Surprising almost everyone, not least its organizers, last year’s Midwest Music Conference was a success by just about any standard. Its organizers–Dave Bernstein, Peter Katsis, and Jeff Kwatinetz, under the rubric of Kwatinetz’s Q Productions–saw their primary goal of putting Chicago back on the national record-industry map fairly well accomplished. And even by an outside standard, the conference seemed useful, interesting, and even, sometimes, fun–the panel members only rarely embarrassed themselves, relatively dependable information was more than occasionally dispensed, and the band showcases ranged from the OK (a disappointing Shoes reunion) to the terrific (Material Issue proving itself at the Cubby Bear, Soul Asylum closing down the conference at Cabaret Metro).

And while no one can say for sure what effect these events had on the fairly numerous label A and R people present, it is true that a number of bands prominently showcased last year–including Material Issue, Scott Bennett and the Obvious, and Minneapolis’s Gear Daddies–have since been scooped by major labels. That doesn’t mean all that much–Ministry, Souled American, and Eleventh Dream Day, the cream of what local scene there is, had already been grabbed before last year’s conference. Perhaps the conference is just helping the wave along.

Kwatinetz agrees. “What last year did was just bring a lot more respect and notice to the region,” he says. “Last year at this time if an A and R person came out to Chicago it was a big deal. Now it happens almost every weekend. At the Smashing Pumpkins show [a major showcase at Lounge Ax two weeks ago] there were like eight A and R people there.”

This year’s conference, with Dave deMerlier replacing Bernstein and handling promotions, looks to be more of the same. Last year about 1,000 attended: local house producers and ragtag midwestern rockers mixed with labels and press from New York and LA; and the conference expects an even bigger turnout this year. And the site, in the breezy and decidedly unsterile meeting rooms at the west end of North Pier, where the conference is being held again this year, was unexpectedly friendly. Full conference registration is $95, a little steep if you’re not a professional, but includes a pass to all the participating clubs for all four days. (The pass alone costs $25.) Still, even outsiders might find the panels amusing–at affairs like this there’s generally a lot of breast-beating. The censorship panel, for instance, Friday at noon, features Bill Paige, who’s written about the record-labeling imbroglio for Playboy, and Trib rock critic Greg Kot. Later Friday, there’s an artists panel, which at press time was allegedly to include Bobby Z, formerly of Prince’s band and now a recording artist on his own; funk bassist extraordinaire Bootsy Collins; members of the BoDeans; fireburner guitarist Buddy Guy; house star Mr. Lee; and more.

Of the showcases, there are a few bills that stand out. Friday, popster Jim Ellison and his delicious Material Issue are triumphantly headlining Cubby Bear (1059 W. Addison, 327-1662); Mr. Lee and a full bill of Chicago dance and house music will play at the Riviera (4746 N. Racine, 769-6300); and Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans’ friendly and percolating roots rock fills Lounge Ax (2438 N. Lincoln, 526-6620). But the hottest bill of the night is at Cabaret Metro (3730 N. Clark, 549-0203), where the outlandish New Duncan Imperials open for Indianapolis’s luminous Vulgar Boatmen; there’s a buzz out as well for openers the Something Brothers, from Bloomington.

Saturday, ex-Husker Du drummer Grant Hart gets drunk and pours out his soul at Lounge Ax; the humid Spies Who Surf do their instrumental thing with cool Indianapolitans the Datura Seeds at Avalon (959 W. Belmont, 472-3020); and Cubby Bear hosts the unrelenting onslaught of two of Touch and Go Records’ finest, Urge Overkill and the amazing Didjits, from Champaign.

And Sunday, Minneapolis’s the Magnolias and Babes in Toyland are a good bet at Metro; the absurdist cowboys of Goober & the Peas headline at Lounge Ax; and more blistering grunge can be had at Cubby Bear, as Die Kreuzen, Godspeaks, and Zoetrope display the latest trends in noise-meistering.

If, after all this, you need a little calming down, sneak off to Czar Bar (1814 W. Division, 384-8179) for local heroes M.O.T.O., the sick pop doings of Paul Caporino and Beck Dudley, and Freakwater, Eleventh Dream Day drummer Janet Beveridge Bean playing guitar and singing country with pal Catherine Irwin. It’s not a conference showcase so admission is separate.

The $25 showcase pass, good Thursday through Sunday almost everywhere, can be purchased at the conference HQ at North Pier (401 E. Illinois). Note that almost everything is subject to change; more info can be had at 876-1766.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.