- Left to right from top left: Posters by Ryan Duggan, Rob Schwager, Jay Ryan, Chema Skandal, Heather Anderson, Tesh Silver, Eric J. Garcia, John Vernon Forbes, Steve Walters, Ralph Graham, and Andrea Hill Fitzgerald. Anderson, Silver, Garcia, Forbes, and Fitzgerald made “fantasy” gig posters for shows they wish could happen; the others are for actual events.
In early 2011 the Reader launched a redesigned print edition that flipped the music section upside down—the B Side, as it was called, began with an inverted back cover and even had its own table of contents. Our Gig Poster of the Week feature began on that table of contents, as a way to showcase a different segment of the Chicago music community. It's been online only for years, and I took it over when I started at the Reader in February 2019—though I'm pretty sure that all the silliest headlines have been the work of music editor Philip Montoro.
My predecessor (and fellow music writer) Luca Cimarusti showed me the ropes, gave me a short list of some of his favorite artists, and showed me some of his favorites among the posters he'd published. Soon going on the hunt for gig posters became one of my favorite parts of my job—I even started arriving at concerts earlier to see if I could find anything at the venue that might make a future column.
I reached out to past Reader associate editor Kevin Warwick, who did part of what's now my job when he first started working for the paper, to ask him about the rationale behind publishing gig posters. Warwick explained that it was intended to give a platform to "artists who may not have necessarily held proper gallery shows, but instead had their art taped to the inside of record store windows and stapled all over the Empty Bottle, Schubas, Subterranean, and other venues."
Now that social media exists, stapling pieces of paper to publicly trafficked walls isn't the go-to promotional device that it was in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. That said, gig posters are still an important part of the concertgoing experience—and thus their creators are too.
I like to seek out Chicago cultural histories, so my favorite posters tend to be the ones with more details about the show—knowing years and addresses, for instance, is helpful to us amateur librarians. But I also appreciate the cacophony of city life, which is often reflected in the blissful randomness of gig poster art. Warwick explained that the Reader began by publishing posters for shows its writers were covering, but at some point the series became "an easy opportunity to show off art that no one other than the venues themselves and a small—and very engaged—gig-poster community was really showing off."
Of course, 2020 has been a lean year for gig posters. Since March, the pandemic has forced the cancellation of almost all the concerts and in-store performances that would have begat posters in the first place.
In March, faced with an acute shortage of current gig posters, I posted the first of what would be several weeks of stand-ins: a 1937 poster by Ralph Graham for a performance of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra at the Great Northern Theater (at Quincy and Dearborn in those days). It was printed as part of the Works Progress Administration's effort to support artists and musicians during the Great Depression by creating paying jobs in their fields. Present-day elected officials: Please remember that this is an option. Future generations will thank you.
This planted a seed for me: Why not ask the people who love this column to help create it?
I was still sorting out how to proceed when I saw a drawing by Nicole Marroquin about singing DeBarge to your houseplants. Obviously it wasn't a gig poster, but it got me thinking, and I decided to invite people to submit not just posters from past Chicago concerts but also "fantasy gig posters" for gigs that hadn't happened but should have. I posted Marroquin's art when I made my pitch in early April: "Do you wish the 1972 lineup of the Art Ensemble of Chicago could play at Constellation? How about Dolly Parton and Wesley Willis at Lounge Ax?"
The Reader was subsequently blessed with some great fantasy posters from y'all. Artist Eric J. Garcia imagined Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz returning from the dead to lead a hardcore band at shuttered Pilsen venue Casa Aztlán. Artist Andrea Hill Fitzgerald drew Prince riding a bike around the south side before a gig at the Avalon Regal (sadly, neither actually happened). Artist Heather Anderson made a poster advertising a wished-for CocoRosie show at the Empty Bottle.
The Gig Poster of the Week also became a way to honor the fallen. In June, when protests against racist police brutality were all that any of us were thinking about, I asked artist Tesh Silver to help me design a tribute to George Floyd—it took the form of a poster for a gig "Big Floyd" might've played with his erstwhile collaborator DJ Screw had his life taken a different turn. And after Dave "Medusa" Shelton died in August, I heard from artist Rob Schwager, who'd made posters in the late 80s and early 90s for concerts at Cabaret Metro and Double Door. He graciously gave me permission to use one he'd created for a 1987 Meatmen gig at the original Medusa's location on Sheffield.
Over the summer, livestreams, drive-in concerts, and socially distanced outdoor shows became enough of a thing that I could pretty reliably find an interesting poster for at least one of them every week. I'm still accepting fantasy posters (because I love them), but more and more often I have art to choose from that's promoting actual events.
I doubt I'll ever get back to seeing posters all over the place outside like I used to in the 90s, but right now it's not even the same as it was in February 2020. But as long as people aren't too stupid about the COVID vaccine and we all stick to public-health guidelines in the meantime, there's a good chance that in-person shows as we knew them will come back. Let's hope we still have independent music venues by then. In any case, I'm optimistic that once we've got a healthy number of gigs again, artists will return to making gig posters. If they've got the energy and we give them our support, they'll continue to bless our city with their creations. v