Someone’s in the Kitchen

Although the occasional national act has played there over the past decade, the Beat Kitchen has always been a decidedly local venue. Its bookings generally range from popular bar bands like the Waco Brothers and the New Duncan Imperials to hopefuls who draw more family members than fans–and many of the latter move on to higher-profile venues once they get a little momentum. Customers seem to come as much for the upscale bar food as for the music, which is relegated to a separate room. But over the last six months, some strange bedfellows have catalyzed a slow but promising overhaul of the schedule.

For one, you may have noticed more and better garage and blues punk on the calendar; though the Lazy Cowgirls and the reunited Real Kids played at the club in 2000, this trend really started in April, when the local zine Horizontal Action–which champions the attitude rock released by labels like In the Red, Sympathy for the Record Industry, and Estrus between pages of grainy titty shots and porn-video reviews–organized a three-day festival called the Horizontal Action Blackout. The lineup featured a slew of raunchy, high-volume bands, most prominently Detroit’s Dirtbombs, with former Gories front man Mick Collins; New York’s Andy G. & the Roller Kings, with onetime Devil Dog Andy Gortler; and Memphis swampabilly legend Tav Falco.

The zine had been promoting concerts since it started publishing as a photocopied digest back in 1997, at sketchy spaces like the Big Horse, Roby’s, and Pop’s on Chicago–but they’d never done anything at Beat Kitchen. Horizontal Action “events coordinator” Matt Williams says he originally tried to book the Blackout at the Empty Bottle. “They kept saying, ‘maybe, maybe,’ but we were running out of time,” he says. “So we went to the Beat Kitchen and sat down with [owner] Alan [Baer] and everything just worked out great.” Attendance approached 300, a sellout for the room, on two of the three nights.

When Williams returned to the club several months later to propose more shows, Baer introduced him to Derron Swan, who had just become the Beat Kitchen’s full-time talent buyer. “I sat down with Derron, had a few drinks, and we totally hit it off. I had a few shows and we sketched out some dates right there. I don’t think this stuff is really his background, but he’s been open to it.”

But where Horizontal Action is devoutly underground (Williams declined to be photographed for this article), Swan is a music industry product through and through. He graduated from Columbia College in 1998 with a degree in music business, and upon commencement he took an internship at Tantrum, a booking and promotion company that worked with bands like the Drovers, Old Pike, and Front of Truck. That turned into a real job, and a year later he was hired as an administrative assistant in the Chicago office of Monterey Peninsula Artists, a booking agency whose clients include Dave Matthews, Aerosmith, Phish, and Jonny Lang. Among Swan’s less-than-glamorous tasks were delivering promotional materials to clubs, filling out contracts, and monitoring ticket sales. When he was passed over for an opening at the company’s New York office earlier this year, he decided to look around. “I didn’t want to wait five years for a chance to book a college or a performing arts center,” he says. “I wanted to get ahead quicker, and I had known Alan for a couple of years, so I asked him about the job.”

Baer, who was also a partner in the Lincoln Park club Orphans between 1982 and 1990, had previously handled the lion’s share of the Beat Kitchen’s booking in addition to running the bar and kitchen. “I would have given up booking years ago had I met someone like Derron, who was so into it,” says Baer. “He wants to make it his life’s work. For me it was just one more thing that I had to do.” Swan says that Baer has been a hands-off boss, allowing him to shape a new personality for the club.

“I want the Beat Kitchen to become a more vital part of the music scene,” says Swan. “I’m interested in giving this room its own identity. It hasn’t found that niche yet, and it doesn’t have to be the rock club or the country club, but I think we’ll find something.” So far he’s continued to welcome Williams’s input, and admits that some of the most successful shows booked on his watch have been with bands like the Deadly Snakes (with Memphis garage celeb Greg Oblivian) and Williams’s band the Baseball Furies. But this month’s offerings include roots rockers Bare Jr. and the Vulgar Boatmen and British space rocker Sonic Boom. Swan’s also bringing in the popular local jump-blues combo Jimmy Sutton’s Four Charms. “I think there’s a feeling among some of the stronger local bands that they’d rather go elsewhere to play,” says Swan. “I really want to encourage more of those bands to play here.”

It’s too soon to say if he’ll succeed, but considering that no single club has yet filled the vacuum left by the closing of Lounge Ax, there seems to be one rather huge niche still there for the taking. “I think attendance is already picking up, definitely,” says Baer. “We’ve always done fine, but I think the energy Derron brings to the booking is the one thing I didn’t have.”

Here Comes the Son

The Prodigal Son, at 2626 N. Halsted, opened last November and began featuring live music this past summer. The overwhelming majority of the bookings have been unknown locals, but as at the Beat Kitchen, some national indie acts have recently turned up on the schedule, including Track Star, the Seconds, Convocation Of, Lenola, and K. A show with Texas garage rockers the Wontons and the Japanese all-girl band Kabochack is booked for November 7, and the Flying Luttenbachers and the Liars play on the 27th. In this case the man behind the change of scenery is Brian Peterson, who also books the Fireside Bowl, and co-owner Joel Donahue says he hopes Peterson will take on more of the programming in the future, expanding it from three or four nights a week to seven. The bar, which can accommodate about 120 people, also resembles the Beat Kitchen in that it serves food in a separate front room–the menu features 12 varieties of grilled cheese.

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