Earlier this summer I was walking through a residential part of Lincoln Park south into Old Town when I heard . . . could it be . . . live music? It’d been so long since I’d been to a full-band concert (March 4, to be exact) that as I approached the sound I had visions of that old Looney Tunes bit where Bugs Bunny bursts from his tunnel thinking he’s on Miami Beach, then runs off whooping into what turns out to be the Sahara Desert.
Thankfully, I wasn’t mistaken—I really was hearing a jazz band, playing on the porch of a cute white house. With drums, even. The sizable socially distanced crowd included plenty of dogs and a small circle pit up front (that is, a small child spinning in circles). The music was pretty good too, and best of all, it wasn’t a one-off block party: a sign hanging from the porch fence said the group played every evening, weather permitting.
Red Door Band by Danny Bauer and Jack Macklin
Front-porch concerts continue every evening, weather permitting, until it gets too cold. Personnel vary from day to day. 5-7 PM or so, Eugenie Street west of Wells, free, all ages
The mastermind of the series is pianist, vocalist, composer, and arranger Danny Bauer. He moved here last August and spent the next several months traveling, shuttling between Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, where he led a band called Safety Squad. He finally committed to Chicago full-time in February, and you know what happened next. Pandemic. Venue closures. Lockdown. Isolation.
Like many musicians, Bauer was essentially unemployed by the time the shelter-in-place order went into effect in mid-March, so he started delivering for Instacart by day and practicing at night with his friend, guitarist Jack Macklin. Then during the last week in April, he fell and injured his tailbone.
Bauer couldn’t work a delivery job while his body healed, so he put on some dress clothes and asked grocery store managers if they wanted live music at their stores. None of them took him up on it, but when he got home he realized he had a stage right at his front door. As he set up his equipment on the porch, his next-door neighbors gave him a tip jar. “They pulled out a bucket for me and threw a twenty in,” Bauer says. “I played for like an hour and a half and I made, like, $40 or $50. And when I stood up after I was done, my back was completely healed. Like, all the pain was completely gone.”
The next miracle visited upon Bauer was a sort of musical Field of Dreams scenario: If you play it, they will come. He recruited Macklin, and by May the two had decided to make the porch shows a nightly thing. Word quickly spread, and months later the porch shows have become something of a phenomenon—they’re still going strong every evening from 5 to 7 PM. The ensemble includes a rotating cast of musicians in various formations: On a weekday night you might find Bauer and Macklin playing a chill set with one guest, while on a weekend they might cram five or six players onto the porch for something more robust. The performers have included a mix of emerging artists and established names in the local jazz scene, including bassist Matt Ulery, drummer Jon Deitemyer, vocalist Alyssa Allgood, saxophonist Greg Ward, and drummer Jonathan Marks.
That wealth of talent helps keep the concerts from becoming routine—from set to set, the musicians reliably come up with something unexpected. The weekend shows (when Bauer doesn’t have to worry as much about aggravating the neighbors) lean toward jazz fusion and challenging arrangements, but the band will occasionally throw in a familiar cover by Katy Perry or Marvin Gaye or one of Bauer’s original comedic songs. Jazz has a reputation for being a little impenetrable, but part of the point of these shows is to engage anyone who shows up.
“I’ve always been able to get lots of people to come together, whether it was in high school getting people to do an after-school prank, or in college, getting bands together,” Bauer says. “It’s just always been something that’s been a part of me. I’ve just been like a community person my whole life. So it’s kind of manifested itself again in this.”
The audience might be a few dozen people on a Monday or Tuesday, but it often balloons to more than 200 on a weekend. And it’s not just neighbors: Bauer says he’s met people who’ve come from as far away as Evanston and Geneva just to catch their show. The people-watching can be just as fun as the music. The crowds range in age from toddlers to seniors, and might include families, small groups of friends, first dates, local musicians, and random joggers or other passersby. BYO drinks and snacks are always circulating, and it’s not unusual to see yuppies clamoring around take-out sushi trays or a Domino’s guy wading through the crowd because someone literally ordered “curbside delivery.” Bauer says fans have also sent pizzas to the band.
Occasionally the background chatter can be nearly as loud as the music, but Bauer says the musicians are totally cool with that. Some people are coming out because they’re serious jazz heads, while others are just looking for positivity, excitement, and something social to do during an isolated time—and they’re all equally welcome. “We’re so happy that there’s people who are just there to hang, and they probably don’t even really listen to a single note,” Bauer says. “I don’t care. I’m just happy to provide the space for them. And then there’s also the music lovers, and I’m happy to get both.”
In turn, the community the band has created have shown their appreciation, not just in enthusiasm for the music, but in sharing food and booze and opening their pocketbooks. Bauer says that on a really good night, each of the players might go home with a couple hundred dollars in tips.
The porch concerts will continue until it gets too cold to play outside. After that, Bauer says he’ll turn his attention to recording some of the material he’s developed over the past year (he’s already posted the four-song EP Porch Power to Spotify). When warmer weather returns in 2021, Bauer thinks the concerts could return in some form, even if social-distancing rules have been relaxed by then. Assuming venues reopen (fingers crossed), the porch shows’ “happy hour” timing would still let musicians and fans make it to late-night club gigs.
Bauer has learned a lot from the experience—perhaps most important is that even when things seem bleak, the universe might still have a couple of blessings up its sleeve. Through the porch concerts, he’s found a creative outlet, a source of income, and a chance to connect with his neighbors and the city’s jazz community. “I’m so grateful,” he says. “I just wanted to play music more than anything else, and I didn’t let anything stop me.” v