Room to Rock

Last September Sean Duffy took over as the talent buyer at the Abbey Pub, the long-standing Irish club on the northwest side. By his own admission it’s a much different scene than what he’s used to. During the 80s and for much of the 90s, Duffy’s independent promotion company, Last Rites, was synonymous with Chicago hardcore, punk, and underground metal shows. “If I got this job ten years ago I would’ve immediately tried to fly in the Circle Jerks for a weekend,” he says. But lately his bookings have been on the rootsy side: Robbie Fulks, Jeff Tweedy, Dan Hicks, the Waco Brothers, Cash Audio, Anna Fermin, and Freakwater have all performed at the Abbey recently.

In 1999, after more than 16 years of promoting shows at a laundry list of local clubs as well as with the behemoth Jam Productions, Duffy had had enough of the freelance grind, and began working as a sound engineer for live shows. “I didn’t have to make decisions, I didn’t have to put my money on the line, and I didn’t have to worry about someone taking my show, but I was still involved with music,” he says. Last summer his wife, Lidia, noticed a help-wanted ad in the Reader soliciting a production assistant and talent buyer for the Abbey. “She said, ‘Look, this is what you do!’ And I gave her the whole ‘Any job worth having in this business isn’t going to be advertised in the Reader.’ It sat for a week on the couch and one morning I kept looking at it, and I felt a little guilty, so I put a call in.” After a number of meetings with Abbey owner Pat Looney, Duffy took the job.

Duffy became a promoter almost by accident. After graduating from Marquette University in December 1982, he returned home to Chicago, and by the following spring he and his girlfriend at the time, Patty Pezzati (sister of Naked Raygun singer Jeff), began publishing a punk fanzine called Last Rites. Some of the bands he interviewed–including Necros and Husker Du–began asking him about setting up shows for them. “They said they always played the same clubs and they were always ripped off by the bar owners, who would treat the kids shitty,” says Duffy. He booked a couple successful Sunday matinees at the old Club 950 in Lincoln Park in late 1983, but he says the owner quickly discontinued the association because the teenage throngs made him nervous. But the success of those shows–over 200 people turned out for Necros and nearly 500 for Husker Du–convinced Duffy to keep at it.

These days there’s a well-established touring circuit for punk bands, thanks to full-time all-ages spaces like the Fireside Bowl, but in the early 80s, most established clubs shied away from punk bands. Promoters like Duffy were always on the lookout for potential venues, and after the 950 he moved on to the West End, the tiny club at the corner of Racine and Armitage that eventually employed future Lounge Ax owner Sue Miller as talent buyer. By 1984 he was booking shows at Exit–including the Fall, Ministry, and Big Black, when Jeff Pezzati was still playing bass in the band–and Smart Bar and Metro. His dealings with Metro came to an end in 1986, after a notorious gig with D.O.A. and Firehose; the show went fine, but when the crowd spilled out onto Clark Street afterward, a fight erupted between some punks and some neo-Nazi skinheads. From there Duffy moved on to the juice bar Medusa’s and the Cubby Bear, where Miller had also recently moved, and by 1989 he was focusing on Dreamerz in Wicker Park, where he booked Gwar, the Butthole Surfers, and the first local shows by Fugazi and Nirvana.

That same year he began copromoting shows with Jam, and after leaving Dreamerz in 1992 he did most of his promoting with them. He also began managing a series of failed metal bands like Wicker Man and Loudmouth, as well as revived punk-metal jokesters the Meatmen. As punk became socially acceptable and the local club scene became more adventurous, Duffy says, his “role, input, and percentage of the take diminished more and more.”

Now he says he feels energized by the challenges of booking a club full-time–and in particular the hurdle of combating the Abbey Pub’s reputation as an Irish music club out in the middle of nowhere. Although traditional Irish acts and glorified cover bands like Mr. Blotto still constitute a strong presence on the schedule, many new names have been turning up since Duffy took over. In the coming months Amy Rigby, Sally Timms, Mark Olson and Victoria Williams, and ex-Rolling Stone Mick Taylor are booked. With a capacity of 500, the club is poised to fill a niche in the scene, providing a good venue for rootsy or mainstream rock shows that are too big for Schubas or the Hideout but too small for House of Blues or Metro. It’s more of a listening room than the Empty Bottle (and the sound system has recently been revamped), with better sight lines than the Double Door and plenty of street parking. And thanks to gentrification’s westward march, the Elston Avenue location will no longer seem so remote to its potential clientele. “I think the room is just starting to live up to its potential,” says Duffy.

Amy Rigby plays this Friday, March 16, along with Verbow, doing an acoustic set; on Saturday the Abbey celebrates Saint Patrick’s Day from 1 PM to 1 AM with Irish bands and dancers, including a set from Michael McDermott sitting in with Fitz & the Celts.


A new rock club is scheduled to open in the space adjacent to Tommy Nevin’s Pub on April 20, becoming the first such venue in Evanston. Nevin’s Live is owned, not surprisingly, by the Clean Plate Club, which operates the Evanston restaurants Pete Miller’s Steakhouse, Davis Street Fishmarket, and Merle’s Smokehouse, as well as Tommy Nevin’s. The talent buyer, Mitch Marlow, who has managed Kingsize Sound Labs for the last three and a half years, promises an “eclectic mix within the pop-rock realm,” citing the late Lounge Ax as a model.

The latest album by brilliant Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg is Solo (Buzz), a typically sprawling set of peripatetic musings packed with pretty melodies, odd rhythmic phrases, and dense, unpredictable harmonies. But for his performance here on Tuesday, March 20, he’ll be joined by saxophonist Ken Vandermark and drummer Hamid Drake for the live debut of a trio first convened in the fall of 1998 to record nervy renditions of Thelonious Monk’s “Eronel” and “Off Minor” for the pianist’s superb 1999 album Two Days in Chicago (Hatology). The show is the first musical event at the city’s intimate Storefront Theater, a 99-seat room that opened last April in the Gallery 37 Center for the Arts, 66 E. Randolph. The show starts at 7 PM and costs $10; call 312-742-8497 for advance tickets.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at

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