Last Saturday night–warmer than it had been, but still pretty nippy–more than 300 people attended a show by the Dayton, Ohio, band Guided by Voices at Thurston’s. Around the same time about 600 were at Metro, grooving to a triple bill headed by Super Model, a new band formed by ex-members of Precious Wax Drippings. Almost two miles south at Lounge Ax, nearly 400 paid for a triple bill of Veruca Salt, Squash Blossom, and Fig Dish. And over in Wicker Park the new Empty Bottle had a great night as well, bringing about 250 people through the door for a Dolomite and Vandermark Quartet show.
Other bands were playing Saturday night, of course, but that’s what was happening at the city’s more carefully booked venues. All of these figures exclude guest lists, which can account for as many as 100 more heads per show. That means that at least 1,700 to 1,800 people were out late–Saturday headliners don’t go on ’til 12:30 or later–to see rock and roll, and fairly obscure rock and roll at that. That’s a lot of consumers enduring crowded clubs, late starting times, and a cold night to see cool rock music. What’s going on?
Metro and Lounge Ax have established names and extremely strong booking; they tend to do well–or at least get by–no matter what. Lounge Ax booker Sue Miller says her crowds aren’t getting any bigger; the Veruca show, she says, was anomalous. But there’s still the puzzle of where all the people going to Thurston’s and the Empty Bottle came from. While any number of factors, from cabin fever to happenstance to the good press Guided by Voices got, could’ve contributed to the crowds, it seems to Hitsville that Thurston’s and the Empty Bottle deserve credit for drawing out new fans with good bands. The technical term for that is good booking policies.
At the Empty Bottle, the Wicker Park hangout on Western, owner Bruce Finkelman regularly packs the place with bands like Freakwater and Red Red Meat. Several months ago he jettisoned the old Bottle and moved one block down the street to a bigger space with room for a stage. Now he’s expanding into two neighboring storefronts: one will be a combination vintage guitar store and pool parlor, the other a cafe. “I think there’s a heightened awareness of the music scene out here,” says Finkelman. “I think it’s great as long as the quality’s there.”
Thurston’s is the quondam site of the Voodoo Beef Bar. Marc Romano, a financial planner by day, reopened it last summer as a rather generic north-side drinking hole; its upstairs room would have jazz occasionally. It didn’t do that well. “These days,” he notes, “you can’t just have a bar anymore.” Bartender Joel Mark was one of his first hires. On the side Mark owns a company called Lovely Booking, which handles national indie acts like Babe the Blue Ox and Band of Susans; he suggested to Romano that they start putting rock bands upstairs. The club already had a PA system, so the only added cost was advertising. Mark was soon joined by John McFadden, also known as “Skippy,” who owns March Records. Together the pair have kept the club busy with March acts like Catherine and Big Hat, nice booking coups like an early Cath Carroll showcase, and the Guided by Voices show.
The Thurston’s team is part of a new scrappy generation trying to make its own scene. “We’re weasels,” says Mark proudly. “I almost think we’re all helping each other build awareness for this indie rock stuff.” Such energy and idealism is fine, but it’s the size of the audience that matters, particularly if you’re a booker at a club run by someone else. At Lounge Ax and Metro the bookers are co-owners. At Thurston’s, Mark and McFadden have to keep Romano happy, which they do. “I’m delighted,” enthuses Romano. And the kids just keep on coming. “We had 100 people here for Loud Lucy Friday night,” says Mark. “That’s amazing.”
Stuart Rosenberg, in exile from his longtime home WBEZ, is presenting a free concert at the Chicago Cultural Center on Saturday afternoon, February 19, from 2 to 5. The show’s a gift to fans who protested his abrupt canning from the station in November. Scheduled: world music mavens Michael Zerang and Hamid Drake; members of the classical combo Music of the Baroque; flutist Kathleen Keane, from the Drovers; Maestro Subgum and the Whole; and lots of others….The free show by the Flaming Lips (February 18 at Metro) announced this week–what’s that all about? Well, the twisted psychedelic pop band based out of Norman, Oklahoma, released its second Warner Brothers album, Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, last fall. The album didn’t go anywhere, and the band’s future with the label has been the subject of some black humor within the Lips camp. But over seven albums they’ve developed a base of support in Chicago–their December Metro show sold out with no radio play, for example–and late last year the local Warner rep noticed that both the Trib’s Greg Kot and the Sun-Times’s Jim DeRogatis had named Transmissions album of the year. Local sales zoomed. The show’s a thank-you to Chicago for its support–and the start of the label’s attempt to relaunch the band nationally….Pollstar, the concert promotion trade magazine, named Metro its 1993 nightclub of the year this week.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.