With its overgrown weeds, bushes and trees, the corner of St. Aubin and Frederick in Detroit could be rural Mississippi. Particularly on a Sunday evening when raw blues and billowing barbeque smoke from the grills of John's Carpet House fills the air.
"Do y'all have a bass player with you?" asks Pete "Big Time Operator" Barrow on a recent Sunday. He's a formidable gent in casual-yet-sharp Sunday sports clothes and a straw hat. "Some of my musicians are late."
If not for those players, the Carpet House would be in full swing about now. But don't let its name fool you; it's no longer a house. Not even close. See, the Carpet House was once a juke joint back in the '80s. It had carpet tacked to every visible surface for soundproofing, hence its name. It now sits charred and ruined. In the lot across the street is the "new" Carpet House. And this one has no walls.
There's no stage or bartenders there's not even a bar. A single tree shades strips of old carpeting that lie flat on the ground and serve as a stage. Yes, the club's outside. There's a hand-lettered sign that reads "Carpet House Rules" nailed to the tree above the chair where Barrow sits when not emceeing the show. It instructs musicians to bring their own equipment and to please be patient because "You Will Play."
Barrow says the burned-out venue across the street had "been set on fire three times." John Estes founded the original Carpet House in 1985 or so. After Estes died in 2006, Barrow began running the club.
"I took it over and we were playing up under that shed," he says, pointing to a ramshackle addition to the old club. "But then we got so big and it got so hot that we came out of that shed and up under this tree. That was about two and a half years ago. And now it's bigger than it's ever been. When John was here, we might have put about 30 or 40 people here. But now it's in the hundreds."
A few hours earlier, Barrow and a helper chopped weeds with a huge sickle. They were the only signs of life on the lot. Now, you'd be hard-pressed to find a parking spot. Vans, trucks, cars and motorcycles of all models and vintages are rolling by and squeezing in, with an array of barbecues, tables and folding chairs set up for the evening's festivities. It's a tailgating scene worthy of a sporting event.
Four men unload a rusted oil drum-turned-grill, outfitted with wooden legs. They open its lid and begin dousing coals with lighter fluid. A hole in one end of the drum is patched with a pair of ancient license plates.
"Who knows how old it is," one of them laughs. "Forty, maybe 50 years. But it's seasoned."
It's 4 p.m. and the gas generator is roaring, powering the PA system, amplifiers and three work lamps sporting colored bulbs, which are clipped to a single pole. Aside from a pair of tiki torches provided by a woman cooking ribs and hot dogs, said bulbs are the lot's only lights. But that hardly matters, the sun's still up and will be for a few more hours.
There are enough musicians on "stage" to comprise a band. They're jamming to a latter-day soul-blues hit. Then Harmonica Shah, who's scheduled to perform first, is ready to go on, bass player or no. "We'll make it work," he assures Barrow. Shah's a dapper dude wearing brand-new Liberty overalls, black shirt and brown dress shoes. He talks of his Pontiac gig the night before: "They treated me real well. But we're in Detroit now, they turned their back on the blues here."
Barrow hasn't turned his back on the blues, but he'll be damned if he'll hear it played without a bass player. "We don't want it to sound raggedy," he says, taking the microphone to announce an update. "We're almost ready to get it together up here."
Soon the tardy players arrive and Shah and the band jump into the evening's first groove. This isn't the kind of tired, overly technical music that has poisoned the blues scene for years, it's a shot back in time to the real deal: Gritty and visceral, it's fired up with energy and momentum. One musician, Ray The Handyman, plays a bass with one hand and a guitar on a home-fashioned stand with the other, churning out a fuzz-drenched rendition of a Band of Gypsies song. Later, another whips out an electric fiddle and begins sawing away, reaching a wild crescendo in tandem with a wailing sax while vocalist Cash McCall delivers a thundering version of the Temptations' "Standing On Shaky Ground."
"They call me Pops, Black Dragon Motorcycle Club" says an elderly gent in studded cowboy boots, black jeans and shining western belt buckle. "Black Dragon Motorcycle Club" is emblazoned on the back of his black leather vest. He's greeted by old biker pals from the Detroit Gentlemen and Satan's Sidekicks motorcycle clubs.
The whole scene could be an old photo of Hines Farm outside of Toledo, where many black motorcycle clubs gathered in the '50s and '60s to listen to Motor City blues men like John Lee Hooker and Eddie Kirkland. And the music here is every bit as communal. It cuts to the core as a crowd gathers in front of the carpet and the sun fades into brilliant twilight.
Barrow asks for applause for such musicians as McCall, Little Junior Cannady and Kenny Miller, and he calls others to the stage with names like "Stixs" and "Rock Star." He gives a shout-out to the those here from Detroit's Stone House Bar a old place that, like the Carpet House, seems magically transported from somewhere well below the Mason-Dixon Line. Barrow then passes the bucket. It's the only time money is collected from patrons.
"All we wanna do is put something in the bucket," he says later, "because I've got this overhead for cutting grass and running the generator."
Does Barrow make anything from the proceeds?
"When I have some money left over I give the people that play a few dollars," he says. "It's free to the public and we're not making much money. I'm doing it 'cause I love it. And most of the musicians, they know about this place and they come over and jam 'cause they love doing it."
Every week another unexpected legend from Detroit's musical history shows up. This evening it's Nelson Sanders, worshipped overseas for the rare soul classics he cut for the local La Beat label back in the '60s. After singing two by Buddy Ace and Z.Z. Hill, Sanders is surrounded by a bevy of young fans who know him from his killer La Beat single "Mojo Man."
"This is my first time here," Sanders says. "It really does remind you of something down South, doesn't it?"
What's impressive about the Carpet House is the cross-section of people who attend and the incredible sense of community among them.
"It gives you faith in humanity," local rocker Dan "Doll Rod" Kroha says, with no hint of irony. "People you don't know come up and talk to you. In spite of all the doom and gloom that they report on the news every day, this [place] is contrary to everything negative that the media says about Detroit."
Even the cops love it. "Let me tell you something," Barrow says, "the police come over here, they sit here and listen to the music. And a lot of times so does the Fire Department. Martha Reeves, she's been here, City Council people have been over here. I just hope the city puts some streetlights up. ... Some jokers took the wires down because they wanted to steal the copper. So when it gets dark, we've got to shut on down. As long as the weather holds up, we'll be in there."
John's Carpet House runs from 4 p.m. till dark each Sunday at the corner of St. Aubin and Frederick in Detroit. For information go to www.johnscarpethouse.com.Michael Hurtt is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected].