As one festival brought live music back to downtown Detroit Saturday, another venue brought it to the riverfront.
The Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre hosted DJ Kevin Saunderson for a performance celebrating his revived group Inner City’s first album in three decades, part of a planned series of scaled-down weekend events at the riverside venue.
In a vivacious, hour-long set, Saunderson and company played until midnight for about 100 fans inside the 6,000-capacity amphitheater, a maximum attendance dictated by current city restrictions. Another 100 gathered on the grounds outside the main bowl to soak up the music pumped over a PA system.
The upbeat but odd reality of the moment wasn’t lost on singer Steffanie Christi’an, who egged on the crowd with a laugh:
“Let’s party like it’s 2019!”
Inner City’s late-night performance was the second significant music event in the city Saturday, following the Detroit Music Weekend fest outside Music Hall, a daylong event featuring dozens of performers from R&B, rock and jazz.
Like that show, the Inner City set was staged for fans who – for the most part – donned masks and socially distanced among pockets of friends.
The Aretha – formerly Chene Park – is owned by the City of Detroit and operated by the Right Productions, which typically presents a bustling summer of touring R&B and jazz acts. Like other concert facilities here and across the U.S., the venue shuttered its 2020 season amid the pandemic.
With city and state lockdowns now somewhat eased, the amphitheater is embarking on downsized, DJ-heavy events on the weekends, with electronic music the focus on Saturdays in conjunction with event promoter MeanRed Productions.
The techno events, including Saturday’s Inner City show, are being streamed online in conjunction with the U.K. music publication MixMag.
“I’ve always looked at this place as a trust. It’s here to serve the people,” said Right Productions’ Shahida Mausi. “To the extent we’re able to continue to serve, we will.”
Gesturing to the small crowd in the amphitheater, Mausi added: “It’s clearly not for any monetary gain.”
The Aretha is a member of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), a coalition hastily formed during the early days of the COVID-19 shutdown. NIVA, which includes more than 60 Michigan venues, has helped spearhead support for the Save Our Stages Act, a new bipartisan bill that would provide $10 million in relief funding to indie concert operators undermined by the pandemic.
More: Detroit music venues, facing an uncertain future, team up with new national coalition
Inner City’s life-affirming house music anthems were a fitting antidote to the coronavirus blues Saturday night.
Saunderson – flanked by his DJ son Dantiez and joined by vocalist Christi’an – manned the decks to steer a set heavy on material from the new Inner City album “We All Move Together.” The record, released earlier this month, opens with a track featuring actor-musician Idris Elba.
Saunderson is among the fabled figures of early Detroit techno and the one who achieved the biggest commercial success – thanks to Inner City’s crossover triumphs in the late ’80s via soaring dance hits such as “Big Fun” and “Good Life,” which went Top 10 on pop charts across Europe.
Onstage at the Aretha late Saturday, Christi’an was a magnetic presence up front as Inner City wound through a set featuring old classics (“Good Love,” “Till We Meet Again,” “Good Life”) and new music like “Living in a Dream.”
In front of the small audience, which gradually clustered toward the stage, the ensemble was high spirited and dynamic – engaged as if it were playing to a packed house on some other warm summer night.