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In Performance: raising funds for Lower Links

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It has not been a particularly remunerative time for some of the city's countercultural vortexes. Leigh Jones, the proprietor and co-owner of the Wrigleyville performance space Club Lower Links, recently had to cut three days a week from the club's programming. What appears to be a static overall audience, slower liquor sales, and new taxes have put the club in a precarious cash-flow position, one that doesn't allow for much in the way of routine upkeep; this weekend, it has arranged a variety-show benefit to raise money to replace some dilapidated furnishings and broken equipment.

Located deep in the basement of Link's Hall, Club Lower Links is a dark and intimate room with jet black walls, illuminated solely by red light bulbs. Jones, a friendly 33-year-old with a distinctive bear-claw bracelet tattooed around her upper arm, can generally be seen there on weekend nights, picking her way through the crowd to take drink orders. She thinks a number of things have contributed to the club's fix. "I blame it largely on the economy," she says. Besides that, the continuing gentrification of Lakeview means that more and more of the club's local audience is moving away to less expensive neighborhoods like Bucktown and Ukrainian Village. Those may be the people the club needs to keep it going. "When we get press, the phone rings off the hook, and my ego gets boosted," says Jones. "But ultimately I don't see the audiences increasing."

Over the last three and a half years Jones--with a lot of help from performers, notably Michael Zerang, who booked the club for its first year--has created the city's most sympathetic outlet for performance art and new music. The tiny space (capacity: 100) has seen a lot of bad work in the genre--guys in leopard-skin briefs and lipstick wailing unintelligibly, woefully obvious performers bemoaning the problems of this or that minority group--but it's also seen the best of the city's flourishing scene, like performers and sculptors Nancy Bardawil and Matthew Owens, Music Kills a Memory's Paula Killen, and performance artists cum "curators" like Lawrence Steger, Robert Metrick, Suzie Silver, and Iris Moore. The club has also been a consistent presenter of challenging, charming, or just oddball music, from groups like Hal Russell's NRG Ensemble to Zerang in the guise of warped folkie Jimi Jihad to free-lance weirdo Eugene Chadbourne.

And of course, it's been the center of a distinctively Chicago variation on performance, the cabaret show, where a dozen or so performers, with one acting as "curator," fashion together a set of small skits on a general theme, usually something involving love, sex, death, or perhaps sports. Recently, for example, a number of performers contributed a four-week series that re-created a 1930s Berlin cabaret through a series of performance essays on what they felt were modern manifestations of Weimarism, a sort of political decadence leading to fascism.

Such undertakings can sell out the club ("A lot of people say, 'Gee, every time I go there it's packed,'" notes Jones) but they leave plenty of other nights to book. The club's financial situation--particularly taking into account its strong press support--brings up the question of whether Chicago can actually provide a big enough audience to sustain such a place. "A lot of the stuff we do, if you go to rock shows, is hard to get: it doesn't have a beginning, a middle, and an end," she says. "It makes you think."

Jones grew up in Wyoming, with a background in anything but performance art or running a business. Her first big job was as part of an oil-exploration crew. After that, she went back to Wyoming, to relax in "the middle of nowhere." "I saved a lot of money, so I drew unemployment and got incredibly bored," she says. She eventually came to Chicago and worked for years as a bartender, generally at Park West. "I finally felt like I should do something worthwhile." With help from Zerang, who introduced Jones to the city's burgeoning performance scene, and her partner Sheldon Grad, owner of Link's Hall, Club Lower Links opened in the spring of 1988.

Like most club owners, Jones reluctantly bows to the reality that it's the bar that makes the money. "For the first couple of years, beverage sales funded the performances; but that's not happening anymore," she says. "People are just drinking less. Either they can't afford it or as they get older they're more careful."

The entertainment Saturday includes local performance artist Kaja Overstreet, an "Egyptian dancer" named Khalidah (accompanied by Zerang on drums), and Old Blue Eyes impersonator John "Sinatra" Connors. Other attractions will include tarot readings from actress Killen, artist Mr. Imagination creating and selling his "sandstone" work, and even a photo grotto built around a urinal for memorial Polaroids. Says Jones: "We'll have pumping water and everything."

Tickets to Saturday's fund-raiser at Lower Links, 954 W. Newport, cost $9.99, which includes two raffle tickets. Call 248-5238 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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