Music Fest took over three Milwaukee Avenue venues: Cole’s Bar, Cafe Mustache, and Easy Does It. These signs welcomed fans from the doors of Cole’s and Cafe Mustache. Credit: Jinnie Smalls

By the time SolDial ascended onto the tiny corner stage at Cafe Mustache for their Saturday-night set, the audience was warmed up—the Chicago band had been preceded by seven hours of live music. Twinkling red drapes adorned the walls behind them, and the bar’s signature old cathode-ray tube TV sets were stacked behind the drum kit. The six players—a singer, saxophonist, guitarist, drummer, keyboardist, and bassist—fell into the chorus of one of their soulful songs, and the crowd, which filled the cozy venue from the stage to the bar, fell under the spell of the vocals and echoed the lyrics back. The saxophone crooned beneath the melody.

SolDial at Cafe Mustache on Saturday night (audience recording by Debbie-Marie Brown)

Saturday was the second day of the inaugural Music Fest, and Darien Sea, one of the two producers of the search-engine-proof event, stood outside the Logan Square venue with me and explained the geography of the three venues participating. “So we’re on Milwaukee Avenue, which is like a diagonal street,” he said. “Chicago’s got a bunch of diagonal streets that kind of like cut through the city.” He turned and gestured toward Fullerton behind him. “We’re in between the streets of Fullerton and California. On this strip, there’s three active venues right now.” 

He was referring to Cafe Mustache, Easy Does It, and Cole’s Bar, which are spread out on a short stretch of Milwaukee among several other bars that don’t book music. The other producer of Music Fest, Dani Eaton, books at Cole’s. She came up with the idea for Music Fest with a friend and roped Sea into it after she’d begun brainstorming.

For the past two years, Sea was the booker at Cafe Mustache, but he just switched to a similar gig at the California Clipper. He also plays music—he’s been in Unmanned Ship and Mines, among others—and his contributions to Music Fest were inspired in part by touring with one of his bands to Austin and New Orleans. He said that in those cities there’s music happening everywhere, all the time. “We could walk by any establishment and hear dope-ass music,” Sea explained. “And this is the only block, really, in Chicago where this could happen.”

Music Fest’s Instagram page says the festival “highlights Chicago’s underground independent arts scene through the lens of equity and accessibility.” Sea and Eaton booked more than four dozen acts, including rappers, rock bands, DJs, and variety shows, from Friday, October 7, through Sunday, October 9, at those three venues on Milwaukee. They included rappers Semiratruth, Qari, Saint Icky, and GreenSllime, jazz-fusion group Cordoba, indie-rock duo Orisun, artsy singer-songwriter Sacha Mullin, and beat-scene DJ and producer Fess Grandiose. It was the first time Easy Does It had hosted live music since reopening under that name (it was formerly known as East Room) and the first attempt at an indoor festival happening simultaneously at multiple venues on the strip. 

Saint Icky grips a microphone in front of Cafe Mustache's signature heap of old cathode-ray-tube TVs.
Saint Icky at Cafe Mustache on Saturday Credit: Jinnie Smalls

David Blair II, a south-side native who melds rock and soul to make what he calls “timeless” music, played a solo piano set at Cafe Mustache on Saturday. He was impressed by Music Fest’s arrangement of shows. “I don’t think I’ve ever been to a festival like this that like, you know, all the venues are within walking distance,” Blair said. “Like there’s music going on in all three places at the same time.”

David Blair II at Cafe Mustache on Saturday night (audience recording by Debbie-Marie Brown)

Cafe Mustache (2313 N. Milwaukee) is an artsy cafe bar by day and hosts a wide variety of music—jazz, noise, punk, hip-hop—at night. It functions almost like an experimental DIY community space because, Sea explained, its small size makes it easier to take risks there. “We get a lot of, like, bands’ first shows, which is kind of cool.” Cole’s Bar across the street (2338 N. Milwaukee) has a larger capacity—around 100 people—but both spaces are at least a little divey. Easy Does It (2354 N. Milwaukee) is noticeably cleaner, with live plants and new decor.

When I mentioned to Sea that I’d noticed more Black people in Logan Square than normal, he admitted that, for the past ten years at least, the neighborhood hasn’t been extremely accommodating to Black people. It’s yet another gentrified patch of an extremely segregated city, but you wouldn’t have known it during Music Fest. By 10 PM, all three bars were packed with people from all over the city, on- and offstage.

“There’s so many fucking talented people in the city that never get a chance to play these venues because they don’t know about them. And no one who has been booking here previously really has tapped into that market,” Sea said. “I want to be someone who’s just offering up spaces that I have access to for cool young artists.”

Sacha Mullin plays keyboard and sings, bathed in purple light, in front of a screen covered in video squiggles.
Sacha Mullin at Cafe Mustache on Friday Credit: Jinnie Smalls

Sea got his start as a DIY baby, arranging gigs outside conventional music venues. As a teen, he booked his own band for shows at churches and at Brunswick Zones (combination bowling alleys and arcade centers). In 2013, after one of his bands toured nationally, he started booking house shows in Logan Square and “throwing some fucking bangers,” aka multigenre “festivals” with five bands and DJs spinning rap, rock, and more. That’s when he realized the value of organizing shows. “When your house is packed full of people, and everyone’s vibing out to your local weirdo noise shit or some weird rap stuff,” he said, “it’s very rewarding.” 

Eaton introduced herself to me as a single parent and Logan Square resident. In addition to working in-house as a booker for Cole’s, she’s an external talent buyer for places such as Golden Dagger, the Hideout, and Beat Kitchen. Like Sea, she learned the ropes in the DIY ecosystem, putting together backyard shows and parties, touring with bands, and helping out artists as a kind of informal assistant. The first concert-slash-marketplace she remembers booking at an aboveground venue was seven years ago at Crown Liquors, a bar with a venue inside and a liquor store attached. 

She and Sea divided the responsibility to find acts for the three days fifty-fifty. A lot of her contributions to the Music Fest programming were funk, neosoul, and jazz. Even in naming the event, she tried to foreground its attempt to undo festival gatekeeping and open up venues to artists. “It’s like, it’s fucking ‘Music Fest.’ And it speaks for itself,” she said. “You know? It’s not niche-y. It’s not cliquey—it’s for everybody. It’s accessible. . . . This district is literally like church to me. This is my community.”

F.A.B.L.E. onstage in front of a drummer, guitarist, saxophonist, and trumpeter
F.A.B.L.E. at Cafe Mustache on Saturday Credit: Jinnie Smalls

Outside Cole’s Bar, a lively crowd of attendees stood chatting and smoking while Joshua Virtue, one of Saturday evening’s performers, set up their music equipment in the short time between sets. “This is an SP-404 sampler,” they explained to me, after I asked. “I put my beats on here so I can tweak them and work with them and share effects and stuff.” Virtue was feeling good about the upcoming Music Fest set, but a little nervous. 

“I never played Cole’s before,” they said, “so I’m pretty excited to finally be up here doing this.” They’d seen F.A.B.L.E. perform a bit earlier in the night and called him an “excellent rapper.”

F.A.B.L.E. at Cafe Mustache on Saturday evening (audience recording by Debbie-Marie Brown)

Atlanta-born rapper 7000 (aka 7k), real name Brandon Johnson, was one of the last to take the stage at Cafe Mustache on the fest’s second day, about an hour past midnight. His two DJs wore Power Rangers helmets—one pink, one green—as they vibed behind him. Johnson bounced around onstage, exuding the intense energy of Tyler, the Creator or a young Kanye West, for the entirety of his set. It was his first gig in Chicago, and he was hyped afterward. As 7k described the first time he met Dani, earlier this year, he got emotional.

Supa Bwe’s “ACAB” features 7k, Redveil, and Chance the Rapper.

“I was in a coffee shop with my girl,” he said. “I am a nobody, y’all. I got a song with Chance the Rapper that dropped in February. No one knows, but they’ve heard it. And I worked so fucking hard. And Dani walked in that room and was like, ‘Holy shit. Are you 7000?’ . . . And I’m just like, ‘Somebody knows who I am.’ She told me [she wanted] to throw a fucking festival through bars. And this is the literal best performance, rap, any of that shit I’ve ever had in my life. It is a dream come true. . . . I got people yelling my name. . . . I’ve been rapping forever. Music Fest was a success. Mark that, put that shit down.”