Festival one small step as venues band together


February 17, 2006


Three years ago today, in the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 2003, 21 people were killed and more than 50 were injured in a frantic rush to escape from the E2 nightclub after someone used pepper spray during a fight at the South Side disco.

Three days later, the faded metal band Great White started a fire at a club in Rhode Island with their onstage pyrotechnics, causing the deaths of 100 people.

These two tragedies prompted a citywide crackdown on Chicago's live music venues, with police, fire marshals and health, liquor and building inspectors regularly swooping into the clubs as part of what many owners called a well-meaning but overzealous effort to assure concertgoers' safety.

At the time, Chicago was already in the midst of a cold war against popular music. In May 2000, aldermen had passed a draconian anti-rave ordinance subjecting promoters, deejays and property owners to fines up to $10,000 for hosting unlicensed dance parties. The city had helped drive Lounge Ax out of business, and we were about to lose another beloved venue in the Fireside Bowl; all-ages licenses had become almost impossible to secure, and officials had rejected bids by the Smashing Pumpkins and members of the Grateful Dead to perform in Grant Park.

Chicago has long been one of the most vital and vibrant cities for live music in America. But where other, smaller cities such as Austin and New Orleans boast government offices dedicated to promoting their live music scenes, officials here seemed oblivious to how much the clubs contribute economically and culturally to Our Town.

"Every single night, seven nights a week, thousands of people are out spending money at live music venues," says Tim Tuten, co-owner of the Hideout. "You get eight Bears games a year drawing 60,000 people, but many, many more come to our venues over the course of a year. Every night of the week in Chicago is a music festival on par with anything in New York, L.A. or Nashville."

The League of Chicago Music Venues formed in the wake of E2 to trumpet this message, and to give the live music community a united voice. It has no officers and no formal agenda, but it now represents 11 of the city's best clubs: the Hideout, Buddy Guy's Legends, Double Door, the Empty Bottle, the HotHouse, House of Blues, Martyr's, Metro, the Park West/Jam Productions, Schubas and Uncommon Ground.

"You have to start somewhere, and the 11 of us are kind of like the original 13 colonies," says Tuten, who used to teach social studies in the Chicago public schools. "Someday, it could be this larger organization, like the 50 states. Right now, there are no bylaws, no constitution -- it's totally the Articles of Confederation, 1775."

While the owners of many of these venues continue to compete for acts and audience, they realized they have a lot to gain by banding together. "The clubs had been talking about this for a long time," Tuten says. "But after E2, we had more reason."

"We all feel like we've been doing things the right way for many years," says Nick Miller, a club- and theater-level talent buyer for Jam. "But people don't really know what goes into creating a venue and putting on shows and trying to create the right environment. We got together and thought, 'Let's be a unifying voice so the city and the public know what we do.' "

Several months after its formation, members of the League met with the heads of all of the city's key departments -- though not Mayor Daley -- and presented facts and figures about what they contribute to the economy; anecdotes about tourists who travel from around the world to hear Chicago music, and university studies linking economic growth to vibrant cultural communities, in particular urban music scenes.

"I think that meeting really helped put a face on who we are," Miller says. "We made our points about what we contribute to the city in tax dollars and that this is our livelihood, we've been doing it for decades and we hope to be doing it for a lot longer. And I really got the sense that they got it."

Certainly, after months of tension in the club world, the post-E2 paranoia was finally checked; city codes are still rigorously enforced, but live music is no longer being demonized. Now, the League is shifting from a defensive mode into a proactive one, hoping to begin the process of generating local pride and national excitement for the thriving music scene in the city of Muddy Waters and Mavis Staples, Kanye West and Frankie Knuckles, and Billy Corgan and Curtis Mayfield.

To that end, member clubs are sponsoring the Hawk Winter Music Festival at member clubs this weekend, a tentative first step toward creating something like the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin. "We're sticking our toe in the water," Miller says. Adds Tuten: "It's a party that forces us to experiment, do a project together and see if we can pull it off. It's not a big deal yet; it's just trying to get something started."

Smartly scheduled to coincide with the city's Winter Delights Festival, the Hawk, which takes its name from Lou Rawls' description of Chicago's biting wind, doesn't feature a lot of impressive names, and the bookings seem thoroughly random. Honestly, it could be any weekend in February, live music's slowest month.

But remember: This is an experiment, and hopefully it will grow into something bigger and better. If Austin, a city one-tenth the size of Chicago, can host the country's best annual music festival, what could the Windy City accomplish?

Hawk shows tonight include Johnnie Bassett, Sharon Lewis and Harmonica Hinds at Buddy Guy's Legends, 754 S. Wabash ($15); Tim Reynolds at Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee ($12); the Ruiners at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western ($8); Palaxy Tracks, Roommate and Velvetron at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia ($8); Monday Michiru at HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo ($20); Oteil & the Peacemakers on the Back Porch Stage at House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn ($15); B.B. King on the main stage of House of Blues, $75; Chicago Afrobeat Project and the Fareed Haque Group at Martyrs, 3855 N. Lincoln ($10); Stars and the Elected at Metro, $16; the Undertow Orchestra featuring Vic Chesnutt and Mark Eitzel at Park West, 322 W. Armitage ($18); Brandi Carlile with Dick Prall at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport ($10), and Andy Zipf, Mike Reeb and Josh Harty at Uncommon Ground, 3800 N. Clark (free).

On Saturday, the lineup is Legends: Eddie C. Campbell, Sammy Fender and Eric Noden ($15); Double Door: Bad News Jones, Tabakin, Know Boundries and Animate Objects ($18); Empty Bottle: the Returnables, the Dials and the Negligents ($8); Hideout: Life During Wartime Dance Party ($5); HotHouse: Tiempo Libre ($20); House of Blues Back Porch: Oteil & The Peacemakers ($15); House of Blues main stage: Rik Emmett Band ($18.50); Metro: JT & the Clouds, Cameron McGill & What Army, Katie Todd Band and Brad Peterson ($9); Martyrs: Splean ($35); Schubas: Ariel Pink with Belong and Volcano! ($8); Uncommon Ground: Sam Shaber, Aerin Tedesco and Andrea Bunch (free).

The Hawk concludes on Sunday with Legends: Byther Smith ($10); Empty Bottle: Black Angels ($8); Hideout: Mucca Pazza ($5); HotHouse matinee: Famoudou Don Moye ($15); HotHouse evening: Nick Tremulis Orchestra, Jon Langford and Rick Rizzo ($15); House of Blues main stage: Trapt, Silvertide and 1000 Foot Crutch ($17); Metro: The Hawk Children's Festival with Julie Frost (free, 2 p.m.); Schubas: Old School Freight Train ($8) and Uncommon Ground: Amanda Crumley (free).

In the festival's most obvious attempt to emulate SXSW, all of the clubs will be selling one pass for $20 allowing admittance to any and all of the shows on Sunday only. For more information, visit www.thehawkchicago.org.