Magic Stick revival faces stiff competition

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Detroit’s Magic Stick is making a comeback. But as the celebrated rock venue upstairs from the Garden Bowl in Detroit’s Majestic Theatre complex prepares for its return, it enters a crowded field of competition for local fans’ attention.

The Magic Stick will be rebranded as electronic dance music venue Populux next month.

In the 15 months since the Magic Stick transitioned into electronic dance music club Populux, Detroit has seen the rise of several small rock venues, including Corktown’s UFO Factory, southwest Detroit’s El Club and New Center’s Marble Bar. All three venues regularly book concerts that might have previously fallen at the Stick and have built strong ties with Detroit’s live music community.

Coupled with the Magic Stick’s rocky transition in and out of the Populux brand, the venue could face difficulties returning to its former glory.

“I’ve kind of let the Magic Stick go,” says Augie Visocchi, the lead singer of Detroit rock group the Hard Lessons, who says he had “some of the best nights of my life” inside the Magic Stick, as a performer and a fan. “I love it, I love what happened there, it has a great history, but I feel like everyone has moved on.”

Ryan Allen, who has played shows with several bands at the Stick over the years and says it “holds a really special place in my heart,” says the venue’s closing opened up the door for a new era for the city’s live music venues. (UFO, El Club and Marble Bar all have smaller capacities than that of the 600-person Magic Stick.)

“The Magic Stick used to be the only game in town,” he says. “It was sad to see it change directions, and it’s sad what they’ve had to deal with, but the fact that all these other places opened up is a good thing.”

Majestic Theatre complex owner Dave Zainea says the influx of new venues is positive for everybody.

“I’m glad they’re in the game. It’s good for music. The more venues (there are), it just gives another way to promote live music, and I’m thrilled about that,” he said Thursday. “I think there’s enough business out there for all of us to survive.”

As for building back cred with the city’s music community, Zainea admits he made a mistake during the venue’s transition.

“I shouldn’t have changed the name,” he said. “The Magic Stick had a good name, a good rep and a good brand. I tried something, and you make mistakes. But I’ve learned a lot in this process, and you’ve gotta move forward.”

The Magic Stick’s relaunch comes after the flame out of Populux, the electronic dance music-oriented club that opened in the Magic Stick space in spring 2015.

The club closed its doors July 8 after a series of racially charged tweets appeared on its Twitter feed following this month’s shootings of several police officers in Dallas. Venue officials said the feed was hacked and say they filed criminal complaints with Wayne County’s internet crime task force and the Federal Bureau of Investigations to determine the source of the offending messages.

The controversy from the inflammatory tweets caused several artists to pull out of their shows at the venue, including Chicago rapper Vic Mensa, who had performed a concert at the Populux venue last summer. “(I) will not be performing at @PopuluxDetroit on #BackWithAVengeance due to the racist comments they tweeted yesterday,” he wrote on Twitter on July 8.

More artists followed, and Populux closed its doors and took down its social network pages.

Earlier this week, buzz about the return of the Magic Stick started circulating as the venue name began popping up on some artists’ tour schedules, including electronic dance group EOTO, who announced a show at the venue on Sept. 17.

In a statement on Wednesday evening, a venue spokesperson officially announced the Magic Stick’s return, ending the Populux run. The club will reopen in mid-September.

The initial arrival of Populux was a sore spot for many area fans, who loved the Magic Stick and its scrappy bar feel. It was the epicenter of Detroit’s rock community for 20 years, hosting local bands and shows by indie darlings and from Guided by Voices to Elliott Smith to Arcade Fire, who played their first Detroit concert at the venue.

When the White Stripes broke out in the early ’00s, the Magic Stick became the cornerstone of what was the burgeoning Detroit rock scene. The venue made international headlines when Jack White punched out fellow Detroit rocker Jason Stollsteimer there during a release party hosted by Detroit alt-country rockers Blanche.

But in its final years, attendance and bookings had started to dip, as the club fell from around 275 concerts per year with an average of 300 attendees to around 200 shows with under 200 concertgoers.

The warm memories fans had of the Stick weren’t keeping the lights on, and so Zainea made a change.

In came veteran Detroit concert promoter Amir Daiza, who flipped the space to a techno club and overhauled the venue with a new sound system, a new floor layout, a new stage, remodeled dressing rooms and new bathrooms. The name Populux, a term from the 1940s that combines the words “popular” and “luxury,” was chosen because it embodies the retro-futurism of techno music, Daiza said at the time.

Now the job is to turn the space from a posh dance club to a space that will host rock, hip-hop, R&B and electronic music and will have “a big local music presence,” Zainea said. The billiard tables will return, the VIP areas will disappear and changes will be made so the venue resembles “a cross between the Magic Stick and something new,” Zainea says.

And hopefully for owners, that will mean recapturing some of the old venue’s magic, if you will.

“The Magic Stick was one of those places where you were like, ‘what are we going to do? Let’s go to the Stick!’ Because something good was going to be happening there,” says Allen, who remembers meeting Drew Barrymore there one night when she was in town shooting “Whip It.”

“I hope, for their sake, they get back to that place,” he says. “It would be nice to see that continue for a new generation.”

(313) 222-2284

Twitter: @grahamorama