (Bix likes it, too.)
Chef's a big guy with a scary goatee and some really nice clothes: a showman in the truest sense. He formed this band in 2000 to explore the boundaries of blues, punk, and country. Three years ago they won the eighteenth annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee. Further accolades just keep coming, and it's no surprise: this band delivers great songwriting, adventuresome and unexpected takes on cover tunes, and the kind of unremitting intensity that makes people who have eaten too much chicken still want to dance like fools to Bo Diddley.
Chef Chris and the Nairobi Trio are at the Northfield Roadhouse every Sunday night as well as Friday, July 22.