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240-hour concert in Ferndale to spotlight auto industry’s needs

Monday, March 16, 2009

240-hour concert in Ferndale to spotlight auto industry’s needs

Ferndale cafe owner stringing together marathon show for Friday to get people buying U.S. vehicles.

Jennifer Chambers / The Detroit News

FERNDALE — A.J. O’Neil is out to save the American auto industry one car — and one pledge to buy an American car — at a time.

The owner of a small lunch and coffee shop in downtown Ferndale called AJ’s Music Café, O’Neil says he never set out to save anyone or anything.

But when O’Neil purchased the cafe property on Nine Mile, he thought he was creating a place for locals to warm up with homemade soups and munch on waffle and egg sandwiches. Yet his willingness to lend an ear and offer an uncomplicated, earthy gathering spot created a breeding ground for community activism.

"You never know what is going to happen here. People come in here and talk about what’s important in their lives," O’Neil said. And that includes jobs, and the loss of those jobs — a conversation O’Neil found himself having with customers again and again.

A man employed by one of the Big Three confessed to O’Neil he was on the verge of losing his job. He asked O’Neil to do something to help him, to help everyone in Detroit. "I said ‘What can I do?’ He said ‘People pay attention to you,’ " O’Neil said.

And pay attention they have. O’Neil made headlines in March 2008, when he hosted a 50-hour "Danny Boy" marathon. He recently made national news again with his offer of a free cup of coffee to customers who pledge to buy American cars.

Now O’Neil is organizing the "Assembly Line Concert," a 240-hour music event to begin at 5 p.m. Friday and run for 10 days, until March 30 — the day before the March 31 deadline for President Barack Obama to decide whether to give the automakers nearly $22 billion more in federal assistance.

The concert, to be Web broadcast, is a musical tribute to the auto industry featuring 240 acts, ranging from well-known local artists such as Stewart Francke to unknowns parlaying an hour in blues, jazz, piano and acoustic. Martha Reeves is to open the night with a pledge of allegiance.

The point of it all, O’Neil says, is to raise awareness of every consumer’s purchasing power and collect as many pledges to buy American cars as possible. Concertgoers in person and on the Internet can sign the pledge at

The event will show the world that the people of Detroit are the very fabric of grit, determination and hard work, he says.

"There is a lot of integrity in this town. People feel this is a place we want to be part of," O’Neil said. "The concert is to show the world we have something of a fight in us here in Detroit."

O’Neil has invited Detroit legends Bob Seger, Kid Rock and Eminem. He hopes the trio will make surprise appearances during the event, which he hopes to break the Guinness World Record for "longest concert by multiple artists."

He has also invited Obama along with Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who sang during O’Neil’s "Danny Boy" marathon. O’Neil met the president on the campaign trail in 2008 where he gave the candidate a book called "Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman."

"The president said we need Main Street solutions. The government can’t do everything," O’Neil said. "I have a platform here. We can use it to make positive change."

This week a stage will be constructed inside the café to prepare for the concert, which also raises money for local charities.

General Motors, Chrysler and Ford all have agreed to display a vehicle outside the café during the concert. O’Neil is hoping for some national and world attention.

"That’s why we are doing this March 20 through 30 because the deadline is March 31. My hope is we have millions of pledges by then so they can go before Congress and say, ‘look — we have all these work orders,’" O’Neil said.

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