The Magic of a Musical Mecca on Bay City's South End

    icon May 23, 2013
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I need to admit at the outset that there is bias in this article.  I have a little bit of a mutual admiration society with Bemo's owners Rob & Luann Ervin.
When Vox Politic first began to run in the Review a couple years ago, the very first person to stop me and discuss a piece at length was Rob Ervin.  We've talked a lot since then and, while I know that he agrees with me more often than not, I can tell he respects my work even when he doesn't.  In fact, “respect” is a good word to use when you are talking about Rob.  Among the things you can always expect with him is that he will tell you exactly what he thinks and will have really good manners when he is doing it.
Luann and I became familiar in more traditional Bemo's fashion - because of music.  Years ago after a “beer over breakfast” one morning at the bar, she booked Naked Voodoo, a really good band in which I played pretty mediocre bass.  In the years since my musical fortune changed, as I moved up to the front of the stage and finally fulfilled the ambition to sing original songs, but Luann and Bemo's have remained much as a I found them:  She runs the best room in Bay City, “the stage” for the area's A listers and the fairest place in town for a musician to play once they start doing it for money.
So that's the disclosure.  I like these people.  I'm not alone in that, so Iet's just get to the story.
“The Music”
I'd say that I sat down for an interview with Rob and Luann, but that would be mildly inaccurate.  I sat on a bar stool and they worked as we lobbed a few questions and answers back and forth across the countertop.  That's one thing to realize:  These two work their business.  Their imprint is all over the place and there isn't a task they won't do themselves.
As she poured me a couple of shots of Fireball, I asked Luann some of the basics, like when they acquired the bar.  “2007,” she said, “I ordered new checks today and the lady at the bank told me we had been customers since 2007.  So that's one answer I know.”  Laughs ensued as we both recognized the convenience of that earlier conversation to our purposes.
She and Rob acquired the bar when family issues pulled the previous owner from the area.  Like many new business owners, they took a crash course.  Luann said, “We needed to learn everything.  Everything we know about running the bar now is because we stumbled into it.” 
Music has always been important to the couple.  Luann, whose interest was initially piqued as she peered into “concerts” put on by her brother in a Munger barn, is an accomplished singer who still performs with her bands Housekatz and Bluesmobile.   Rob, meanwhile, was a barnstorming baseball star whose best friends back home were all musicians.  These backgrounds meld efficiently, as many of these long-time friends and acquaintances are still part of the very healthy regional musical scene.
When they took over Bemo's, one of the goals was to build the business around live music.  That vision is now fully realized, as you can find many of the most unique and talented artists in the area on the Bemo's stage Monday through Sunday.   Rob credited this to the amount of local talent available.  “We are so lucky to have this many good musicians around.  We can have good music and do it seven nights a week.”
While most of the bar's reputation is built around its nightly line-ups, I was actually conducting the interview during broad daylight and this actually served to highlight another facet of their support for local music.
As we spoke, and under the watchful eye of his father, 7 year old Connor Schatzer was entertaining the afternoon patrons with a few minutes of dead on, rock and roll drumming.   While preteen phenoms like Connor are by no means the norm, Bemo's is known as a place that will give young musicians and new bands a chance.  
Many young metalheads or songbirds have gotten a Sunday slot on a stage that has hosted the likes of Jamie Sue Seal, Matt Besey, Andy Reed and Maybe August on Saturday night.  Having witnessed it, I know these emerging acts appreciate the opportunity.  Some like up and comer Chase Engel, have become forces in their own right.  And, on this day, I think the afternoon patrons got a kick out of watching Connor do his thing for a few minutes.
Sundays are also home to one of popular themes, when Bemo's brings in the best of the region's Tejano bands.  It's another way they embrace the community by creating an opportunity for aficionados and novices in the style enjoy the energy and pure entertainment of fusion of modern and classic musical styles.
“The Musicians”
One of the great compliments you can pay a club is that it is a place where musicians come to hear other musicians play.   It's a pretty good bet that no matter who is on stage, you will find members of other musical acts scattered in the audience at Bemo's.   It contributes to the vibe and, on occasion, ends up with some pretty classic off-the-cuff combinations on stage.  There are a lot of places to play in Bay City, but this is definitely the hub. 
I spoke one night recently with Sean Drysdale, who you'll find holding down the low end in bands like An American Underdog and the Banana Convention when he isn't enjoying the vegetarian fare at Heather's or reciting a bit of Milton.   He had a great story about his first experience with Bemo's, one that resonated immediately with me:
“The first time we played here, within 45 seconds, Rob came over and introduced himself.  He looked me square in the eye, gave me a really firm handshake and thanked me sincerely for being there.  I just thought to myself, 'Wow, I just hope we don't suck!' It was a lot of pressure.”
“Seriously, this might sound odd, but there is a certain grace and civility about the place.” 
I agreed immediately with this assessment.  The owners respect their staff and the musicians they hire.  The patrons respect all of their efforts.  It's not a place where people come to make music, not trouble.  It creates a comfortable atmosphere for creativity.  It's part of what makes the place.
Scott Baker has long made Bemo's his home base, both with his band the Universal Expression and for other projects, like his annual Folk Music Festival. One of the local standard bearers for original music, his love for the venue is expressed in the song “Bemo's” from his latest release, Northern Hospitality, Vol. 1.  Scott has been involved in the establishment from early on, both as a performer and in promoting the venue and its events.
Scott had a great summation when it comes to the relationship between Bemo's and the musical acts they employ, “What I always appreciated is they didn't give up on what they wanted, which was music seven days a week.  That allows us musicians to not give up on what we do.”
“The Corner Bar”
The South End of Bay City is a pretty unique place.  Its mixture of commercial and residential is a vestige of the zoning practices of yesteryear.  But the result is some pretty enduring neighborhoods, full of character and characters.
While most of the bar's reputation comes from its musical lineups, Bemo's, which is located at 701 S. Madison Avenue, is not actually just a “vampire venue” that only comes out at night.  During the day, it has an established role as one of the local watering holes that are part of the fabric of the South End.  It's a place where retirees and workingmen can feel free to sit and solve the world's problems.
As Luann puts it, “It's like we have three shifts, people who will drop by after we first open, the people who come in after work and then the music crowd.  I think it's cool that we are able to continue to be their corner bar.”
This is a role that the Ervins readily embrace, as they often open their doors and their stage to benefits and fundraisers for organizations and individuals who need help.  As Rob put it, “I don't know how to explain it.  People have been so good to us.  The city has been good to us.  I don't know what we've done to deserve it, but we try to do things to give back.  We want to say thanks.”
While I think he might have it backwards in terms of who is due thanks, on behalf of the rest of us that support what you have brought to our local music scene, “You're welcome, Bemo's.”

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