Grand Rapids’ newest live music venue offers an intimate space and a striking stage for emerging and established acts, with a ‘Battle of the Bands’ on tap. The back story, photos and upcoming show schedule.
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When The Stray café opened last fall, owners Karen and Chip VanKlompenberg viewed the renovated space on S. Division Avenue as much more than an inviting place to sip coffee, quaff a beer and enjoy house-made delicacies.
The centerpiece, after all, is an impressive stage with a sound system to match – something that sets it apart from most coffee houses.
“Our creative goals are to inspire and be inspired, so if we think an act has a good chance of attaining that, there is plenty of room for variety,” said Karen VanKlompenberg, noting the café already has hosted singer-songwriters, a 17-piece jazz band, rock groups, electronica artists, ballet dancers and more.
Adding to all that diversity was last weekend’s performance by Grand Rapids’ Spanish-language group La Furia Del Ritmo, a modern cumbia band that infuses its music with trip hop, reggae, bachata, salsa and more.
Fast forward to 7 p.m. Friday (Jan 14) and the café will host a rock show featuring Feeding Grizzlies and Laggies.
As the latest venue to enter the Grand Rapids-area music scene, The Stray aims to “provide additional venue space in the community for acts who are talented but new or relatively unknown, as well as better-known musicians,” Karen said.
“This can be especially helpful for younger musicians, as bars and clubs represent a good portion of the places musicians typically find opportunity to play.”
Describing the concert experience in the 99-capacity space as falling somewhere between a listening room and a house show, The Stray at 4253 S. Division Ave. strives “to build community by being a connection point between artists and listeners,” said concert booker Hunter VanKlompenberg, the cafe’s music and arts manager.
‘A WILD RIDE WITH MANY PERFORMANCES THAT HAVE FLOORED US’
“On the audience side, we work to curate a listening environment where guests feel comfortable, known and inspired,” Hunter continued.
“For our performers, we aim to be a community asset – from the emerging artist who is getting on their first stage, to the seasoned local band that’s tired of playing noisy bars where no one is paying attention, to the regional touring group that wants to create an exclusive intimate atmosphere for their performance.”
The cafe is housed in a renovated and wholly transformed 92-year-old building that operated for years as an automotive repair business.
It’s the realization of a long-held vision: The VanKlompenbergs had for years ruminated about creating “a special place” like The Stray that combined their interests and passion.
Chip VanKlompenberg spent decades working in the area of design and manufacture of specialty automation equipment; Karen’s background is in communications and interior design; Hunter, a musician, recently graduated with a music business degree from Belmont University in Nashville.
“I inherited the love of food, entertaining and art from my mom. Chip always loved music, especially in live settings, and also was comfortable putting together sound systems and equipment for music events,” Karen said.
So, the goal “was always to be a music venue first,” Hunter said, pointing to the visually alluring, 190-square-foot, pentagon-shaped stage with ramp access amid an acoustically treated listening space. Inspiration has come from the likes of Nashville’s Bluebird Café and Alley Taps to West Michigan’s The DAAC, Listening Room and Seven Steps Up.
“We’re always learning and growing,” said Hunter, who along with musician Marley King (Marsfade) handles audio for the weekend shows. “It’s been a wild ride with many performances that have floored us and brought us to tears as we’ve developed beyond our grand opening in September.”
A FOUR-WEEK BATTLE OF THE BANDS SLATED FOR MARCH
To further up the ante, The Stray will host its first-ever “Battle of the Bands” in March, with 15 groups competing over three Friday nights, culminating in the finals on March 25. Cash prizes will be awarded the top three bands.
“The goal is to have a large collaborative event that creates exposure and opportunity for local artists with a spirit of fun competition,” Hunter said. “We’re aiming to reach young and emerging groups and give them a chance for exposure, networking and some compensation within a high-quality listening environment.”
Small to mid-level artists covering a wide swath of genres are invited to apply. Applications will be available online Jan. 20.
As for fans, qualities that make The Stray “a very special place to relax and enjoy live music,” Karen said, are the ideal sightlines, acoustics and varied seating – from cozy booths to bistro tables with bentwood chairs to counter seating to a community table. The Stray also displays colorful artwork “produced mainly by local artists.”
Most shows are free to attend, though future plans include both free-admission concerts and ticketed events.
Usually, performers are paid through tips from patrons, with The Stray offering “food and drink perks” to the artists.
“We’re working toward trying to do more for performing artists,” Hunter conceded. “In 2022, we plan on making some of our shows ticketed to try and raise more funds for compensating artists.”
Karen noted they also “seek to support artists through active promotion, to provide a dedicated, experienced audio-tech, and during performances, we intentionally cultivate an affirming experience for artists by asking patrons to practice active listening and to tip generously, in order to honor the time, talent, and initiative that has gone into the work they’ve put in both before and during the performance.”
Future plans also call for possible expansion of the space “to utilize more of the building … for uses that will complement The Stray’s current offerings.”
Artists and musicians can apply for performances or artwork displays online at thestraycafe.com.
PHOTO GALLERY: La Furia Del Ritmo, Delman Valenzuela at The Stray
Photos by Anthony Norkus