Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bob Dylan, Eminem, Lou Reed, Stevie Ray Vaughan; the list sounds like the lineup for one hell of a great music festival. But it's actually just a small sampling of the legendary artists who have taken the stage at Saint Andrew's Hall, as the building marks its 30th anniversary as a concert venue. More to its credit, the hall isn't a huge venue, so many of those classic acts played to just around 800 people at Saint Andrew's before they became superstars. "It's an intimate setting," says former hall owner Amir Daiza. "When a band goes up there and plays up there, that gives them more energy to give a great performance. The music, the artists, the performers—that's what made it."
The hall's history goes back long before Dylan, Reed or any of those other luminaries were even born. It was originally home to the Saint Andrew's Society, an organization for Detroiters of Scottish heritage. The Society began constructing the building at 431 E. Congress in August of 1907. Even back then, the hall's three floors were often used for musical events. "The Burns Room was always used for music, but it was typically used for bagpipe concerts," says former hall owner Blair McGowan. "The ballroom typically was a room that was used for music and the basement was originally used as a social center."
McGowan has just two words for what led him and a group of four partners to lease the space in 1979 for a concert venue. "Horse sense," he says. "The architecture and the location were there, and we had to create an atmosphere for the spirit to grow." McGowan and his crew wound up doing some work on the hall to get it ready for its new era. "We tried to follow the lead of the architect that had done the work in 1907," McGowan says. "We simply restored the work that was already there."
After those restorations, one of the first major acts to perform was R&B singer Evelyn "Champagne" King. Dianna Frank was one of the people right in the thick of those early performances, working as the hall's house DJ from day one (and later stepping up to manage the venue). "It was not terribly spectacular, but it was exciting to have a new club opening," she says. "I don't think any of us envisioned that it would turn out to be the club it is."
As the new venue gathered steam in the mid- to late '80s, it entered a vibrant decade or so fondly remembered by those who were around at the time; Frank describes it as "the glory years." "They took a lot of chances on a lot of oddball stuff," she says. "It wasn't just a weekend place. There were time periods when you could pretty much go every day and see a different band." The hall's current manager, Mike Danner, recalls attending a lot of those shows before he started working for Saint Andrew's. "Back in the day, we owned the city," he says. "Over 400 shows a year."
One of the main players responsible for that busy booking schedule was former manager Perry Lavoisne, who worked his way up from a high-school job mopping floors at the hall. Despite the hall's success during his tenure, Lavoisne is modest on the subject. "I was lucky that there were two talent buyers that had laid the foundation for that kind of mentality," he says. "The only thing I contributed to it was I was just way more aggressive." Daiza, who started out as a promoter for Saint Andrew's, says this busy era was also pushed along by a lot of old-fashioned street-team work. "We were target marketing before the target-marketing phrase was the hip thing to do," he says. "It was all street promotion. Today, that's called the Internet." For Daiza and his fellow promoters, it was all a labor of love. "It's a 24/7 love of the business," he says. "That's what this is. If you don't care about the music, you're not going to make it."
All the work paid off with memorable shows from legendary artists. Frank and Daiza both mention New Order's gig as a highlight. "That was probably one of the most off-the-hook shows ever played at that building," Frank says. "Packed to the rafters, it was hot as hell and they were probably at the pinnacle of their popularity." Danner recalls a memorable early Beastie Boys gig, when the Beasties were still playing as a hardcore band, but had just released "Cooky Puss" – their first hip-hop single. "The whole crowd was like white hip-hop fans and wanted to hear 'Cooky Puss,' and they couldn't even play it," Danner says.
Another Saint Andrew's tradition started in the early '90s was Three Floors of Fun, a dance night featuring DJs playing different genres of music on each floor of the hall. Lavoisne cooked up the idea with a couple of local DJ friends. "We wanted to create some kind of club night that represented all the people of different interests that came to Saint Andrew's," Lavoisne says. "We were sitting there and we were just like, 'You know what? Let's do all three floors.'" The idea proved hugely popular. "In its day, it was so crowded you could barely move in there," Frank says. The event continued to run through 2010.
The late '90s marked another notable development for the hall, as the Shelter became a renowned hip-hop venue. The basement Shelter had been refurbished for mostly underground dance events in the mid-'80s, but Danner's arrival as Saint Andrew's general manager and Eminem's arrival as an international megastar brought the Shelter newfound fame. Danner, a hip-hop fan, began booking hip-hop shows in the Shelter soon after he started the new gig, and Eminem gave the initiative a big push. "It went from battles and freestyles in the Shelter to him doing a couple more events on the main stage," Danner says. "And literally, almost overnight, he just blew up and became internationally huge. It wasn't even that much of a progression." Eminem later returned to the Shelter to shoot scenes for his 2002 film 8 Mile. Between the movie and the legacy of past performers like Jay-Z and Nas, Danner says music fans from all over the world still come to tour the Shelter, take pictures and attend shows.
These days, of course, things have changed for Saint Andrew's. The hall is owned by LiveNation, the show schedule is thinner and the music industry itself has shifted drastically. "I miss the excitement of being open seven days a week and having a different band in there every single day," Danner says. "But I think it makes more sense to pick the stuff that has the best chance to be a successful event." Lavoisne says the cultural institution the hall represented has been largely replaced by the Internet. "I would sound like some crusty old guy if I said that the glory days are long gone for Saint Andrew's, but the reality is it is different from what it was," he says. "You had to go to Saint Andrew's to find out what was happening, what the next emerging genre was. People don't have to do that as much anymore." The hall will receive a Distinguished Achievement Award at this year's Detroit Music Awards, honoring what Frank describes as "a legendary place." "It was definitely one of the most amazing places on Earth when it clicked," she says. "There were some magical nights in that place." | RDW