The Leon Loft concert series is Ann Arbor's intimate hideout for great music
Although it's far more polished than your average basement club, The Leon Loft still boasts the same hush-hush cool that surrounds a good underground venue. You likely won't just buy a ticket to see a show at the venue on the second floor of Leon Speakers' custom audio business adjacent the Ann Arbor Municipal Airport. In addition to hosting various private events, the Loft's signature offering is its ongoing free concert series hosted by Acoustic Café's Rob Reinhart. The series has presented an eclectic mix of over 30 artists including Michael Franti, Fitz and the Tantrums, and City and Colour. The concerts are broadcast live on 107.1 FM and archived online in video form, but to catch one live you'll have to win tickets on 107.1.
But once you get in, you're in for a treat.
The small space seats around 75, with some café-style tables in front of the stage, freestanding chairs in the middle, and usually a bit of standing room in the back. Like the rest of Leon's headquarters, the space feels like you've walked into a particularly trendy woodsman's cabin. Art lines the walls along the approach to the Loft, and inside the hardwood floors, thick curtains blocking natural light, and low lighting create a candlelit, rustic vibe.
The performances themselves are intimate in multiple ways. Reinhart's Q&As with the performers, and the small space itself, can't help creating the feeling that you're in for a truly personal encounter with whoever's onstage. Artists usually stop by for a midday show on their way to an evening performance at a larger local venue, and you get the sense that you're in for something a little different from their standard show. The difference may even be a more enthusiastic performance, as Canadian musician Afie Jurvanen (aka Bahamas) suggested in his noon show on Feb. 13.
Sometimes the venue seems to coax a particularly revealing performance out of the musicians who take the stage, as when Spoon's Britt Daniel and Alex Fischel ditched the rest of their lineup and played the Loft last year. Daniel seemed almost hungover, blinded by the light of day, and he performed a gut-wrenching, stripped-back rendition of Spoon's "I Ain't the One."
Leon Speakers president and founder Noah Kaplan seems to view the Loft as one of his key points of interaction with the local creative community. He fondly recalls a period in the mid-'90s when he lived among a community of 20 fellow artists and musicians in three adjacent houses on Church Street in Ann Arbor. Kaplan, who also plays guitar, had recently graduated from U-M's Stamps School of Art and Design and had the good fortune to receive a commission to paint 40 portraits of scholar-athletes for the university. "It was all day," Kaplan says. "Paint and play all day, and then we'd go and perform all night. There was not a lot of sleep for a number of decades."
Today, Kaplan is doing somewhat different work at Leon, but he says he's still engaged in "exactly the same" nonstop collaborative creative process. Kaplan is a nonstop kind of guy himself. Compact, bespectacled, and muscular, he speaks with a breathless sense of creative vision, casually tossing off comments like, "I want two more venues in Ann Arbor. Micro-venues." He repeatedly describes his business as a mixture of "art with audio, design with technology, and business with bohemia." He started the Loft in 2013 when Leon Speakers had run out of space on the lower floor of the building it now owns. Kaplan says he wanted a space where local musicians and other creators could gather, but some serious renovation work was needed first. "It had horrible carpets that probably weren't updated since the '80s or '90s," he says.
Kaplan says he and his team "fist-fought" the renovation in a period of two and a half months. "We took it upon ourselves and we ripped out a window and put a Dumpster two stories down and started literally tearing everything out of there," he says. "We stripped it blank and barren."
It didn't take long to identify the idea of creating a new concert series in the space in partnership with Reinhart, whose radio show Leon had sponsored since it started. "Rob and I had a meeting up there and we didn't know what the meeting was about," Kaplan says. "It was kind of an instant and silent spark. Rob came up and I looked at him and it was like, 'Wait a second. This was the purpose of the build.'" Within a couple weeks they'd booked the Loft's first performer, Clarence Bucaro.
Kaplan expresses deep appreciation for Reinhart's skill at booking a diverse mixture of up-and-coming and well-established artists. Asked to pick favorite Loft performances, Kaplan calls out Spoon's "hollowed-out" performance of "I Ain't the One," as well as last year's show by singer-songwriter LP. "LP hit a note and her vibrato is just so intense and she's so authentic," Kaplan says. "That was probably the one moment where a tear fell down the side of my face while she was singing, and those are the moments you live for in life, especially as you get older."
Perhaps most importantly, Kaplan says the Loft is "just a way to connect with the community again. It's not that we had lost track of that; it's just that we built a global brand for a long time, 15 years, and it was time to get back into building a local brand, reminding people that we're here and here's what we stand for."
The Loft flies relatively under the radar in Ann Arbor, but Kaplan says that's partially a byproduct of the fact that he and his staff are so busy just running their speaker business. Kaplan's intention is for the Loft to keep churning out live video and generally raising its profile. "We want thousands of minutes of content," he says. "We want live content flowing freely and as many eyeballs as we can get on it to show we are alive, we are kicking, and we are just getting started."
Kaplan's plans for Ann Arbor's creative community go far beyond the Loft itself. He recalls that his band, The Still, used to be able to play shows four nights a week in Ann Arbor. Now, he bemoans the dwindling number of venues and shows in the city. But he's got no shortage of plans to make his own contributions to turning that situation around. "We're going to fill every crevice of this space and we definitely plan to build a monster headquarters, what we call a creative campus, moving forward," he says. "It's going to be centered on creativity -- make art, make music, make movies. We're going to be making beer."
But Kaplan says he intends for that growth to be "organic" and mostly unplanned. He prefers doing live painting these days instead of spending hours alone in his studio, and he embraces a similarly impulsive spirit in moving forward with the Loft and his envisioned creative campus.
"That's the height for me," he says. "That's the present. That's when you're in the moment the most and that's when life happens. That's when you can put down all your ridiculous technology and the things that inhabit us in unproductive ways and you're just producing to your purest form."
Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.