DIY Approach: Manchester Underground Music and Art Supports Local Artists Through Monthly Live Shows
Back in 1977, high school friends Steve Girbach and John Mooneyham bonded over listening to Rush, Judas Priest, and AC/DC albums after school.
Those listening sessions at Mooneyham’s house in Manchester eventually turned into serious discussions about forming a band and playing live shows.
It wasn’t until a few years after graduating from Manchester High School that Girbach and Mooneyham put their musical plan into action.
“Steve and I were talking and we said, ‘Why don’t we get some gear and we’ll put on shows and festivals?’ We had all these grand ideas people in their early 20s come up with,” said Mooneyham, who now co-runs the Manchester Underground Music and Art monthly concert series with Girbach.
“About a month later, Steve said, ‘I invited some guys over to your house to play some music and you’re gonna play bass.’”
Together, guitarist Girbach and bassist Mooneyham played in two cover bands, Allister and The DTs, and later hosted a music festival featuring 13 acts at a former amusement park in the Irish Hills.
Not long after that, The DTs called it quits and everyday life took over for Girbach and Mooneyham. What they didn’t realize at the time was that initial music festival helped lay the groundwork for what would become Manchester Underground Music and Art in 2019.
“Honestly, music took a backseat for me. I’ve always had a guitar around, but John was always in bands from that point on. Approximately 10 years ago he called me and was like, ‘Hey, what do you have going on?’ and I said, ‘Not much,’” Girbach said.
“We just started talking, and ironically I had started getting rid of all of my equipment. I was out of it and I was just done. I don’t remember why or how but John kinda sparked some stuff.”
That spark led Girbach to volunteer at The Ark, take banjo and mandolin lessons, and have additional conversations with Mooneyham about starting a concert series. They landed on the name Manchester Underground Music and Art as a nod to the DIY ethos of planning, booking, and hosting live shows independently.
“We started looking around for possible venues in the area and kinda had an idea. One night, we were [hanging out] and John said, ‘We need a Facebook page, and we need a social media presence.’ I said, ‘Yeah, go ahead and start it, but don’t post it,’” Girbach said.
“I like to get all my ducks in a row, but all of a sudden, John created this Facebook page. He said, ‘What do you think?’ and I said, ‘It looks good, but let’s wait until we get things figured out.’ He was like, ‘Nope, boom, and it was out there.’”
With an active Facebook page, the duo started brainstorming show formats and saw a video about Johnny’s Speakeasy, a live music venue that John Williams operated out of his basement starting in 1994 and up until his Ann Arbor home caught fire in September 2022.
“Steve sent me a video and said, ‘Here, check this out,’” Mooneyham said. “It was a promo video for Johnny’s Speakeasy, and I said, ‘Holy cow! I wanna do that.”
Girbach also remembered seeing show posters around town and coming across a series of live music CDs Williams recorded and released from past artist performances at Johnny’s Speakeasy.
“Then I found out it was kinda like a true speakeasy to where if you were friends with a band, then you knew, but I didn’t know and I wanted to know,” Girbach said.
Girbach went to see Gas for Less perform at Johnny’s Speakeasy and was inspired by the feel of the venue and the strong connection it had with local artists, touring acts, and attendees. He also saw Chris Buhalis, The Carpenter Ants, Jackson Smith, and other artists perform there.
“I was like, ‘You have got to be kidding me. This is amazing!’ It’s just the vibe there, and when you walk into that space … it’s just totally funky,” Girbach said.
Energized by Johnny’s Speakeasy, Girbach called Williams and shared his idea for launching the Manchester Underground Music and Art concert series. The goal was to replicate Williams’ intimate listening room environment and host monthly shows with one or two acts at a Manchester-based venue.
“I left a message on Johnny’s phone and said, ‘I’m gonna give you full credit, but I’m just telling you we’re borrowing your stuff,’” Girbach said.
“About 10 minutes later, my phone rang, and it was Johnny saying, ‘Steve, that’s the greatest thing. You’re gonna have so much fun. The artists are gonna love you.’ I said, ‘Johnny, you got a hall pass. You can come to our shows anytime, and we’ve got a chair for you, so just show up.’”
“We played there one time in our cover band years ago, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe there’s a room there.’ I happened to walk downstairs, and it was literally at the base of a stairway,” Girbach said.
“I walked down these two half-flights of stairs and here’s this space. I thought, ‘This would be interesting,’ and I took John down there and he said, ‘Yeah, this would work.’”
The duo continued to build momentum with monthly shows featuring local and touring folk, Americana, country, and roots-rock acts. They sold about 40-90 tickets per show at the mill, depending on the lineup and turnout.
“We had 40 chairs and we also used the staircase. For a couple of shows, we had standing room and we used a couple of adjoining rooms,” said Mooneyham, who also co-hosts a weekly open mic called Wednesday Jams! with Chris McCarthy at The Village Tap in Manchester. “[The mill] could hold 40 people smartly, but it also could hold double that capacity though.”
By March 2020, Girbach and Mooneyham had hosted about 10 shows before the pandemic hit. They shifted to some livestream and outdoor events in Manchester later in 2020 and into 2021.
“We did an outdoor show in June 2020 with Jennifer Westwood and Dylan Dunbar at a park in Manchester,” Mooneyham said. “We had Juston Brady open up, and it was just one of the most amazing shows [we’d] ever seen.”
By November 2022, the Manchester Mill had been sold and they formed a new venue partnership with River Raisin Distillery. To date, Girbach and Mooneyham have hosted 14 shows at the distillery and expanded their team to include artist Jonathan Doyle, graphic designer/social media marketer Jason Heinrich, and sound engineer Berkeley Tistle.
The show features The Carpenter Ants, retired Mountain Stage radio show host Larry Groce, Jackson Smith, and Buhalis. Seated tickets for the show are now sold out, but standing-room-only tickets are still available.
“I just reached out to [Save the Speakeasy’s] Judy [Banker], and I said, ‘Hey, if there’s any way that we can be involved, we’d love to help you out.’ She said, ‘Oh my god, are you serious?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, but our challenge is that we only do one show a month, and the distillery holds the third Saturday of every month for us,’” Girbach said.
“[Save the Speakeasy] had already talked about doing several shows, including ones at The Ark and Trinity House Theatre. It was a big feather in our cap when [Judy Banker] said, ‘You guys have such a great reputation.’ Another feather in the cap is The Carpenter Ants because they’re good friends of Johnny’s, and they were requesting to play a Manchester Underground show.”
After the Save the Speakeasy benefit show, Girbach and Mooneyham plan to host additional monthly Manchester Underground Music and Art events. In the meantime, fans can listen to past Manchester Underground Music and Art performances on Songs From the Trail, a weekly radio show Girbach co-hosts with Smith every Saturday on WBVI-FM 100.1.
Outside of live performances, the Manchester Underground Music and Art team is partnering with Life in Michigan’s Chuck Marshall and Brenda Sodt Marshall to co-host GIG: The Art of Michigan Music, which runs November 8-10 at ART 634 in Jackson and celebrates concert photography, gig posters, and album and T-shirt art created by local artists.
“We’re very excited about that because it’s going to get us into the art side, and we really haven’t focused on that yet,” Girbach said.
“When John and I set up [Manchester Underground Music and Art] originally, we wanted to fund the artists, but then we wondered, ‘What if it grows? How can we make it grow?’ One of the things we’re kicking around [now] is establishing the Underground as a nonprofit to offer artists a fair wage, but then our mission would be to help adults with special needs.”
Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.
Manchester Underground Music and Art hosts a Save the Speakeasy benefit show with The Carpenter Ants, Larry Groce, Jackson Smith, and Chris Buhalis on February 17 at River Raisin Distillery, 480 W. Main St. in Manchester. For tickets, visit Save the Speakeasy’s website.