Calling All Party People

Since September the local PR firm Biz 3 has thrown monthly DJ parties at the near-west-side club Sonotheque. So far every one has sold out, with crowds lining up outside the venue. Biz 3 has a diverse client pool that includes the 90 Day Men, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and Nina Nastasia, but the core of its business is dance and hip-hop–it represents the rosters of trendsetting labels like Definitive Jux, Rhymesayers, and Vice Records. The series was conceived as a promotion for Puma, but even before the first show Biz 3 had taken the reins, keeping Puma aboard only as a sponsor. “We decided we’d rather make it our own residency and book it,” says Biz 3 head Kathryn Frazier. “Which can kind of be a pain in the ass logistically, but it’s worth it ’cause it’s turned into something great and memorable.”

Each event, preceded by an invitation-only open-bar reception, has paired two respected underground artists for DJ sets: so far the matchups have included Prefuse 73 with Aesop Rock, Def Jux owner El-P with Stones Throw head Peanut Butter Wolf, and rapper Jean Grae with hip-hop poet Saul Williams. This week it’s Anti-Pop Consortium vet Beans and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe. “The idea was to bring people who don’t normally play together, or to pair real DJs with people who’ve never spun in their lives,” says Frazier. “For us, it was just about having our favorite people come and play their favorite records.”

Biz 3 doesn’t make any money at the parties: the performers go home with the take from the door and Sonotheque keeps the revenue from the bar. The company can afford to be generous–and fix the cover charge at a modest seven dollars–because its artist contacts keep the up-front costs minimal. “I mean, someone like Aesop Rock said he’d do it for free and just stay at my house–normally he’d be getting five grand or more,” says Frazier. “We’re sorta taking advantage of our friendships, but most of these people we’ve worked with for years and years.”

The parties are unusual opportunities for audiences, says Frazier, because no promoter in town could afford to put together a bill with both Prefuse 73 and Aesop Rock in such a small room. Fans also get the chance to hear material from albums in progress, sometimes when the release date is still more than a year away: Aesop Rock, El-P, Prefuse 73, and Jean Grae all previewed tracks from forthcoming discs during their DJ sets.

The crowds at the Sonotheque events are a mix of indie rockers, hip-hop heads, and dance-music devotees. This is good news for Frazier, who has fond memories of the community that evolved at the Empty Bottle’s Deadly Dragon Sound System nights in the 90s: “That felt like the last time where indie rock was broken through with dance music in town,” she says. “All of a sudden you were seeing Casey Rice and Dan Bitney dancing to jungle.”

To encourage clubgoers to cross subcultural lines, Frazier is booking a broader mix of performers for upcoming parties: next month punk tunesmith Ted Leo will spin alongside wordy Canadian rapper Buck 65, and potential bookings for the rest of the year include Will Oldham, comedian David Cross, former Chicagoan (and current Saturday Night Live cast member) Fred Armisen, and a DJ battle between staffers from Drag City and employees of local hip-hop label Chocolate Industries.

DJ sets by Tunde Adebimpe and Beans

When: Fri 1/14, 10 PM

Where; Sonotheque, 1444 W. Chicago

Price; $7

Info: 312-226-7600

The Secret’s Out

A few miles away at the Old Town School of Folk Music, local country iconoclast Robbie Fulks is curating his own series, pairing underappreciated Americana artists for concerts on the third Sunday of each month.

Fulks kicked off “Secret Country” in early December with roots songstress Joy Lynn White and rockabilly queen Rosie Flores. He hosts the events, sometimes playing a little himself, and leads an onstage Q & A with each musician. Bookings are confirmed through the end of the year, and starting on January 24 the shows will also be aired as part of Fulks’s new monthly program, Robbie’s Secret Country, which will run on XM satellite radio’s alternative-country channel, X Country (pronounced “cross country”).

Fulks and his wife, Donna, subscribe to satellite radio, and came up with the idea for a series of concerts and broadcasts while listening to X Country in late 2003. Fulks made a successful pitch to the network and then secured the Old Town School as a venue. He hopes to use his series to train the spotlight on artists and subgenres neglected by the mainstream.

“Country music is like an elephant, and a little tiny section of the tail is what the general public hears,” he says. “So you have all this other stuff–honky-tonk, western swing, roadhouse, weird bizarre country, lyric-driven stuff, oddball humor-oriented music–I just want to present that and broaden people’s understanding of what’s out there.”

Fulks has spent much of the past two years organizing and promoting a Johnny Paycheck tribute, Touch My Heart, and sees “Secret Country” as a way to continue his crusade on behalf of underexposed musicians. “I know a lot of really talented, obscure artists, so why not do something to introduce them to a bigger audience?” says Fulks. He’s also finished a new solo album, his first disc of original material since 2001. It’s due on Yep Roc in May.

The second “Secret Country” concert, scheduled for this Sunday, features former Commander Cody guitarist Bill Kirchen and trucker-turned-tunesmith Phil Lee. Future bookings include Nashville scion Bobby Bare Jr. with doom-country eccentric Johnny Dowd, songwriter Buddy Miller with Al Anderson of NRBQ, and former Merle Haggard sideman Redd Volkaert with neotraditionalist Dallas Wayne.

“I tried to do the pairings so they weren’t really obvious and duplicative. On the other hand, my hope is that fans of one act will get into the other,” says Fulks. “Ultimately, that’s the point of the whole thing: to turn people on to music they otherwise wouldn’t know exists.”

Bill Kirchen, Phil Lee

When: Sun 1/16, 7 PM

Where: Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln

Price: $20, $16 for seniors and kids

Info: 773-728-6000

For more: See Critic’s Choice.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.