Getting a foothold in a city’s underground music scene ain’t easy treading, especially if you’re an outsider. Publicity for shows at hole-in-the-wall unlicensed spaces is mostly limited to flyers stapled to telephone poles—an attempt to avoid unwanted attention (read: cops). And in Chicago, where dingy basements and barely habitable hovels often double as stages, the X that marks a venue’s spot is never as conspicuous as an Old Style sign beaming above the entrance.
During an 18-month commission, photographer Michael Schmelling—a native of suburban River Forest who currently resides in Los Angeles—surveyed Chicago’s under-the-radar music landscape with guidance from knowledgeable locals who spend a good portion of their lives booking, playing, or attending shows, including Reader music writer Leor Galil. The resulting exhibit, the multifaceted “Your Blues,” first focuses on large-scale portraits of some known people around town, including lo-fi artist Jimmy Whispers and outsider soul man Willis Earl Beal. There are stark environmental shots too—a narrow, barely serviceable practice space; a bass drum gnarled to shit. Some feature subjects in full-on hamming-it-up mode, snarl affixed, Big Flats can in hand. Others are more candid, like a photo of Laure Elie from the band American Breakfast in a floral-print dress staring out a shabby window that promises freedom for both smokers and those seeking relief from the stuffiness of a claustrophobic space.
While conducting research, Schmelling was granted access to the archive of Chicago’s venerable Delmark Records, giving the show’s title a literal echo with shots of the ephemera he found digging through the longtime blues/jazz label’s stacks. But the real rhythmic backbone of “Your Blues” comes from the photographer’s experiences in the city’s punk and hip-hop DIY scenes.
Alongside large portraits of figures like Steve Albini, Schmelling’s collages capture the vibe of one night or a single underground space. They’re often organized by theme (one is all about guitars and guitar players). Looks of disinterest or awkwardness are paired with scenes of camaraderie, such as a group of smokers huddling on a fire escape or a couple chatting on a flop couch. For all the visceral release apparent in his photos, Schmelling also deftly documents the downtime with which regulars to DIY venues are all too accustomed. These quiet valleys, the in-between moments spent waiting—for the band to start, for the next drag of a cigarette—can be just as fascinating as the party’s peaks.