The Great Chicago Rock 'n' Roll Booking War of 1990 began earlier this year, when Cubby Bear manager and booker Brad Altman decided he wanted his club to become a"big-time player" on the city's music scene. At this point it looks like the war's cruising right into 1991.
"I'm already 4 and O against Jam for next year," Altman claims, referring to Jam Productions, the largest booker in the midwest. He reels off a list of jazz shows booked for January and February. "I'm thinking big. I want to do big shows here--top-of-the-line, cutting-edge big shows. And I'm going to promote them better too."
Strong words, but they're characteristic of Altman, whose healthy physique and look of wide-eyed naivete disguise an eccentric streak and a devilish penchant for hardball. The results of his one-man crusade have been mixed. He has revivified the Cubby Bear, which is kitty-corner from Wrigley Field at Addison and Clark. The bar--traditionally a nightclub but also one of the city's leading sports drinking holes by day--was musically moribund after booker Sue Miller split for Lounge Ax nearly two years ago. It now books a creative mix of jazz, blues, rock, and reggae acts. First-rate alternative-rock-band bookings--which characterize his main competitors, Lounge Ax and Cabaret Metro--are not frequent, but Altman says he's slowly building up the booking agency and band contacts to do them.
Yet Altman has also alienated most of his competitors, thoroughly infuriating people like Nick Miller, Jam's club booker; Joe Shanahan, booker and co-owner of Cabaret Metro; and Sue Miller, now an owner as well as the booker at Lounge Ax. Altman is known for bidding half again as much, even twice as much, as his competitors to get bands into the Cubby Bear. Often only pressure from Jam and Lounge Ax or Jam and WXRT (which does not yet sponsor shows at the Cubby Bear) has thwarted him. Some of his plans are pointed--he specializes in soliciting bands with long-standing ties to Sue Miller. Other actions are puzzling--he once sent Cabaret Metro a fax that twitted the club for allegedly copying the Cubby Bear's ads in the Reader and then thanked Metro for sponsoring its "Rock Against Depression" series on Wednesday nights and informed the club that Cubby Bear would be taking the series over. Metro, which had been doing the series for six years, ignored the fax and heard nothing more about it. "It's not like we're enemies," says Altman."It was a teasing thing."
Altman's most legendary sally involved the Seattle band the Young Fresh Fellows, which had a long-standing relationship with Sue Miller. Altman puts on his wide-eyed look and says he didn't know anything about that; he merely decided to offer the band's agent $2,000 and plane tickets for a one-shot show.
The $2,000, let alone the airfare, was about twice what the Fellows would ordinarily command. Miller went through the roof, called the agent, Gabe Bloom, in Los Angeles, matched Altman's offer, and stole the show. Altman screamed bloody murder, claimed to have already sold tickets, and got a verbal agreement from Bloom to save the show at Cubby Bear. Whereupon Jam--in the form of Nick Miller--got into the act and came down on Bloom.
Bloom threw the problem to the band, who decided that Chicago was turning into a rat's nest. They didn't want to renege on an agreement, but they went back a long way with Sue Miller, and no one wants to offend Jam. They canceled.
Altman, saying he felt bad, called Bloom and Sue Miller and graciously (he feels) conceded the show.
Such antics have enraged his competitors, but most of them won't talk about it--both Nick Miller and Metro's Joe Shanahan refused comment. Sue Miller is more forthright. "They're screwing up the market. They're painting an unrealistic picture of what bands are worth. And that forever paints a picture for next time, and the fees go up, which raises ticket prices. It ultimately hurts the bands and doesn't help anybody."
How does Altman do it? One of his most engaging qualities is his willingness to talk figures, something that makes most club bookers cringe. "The thing about the Cubby Bear is that we make $2 million a year whether we have music or not. We make $20,000 on a game day. So we can do one of two things: we can ignore music altogether and make it a sports bar, or we can use some of the money to improve the facility and become a big-time player on the music front."
The Cubby Bear is owned by developer George Loukas; during Sue Miller's tenure there he was only a co-owner, and support for the club's music bookings was uneven. But Loukas bought out his partners last year and started a quarter-million-dollar renovation, which will include a new stage and sound system. He also gave Altman his head at night.
The 29-year-old Altman grew up in Chicago and even worked at the Cubby Bear when he was younger. He spent five years running the family's shoe business, Altman's, on Monroe in the Loop. Now he thinks he has about the best job in the world--and he works right across the street from Wrigley Field. Causing trouble is just gravy. "I think Nick Miller goes to bed each night thinking about me," he says, entranced by the thought. "I hear that from agents."
To Altman's credit, he has been enterprising. But while he has precipitated a lot of bidding wars--with the Connells, Dread Zeppelin, Mazzy Star--he tends to lose them. So he adjusts. He's turned the club to blues, jazz, reggae, and world music; he's booked guitarists like Eric Johnson, reggae artists like Pato Banton, and cool rap acts like the Jungle Brothers. (He claims Jam tried to get the Jungle Brothers to cancel the day of the show, dangling a juicy spot at the Riviera as a carrot.) Notably, he was the first to bring in Algerian rai music, with Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui.
Step one was getting something into the club. Step two, he says, will be going after those prestige rock bookings--the ones that Jam tends to have a lock on. Altman points to a recent Connells show. "I offered double the money. They had a $13,000 gross at Metro--the Connells got paid $4,000. That's insane. If they'd played Cubby Bear, they would have made $8,000 or $8,500."
The figures are Altman's, and may not be accurate. A number of things put the Connells at Metro despite the money. Metro's national prestige, for one. Another might have been the fact that WXRT sponsored the show. "[Program director] Norm Winer has a strong relationship with Jam," says Altman. "He should. He knows they'll do it right, and he won't be embarrassed. The problem is that I haven't yet developed a relationship with him. So we're going to start advertising on WXRT as soon as we can. I'm in pursuit of Norm Winer. Brad Altman is in pursuit of Norm Winer, and I don't care who knows it."
The Cubby Bear will always have its drawbacks. Reflexively, the bullet-headed sports fan tends to show up there more than at other clubs. Occasionally, there are embarrassing moments, like the evening of extremist punk music with a baseball game blithely displayed on screens next to the stage.
But Altman's making improvements. Sports still shows on monitors, but he now keeps it off the big screens during shows. ("But you can still come in and see the Mike Tyson fight in the back room on a Saturday night," he says.) Another key sensitivity move was personality training for the club's doormen, who weren't distinguishing between paying rock clientele and drunken sports fans.
Altman loves the Cubby Bear. "You don't have to wear black and be cool here," he says. He looks around. "We're not thinking small here. I want to do a great show every night, no matter what kind of music."
Cubby Bear's 12th anniversary is being celebrated with Zimbabwe's Bhundu Boys on Friday, December 28, at 7:30. It's $8. There'll be two free reggae shows by See-Eye from Washington, D.C., and the Soul Defenders on Saturday and Sunday, December 29 and 30. Shows start at 10 PM. Cubby Bear is at 1059 W. Addison. Call 327-1662.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.