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The paint on the walls was still wet when Detroit Bar opened in October 2001. The crew was still bringing in barstools as Stereolab conducted a sound check. Yet despite the skin-of-their-teeth stress, co-owner Dan Bradley cites opening night as one of his fondest memories of the place. "To start a venue with that particular band was a godsend," he says. "It set us on the map, essentially. It spread the word out that we would be booking that quality of music."
Just a month prior, Detroit Bar was Club Mesa, a rough-and-tumble punk-rock venue in westside Costa Mesa. The Memphis Group, made up of the owners of Memphis restaurant, wanted to expand its musical reach, but the small space at Memphis inhibited booking larger acts. The group purchased Club Mesa in summer 2001, with Bradley's friends Scott Hamilton, Jason Husted and Chris Fahey playing integral roles in starting and running the project.
"They were buying it, and they really didn't know the music scene and had never owned a bar before," Fahey recalls of the Memphis Group men, "but we all gathered together, and they said [to me], 'Hey, you're a lot better at doing this.'"
Fahey had booked shows locally since he was 17 and served as the original talent buyer at Detroit Bar. "We cut down on the complete A-hole, punk-rock vibe and started slowly changing things."
The Memphis Group set out to develop the quality of the nightlife and live-music scene in the area, as well as provide a unique destination for bands from elsewhere. "Detroit Bar is really the heart and soul of live music in Orange County," says DJ Scotty Coats, a regular performer at the bar for the past decade. "Ten years ago, most bands would skip over OC, but not now." Notable bands who have rolled into the venue include Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Modest Mouse and Cat Power.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. (coincidentally from Detroit, Michigan) played there on both of their recent tours. "What's funny is it's unassuming," singer Danny Zott says. "It's in a strip mall, and you wouldn't think it would be that special. Then you walk in, and it's like The Wizard of Oz. You're in black-and-white, then you walk in, and it's in color."
Local acts Cold War Kids, Foster the People and the Growlers all got their start with Monday Night Residencies, which Fahey instituted. And Young the Giant, who performed at the VMAs this year, said playing at Detroit was a "make it" point in their career.
Bradley credits Fahey for the bar's cachet. "[Fahey is] solely responsible for getting us high-profile booking," he says.
Fahey left Detroit Bar in 2008, after the bar's rent went up more than 130 percent and his son was born. "It kind of worked out that they couldn't afford to keep me on, and I couldn't afford to do something that pulled me away from my son," he says. Now the manager of bands such as the Bird and the Bee, Omaha, and James Fletcher, Fahey also does production work for the Coachella Music and Arts Festival.
With his departure, Jon Reiser, a former investor and partner, became the talent buyer from 2009 to 2010. Reiser, who left Detroit Bar in June and is now attempting to revamp the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana, declined to comment for this story.
In addition to growing the talent at Detroit Bar, the group also gives back. In 2005, a comedy night featuring David Cross and Patton Oswalt raised $12,000 for the victims of the Indonesian tsunami. And since longtime general manager Husted was diagnosed with lymphoma, the Memphis Group has hosted multiple benefits to help him and his family.
"There's that community vibe. It's like, 'So-and-so's sick? Shit, let's throw a night for them,'" Fahey says.
Bradley attributes the recent uptick in business to the bar's current team, which includes talent buyer Jeffery Shuman. Positive word-of-mouth via artists, agencies and local fans, he says, keeps them going.
The Memphis Group just signed a long-term lease and plans to make significant interior updates. "Our core, our vision and sensibilities are definitely intact," Bradley says. "It's in our DNA. We're looking forward to another 10 years."
This article appeared in print as "Ten Years of Detroit Bar: How the Costa Mesa venue became Orange County's arbiter of cool."