A GLANCE AT the Reader’s live music listings makes it plain that navigating the scene here can be tough. Rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop, international, folk, country, and experimental music are all well represented here year-round, and up-and-coming and veteran locals can be seen in bars across the city on any given night. Touring national acts play a smaller selection of venues.
The grande dame is Wrigleyville’s Metro (3730 N. Clark, 773-545-0203), where fairly established alt-rock, hip-hop, punk, and pop acts stop on national tours, often for all-ages shows. The smaller Double Door (1572 N. Milwaukee, 773-489-3160) in Wicker Park focuses more on local acts and lesser-known touring bands. The Empty Bottle (1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600) in Ukrainian Village delivers an eclectic and cutting-edge mix of indie rock, electronica, hip-hop, jazz, experimental, and alt-country; the club is also one of several promoters booking shows at the Logan Square Auditorium (2539 N. Kedzie, 773-252-6179), where you can find Brazilian samba one night, punk rock the next. A similar diversity can be found at the Abbey Pub (3420 W. Grace, 773-478-4408), with an Irish pub on one side and an eclectic room offering rock, hiphop, and punk in a theater-shaped space. Downtown, House of Blues (329 N. Dearborn, 312-923-2000) occasionally represents its namesake’s genre, but more often than not it delivers an eclectic variety of rock and pop with occasional forays into international music, country, reggae, and hip-hop. Martyrs’ (3855 N. Lincoln, 773- 404-9494) books lots of local acts, with an accent on jam bands, but once in a while an indie rock touring band turns up.
Schubas (3159 N. Southport, 773- 525-2508) in Lakeview offers an intimate setting for a mixture of indie-pop outfits, singer-songwriters, alt-country, and indie rock. About a mile west is the Beat Kitchen (2100 W. Belmont, 773-281-4444), one of the main outlets for the bookings of MP Productions, the operation run by Brian Peterson, who used to book the punk rock shows at the legendary Fireside Bowl, which still hosts the occasional gig. He favors a hard-hitting mix of punk, metal, and indie rock upstarts, but there are occasional flashes of the club’s past with rootsier performers. Peterson also programs some shows at the Subterranean (2011 W. North, 773-278-6600), which emphasizes indie pop acts. The pricey Jazz Showcase (59 W. Grand, 312-670-2473) is the city’s mainstream acoustic jazz haven, where some of the biggest names in the biz take up six-night residencies; the club recently lost its lease, though it’s bound to resurface somewhere next year. The gorgeous Green Mill (4802 N. Broadway, 773-878-5552), famously a hang of Al Capone’s, features top local jazz talent weeknights and brings in national acts on the weekends with affordable covers. For more avant-garde jazz there’s the Velvet Lounge (67 E. Cermak, 312-791-9050), the longstanding club owned by Chicago tenor sax great Fred Anderson, which just opened at a new location and features some of the finest players affiliated with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. The city’s thriving and acclaimed local free jazz scene can be heard thanks to the co-op Umbrella Music (umbrellamusic.org), which programs shows at a constellation of venues including Elastic (2830 N. Milwaukee, 773-772-3616), the Hideout (1354 W. Wabansia, 773- 227-4433), and the Hungry Brain (2319 W. Belmont, 773-935-2118).
The Old Town School of Folk Music (4544 N. Lincoln, 773-728- 6000) has the best small theater in the city, with excellent sound and sight lines; this Chicago institution (in Lincoln Square, not Old Town) offers a nice mix of country, folk, singer-songwriters, jazz, and international music. In some ways the tiny Hideout mirrors the Old Town’s eclectic spirit, with a good mix of alt-country, indie rock, and jazz, administered by one of Chicago’s friendliest staffs. Out west in Berwyn, FitzGerald’s (6615 Roosevelt, Berwyn, 708-788-2118) is a haven for American roots music of all stripes, but it focuses on country, blues, and the music of New Orleans. Perhaps the most eclectic club in Chicago is the HotHouse (31 E. Balbo, 312-362-9707), a consistent presenter of international music, as well as jazz, neosoul, spoken word, folk, and some rock.
Chicago is called the home of the blues, and there are plenty of clubs serving it up all week long, but the steady tourist business means the clubs don’t offer many surprises. The most established places include Blue Chicago (536 N. Clark, 312-661-0100, and 736 N. Clark, 312-642-6261), B.L.U.E.S. (2519 N. Halsted, 773-528-1012), the Kingston Mines (2548 N. Halsted, 773-477-4646), Rosa’s Lounge (3420 W. Armitage, 773-342-0452), and the recently cleaned-up and relocated Checkerboard Lounge (5201 S. Harper, 773-684-1472). For something more authentic and gritty try Lee’s Unleaded Blues(7401 S. South Chicago, 773-493-3477) or Artis’s (1249 E. 87th, 773-734-0491).
Other, more erratic spaces present terrific fringy stuff. Elastic offers jazz, experimental, and electronic, while 6Odum (2116 W. Chicago, 773-227-3617) is where Lampo, the city’s premier experimental music presenter, puts on shows seasonally. South Union Arts (1352 S. Union, 312-850-1049) and Heaven Gallery (1550 N. Milwaukee, 773-342-4597) are two underground multiarts venues.
Despite the richness of our music scene, the record-store business is in dire straits. There are two Tower Records locations, but after the company’s recent Chapter 11 filing, it’s anyone’s guess how long they’ll be around. Virgin Megastore (540 N. Michigan, 312-645-9300) is a decent chain store, but over the last few years DVDs have been steadily crowding out the CDs. The way things are going with digital downloads and mail order, the key to survival for brick-and-mortar shops may be finding a niche. The best stores in Chicago are specialists: for jazz and blues there’s the massive Jazz Record Mart (25 E. Illinois, 312-222-1467), for rare groove, Brazilian, hip-hop, soul, and jazz there’s Dusty Groove (1120 N. Ashland, 773-342-5800), and for dance music there’s Gramophone (2843 N. Clark, 773-472-3683). Wax Addict (1014 N. Ashland, 773-772-9930) also specializes in dance music, and Evanston’s venerable (and pricey) Vintage Vinyl (925 Davis, 847-328-2899) maintains an astonishing selection of rare classics and obscure 60s and 70s rock and pop.
There’s a handful of decent neighborhood stores, most carrying a mix of new and used records and CDs. In Roscoe Village there’s Hard Boiled (2010 W. Roscoe, 773-755-2619), which also stocks an interesting selection of contemporary Asian cinema on DVD. In Lincoln Square there’s Laurie’s Planet of Sound (4639 N. Lincoln, 773-271-3569) and in North Center Evil Clown (4314 N. Lincoln, 773-509-0708). In Lakeview there’s the Record Emporium (3346 N. Paulina, 773-248-1821). There are also shops that focus mostly on used records and CDs, with a limited selection of new product: Reckless Records has two locations (3161 N. Broadway, 773-404-5080, and 1532 N. Milwaukee, 773-235-3727), as does Dr. Wax Records (1121 W. Berwyn, 773-784-3333, and 5225 S. Harper, 773-493-8696). Hyde Park Records(1377 E. 53rd, 773-288-6588) features a similar mix, and in North Center Deadwax (3819 N. Lincoln, 773-529-1932) sticks exclusively to used goods. The long-lived George’s Music Room (3915 W. Roosevelt, 773-762-8910) is a veteran tastemaker when it comes to hip-hop and R & B, while Hot Jams (4814 S. Pulaski, 773-581-5267) serves the south side with dance records. Heading farther south, there’s Mr. Peabody Records( 11832 S. Western, 773-881-9299), specializing in jazz, R & B, funk, hip-hop, and soul.
It’s a wonder so many Chicagoans go out for live music, since local radio certainly doesn’t do much to help listeners discover what’s new. Except for college radio, most of it is a wasteland of overresearched, overmarketed predictability. There are powerful FM stations representing the standard formats—classic rock (WLUP, 97.9), alternative rock (Q101, 101.1), hip-hop (WPWX, 92.3), classical (WFMT, 98.7), Spanish language (WLEY, 107.9; WOJO, 105.1), Top 40 (WKSC, 103.5), popular hip-hop and contemporary R & B (WBBM, 96.3) country (WUSN, 99.5), smooth jazz (WNUA, 95.5), contemporary soul (WSRB, 106.3), and various styles for boomers (WRZA, 99.9; WJMK, 104.3; WLIT, 93.9). WXRT (93.1) stands out, playing a slightly broader range of rock than most commercial stations, and it’s responsible for the Eclectic Company, a show on Tuesdays at 10 PM, with Jon Langford of the Mekons and Nicholas Tremulis hosting on alternate weeks, that looks at the local scene and features a nice mix of styles and eras.
The public station WBEZ (91.5) features mainstream jazz programming on weeknights, as well as some decent specialty shows on the weekends, but at the end of the year they’re ditching all that. They promise music will be a big part of future programming; they just won’t say how. That leaves us with college radio to fill the void. North-siders get Northwestern’s WNUR (89.3, wnur.org), with its excellent mix of underground rock, jazz, international music, and countless specialty shows. Loyola’s WLUW (88.7, wluw.org) is actually a community radio station hosted by the school that sticks mostly to more middle-of-the-road indie rock with a raft of weekend specialty shows and community programs (including Mosaic, the international music show I host on Saturdays from 2 to 4 PM). There’s also Northeastern’s WZRD (88.3, wzrdchicago.com), whose signal only reaches the extreme north side. The University of Chicago’s WHPK (88.5, whpk.uchicago.edu) reaches the south side with a mix similar to WNUR. WDCB(90.9), the College of DuPage’s station, has become the premier source for mainstream jazz in the area. Fortunately, WNUR, WLUW, and WDCB can all be heard online.