On Saturday evening, a little independent coffee shop in our little bohemian town of Ferndale will begin its attempt to enter the Guinness World Records for the longest concert ever. And the thousands of musicians involved will do it not for money, not for fame, but simply to bring the community together, highlight local businesses and charities and, really, just for the heck of it.
For 15 consecutive days, from 5 p.m. Saturday through 5 p.m. April 3), AJ’s Music Café on West Nine Mile Road will host a concert where the music won’t stop for longer than 30 seconds between songs or five minutes between performers. That’s 360 hours of continuous music – which is quite a feat.
“It’s so hard to do,” café owner and event organizer AJ O’Neil admits. And he should know, since he’s done this a few times before.
The longest concert ever …
It all started in 2008 when O’Neil staged a 50-hour, nonstop performance of “Danny Boy” featuring 1,000 performers singing 700 different renditions of the Irish ballad. He promptly sent proof of the endeavor to the Guinness World Records people. And while they admitted he most likely did set the record for longest continuous performance of “Danny Boy,” they didn’t particularly want to open a new category and suggested he try to break the record for longest concert instead.
Indeed, in early April 2009, O’Neil and hundreds of local musicians did set that record, clocking in at 288 hours of near-continuous music. The next year, they did it again, setting a record of 313 hours.
The concerts, which O’Neil had staged as a community-building event to raise awareness of the plight of Detroit’s autoworkers and the local unemployed workforce in general, were well-received.
The event, dubbed the Assembly Line Concert (in tribute to Big Three factory workers, as well as a description of the show itself), drew coverage from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC and other news organizations from around the world. Then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm even stopped in to lend her support to the concert, which never actually solicited money for any specific cause but rather shined a spotlight on the plight of the local economy.
After the Assembly Line Concert’s “Second Shift” in 2010 was a huge success, O’Neil felt proud – of his supporters, of his community, and of himself. But he also let out a sigh and thought, “Well, we did it. We don’t have to do this anymore.”
But then, just three months later, on July 24 at the Red Rabbit Pub Pizza and Grill in John’s Creek, GA, O’Neil’s record was broken. The new record for “the longest concert by multiple artists” is 343 hours, seven minutes and 52 seconds – 30 hours longer than the Assembly Line Concert.
O’Neil just couldn’t abide being beaten so quickly, so he decided to break the record again this year by staging a 15 day nonstop concert – 360 hours, or “full circle,” O’Neil said.
The original Assembly Line Concert was conceived to spotlight southeast Michigan’s economic woes and growing unemployment rate.
“The Big Three doesn’t take into account that by eliminating local workers, they are also eliminating local consumers,” O’Neil said. “They just think in terms of profit margins. But workers’ salaries allow them to buy those same companies’ cars, go on vacation, go bowling and buy a frickin’ latte. You don’t have Wall Street without Main Street.”
But the idea of the concert was never to solicit money or support any particular charity – simply to raise awareness and show that our community can work together when we put our minds to something.
This year, however, O’Neil has decided to let local causes take ownership of specific days of the concert. Nonprofit groups and other organizations, including Community Living Services, the Autism Society of Michigan, United Auto Workers, Higher Ground, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Focus Hope, will be on hand to inform the community and solicit donations as they wish.
“The emphasis is on community,” O’Neil said. “We’re all in this together. And if you think about it, coffeehouses have historically been ground zero for revolution. The French Revolution started in a coffee house. The American Revolution started in the back of a tavern. That’s just the type of feeling that this place engenders.”
A majority of the performers at the Assembly Line Concert will be local citizens with a desire to be part of history. But while Kid Rock, Eminem and Aretha Franklin have yet to confirm whether they'll perform, there are some big names on tap.
Eddie Baranek, leader of long-running Detroit rock band The Sights and an instructor at Rochester’s School of Rock, said the concept for the Assembly Line Concert “just totally fits AJ – it’s so weird and quirky and positive for the community.”
Baranek, who moved into this area three years ago (he lived in Ferndale for a while and recently bought a house just north of Nine Mile in Oak Park), will perform all Small Faces covers during hour 223 (11 p.m.-midnight March 28), and his School of Rock band of adult students, Group Therapy, will perform during hour 97 (5-6 p.m. March 23).
“I just think it’s cool I could roll in at 3 a.m. after a gig and there’ll still be someone on stage,” Baranek said.
And it’s not just local musicians who will grace the AJ’s stage. There are local political figures, as well.
Butch Hollowell, who served as Granholm’s insurance consumer advocate and is currently general counsel for the Detroit Chapter of the NAACP, is friends with O’Neil and was on board with the idea from the get-go.
“Four years ago, when the UAW and the heads of the auto companies went to Washington, they were treated like dirt,” Hollowell said, “and AJ decided he wanted to do something to lift up the community in song, which makes perfect sense because the café itself has a community vibe that’s very rare. So it’s not a surprise to me at all that this has become a celebration of the people who created the American middle class.”
Hollowell will perform during hours 176 and 193 (midnight-1 a.m. and 5-6 p.m. March 27), playing songs that will include John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” and a duet of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” with U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-11th District). Hollowell, a Democrat, calls it a “bipartisan ballad.”
“We’ll do what Detroit does,” Hollowell said. “Work hard and play hard."
The Assembly Line Concert will kick off with a preconcert pep rally at 6 p.m. Friday at AJ’s Music Café. The 360 hours of music will begin at 5 p.m. Saturday. You may join the Assembly Line by registering for your own spot in person at AJ’s Music Café or online at assemblylineconcerts.com/schedule.html.