Good Moon Rising

Nobody expects to get rich opening a performance space, where financial success usually means just being able to pay performers, bills, and employees. But the rapid turnover of such venues in this city proves even that’s easier said than done. The Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe, which begins its third year of operation this weekend, has survived largely because it has found a way around one of those criteria: owned and run by members past and present of cabaret rockers Maestro Subgum and the Whole–Beau O’Reilly, Jenny Magnus, Colm O’Reilly, Kate O’Reilly, and Michael Greenberg–the tiny Lincoln Park co-op provides its workers with food, shelter, and a stage, but as of yet no paychecks.

According to Greenberg, who books the musical acts, the Lunar Cabaret was modeled after Lower Links, the subterranean Wrigleyville performance space that closed in 1992 after three years of ambitiously eclectic programming. In its two years the Lunar has likewise booked a steady stream of theater, performance art, experimental rock, folk, avant-garde jazz, and contemporary classical music; for hardworking Chicago free-jazz and improv figures like Ken Vandermark and Michael Zerang, it’s become a creative hub. While significant international artists continue to show up on the schedule–goofy experimental songster Eugene Chadborne, minimalist ambient composer Carl Stone, and vocal dadaist Jaap Blonk all perform in November–locals are still the Lunar’s bread and butter.

On the business side, too, the Lunar has kept things simple–and they’ll be getting even simpler this year. Unhindered from the start by the pitfalls of alcohol sales, the owners have scaled back the cafe menu, making food more an amenity than a focus. And beginning this week the Lunar will be dark on Tuesday and Wednesday, with twice as many performances on the weekends. “We’re trying to save energy and time,” says Greenberg. “We all work for cash in the real world, and we all have creative lives as well.”

What will remain the same is emphasis on the artist over the take at the door, which has made the space a good place to develop new ideas. “We want musicians to do their most adventurous work here, the work that means the most to them,” says Greenberg. “Part of the Lunar’s goal is like that of an artist–you have to survive to keep working. We go through dry spells and come out on the other side. The biggest ambition for the club and myself is to just keep going.”

Some of the real fruits of his labor should be in evidence on Friday, during the record-release party for Hidden Chronicles, Greenberg’s duo with Beau O’Reilly. Their debut revamps the quirky cabaret stylings of Maestro in a spare vocal-piano setting, bolstered by a variety of guest artists such as drummer Damon Short, trombonist Jeb Bishop, and vibraphonist Carrie Biolo-Thompson, all of them regular Lunar performers. Other group members are busy as well: Magnus is working on an album to be released next year, and she remains active in the Curious Theatre Branch, the troupe she leads with Beau and Colm O’Reilly.

Greenberg insists that the Lunar’s artist-friendly MO doesn’t have to be such an anomaly in Chicago. “If I have a gripe about artists it’s how many of them sit back and let people who aren’t artists decide the conditions in which their work will be presented. There’s strength in numbers, and if you can agree on a common goal you can get a lot of important work done.”


This weekend Lounge Ax hosts the Oops (!) Indoors festival, the third annual multiday showcase for the local Skin Graft label. The idiosyncratic imprint has made an international reputation by complementing its noisy, absurdist roster with off-kilter comics. Oops (!) Indoors seeks to re-create the cross-disciplinary overload live, sandwiching deliberately goofy skits between band performances. Label boss Mark Fischer was secretive about this year’s theatrical offerings–which probably means he hasn’t figured out what exactly they’ll be yet–but for Friday he promises something on a “Shakespearean” scale, “tragedy and a bit of morality.” (Perhaps he’s trying to compensate for the antidrama of last year’s gorilla-mummy chess match and impenetrable “pickle” bit.) Friday’s lineup presents U.S. Maple, Brise-Glace, the Flying Luttenbachers, and Colossamite, while Saturday will feature noisome turns from Mount Shasta, You Fantastic!, Lake of Dracula, and Japan’s Melt-Banana.

This weekend also marks the premiere of the Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival. Joining prominent local talent such as bassist Tatsu Aoki, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, and pianist-singer Yoko Noge will be Los Angeles pianist Glenn Horiuchi, and from San Francisco pianist Vijay Iyer (see Critic’s Choice), saxophonist Francis Wong (ditto), and koto player Miya Masaoka. While the event aims to shine a much-deserved light on the impact Asian-Americans have had on jazz, it also celebrates the music’s assimilationist tendencies. Most of the performances occur Friday through Sunday evenings at the Bop Shop; there’s also a Sunday afternoon concert at the New Furama Restaurant in Chinatown. Check the music listings for specifics.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Nathan Mandell.