The Hideout’s Hiatus

One look at the lines for Lounge Ax’s final shows, snaking out the door and all the way around the corner to the currency exchange on Fullerton in the middle of January, led a lot of people to think a huge vacuum would be created. And nature abhors a vacuum.

Yet some smaller venues that could have become more aggressive in their booking–old standbys like the Beat Kitchen, Thurston’s, and Phyllis’ Musical Inn–did not. And Lounge Ax’s closest competitors, the Empty Bottle and the Double Door, were already going full tilt by then. Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman says that “there was really no difference for us when Lounge Ax closed–we thought we’d probably get one more big show a month. We had already differentiated between what they were doing and what we were doing. I think it’s similar to sports teams–you can keep adding extensions, but the talent might not be there.”

Schubas has absorbed some of the more eclectic national and international touring acts that would have once visited Lounge Ax, but the venue that’s blossomed most obviously in the past year is the Hideout, a cozy, family-room-like bar on an industrial fragment of Wabansia near the river. Still, co-owner Tim Tuten is reluctant to draw any direct correlation between Lounge Ax’s closing and a rise in the Hideout’s prominence: the bar, an old factory workers’ haunt that was purchased by Tim, his wife, Katie, and brothers Mike and Jim Hinchsliff in 1996, had been putting on roots-rock shows since it reopened, and the pace was already accelerating by the beginning of this year. “Some of the bands that used to play Lounge Ax, like the Sea and Cake, would play here, but then while Lounge Ax was there Archer Prewitt played here too,” says Tim. “And some of the people who worked there were working a little bit here. There already was an overlapping community.”

Though they’d never spent a dime on advertising, the Hideout owners found themselves hosting a broadening stream of popular local and national acts, from artists-in-residence Devil in a Woodpile and de facto house chanteuse Kelly Hogan to big roots names like Rosie Flores and Swamp Dogg to the aforementioned Sea and Cake, who played their first local shows since Lounge Ax closed at the Hideout in August. The club also found room for Mia Park’s “Pot Lucky” variety shows and Aadam Jacobs’s evenings of favorite cartoons, as well as various benefits; release parties for local records, magazines, and books; and even the occasional wedding. The passionate, garrulous Tim–who gets up at 7:30 every weekday morning to teach history at a Chicago public high school–acts as the master of ceremonies, going above and beyond the call of duty with lengthy band introductions and aggressively promoting everything and everyone he believes in: a week or so before the election, for instance, he created a homespun karaoke-style commercial for Ralph Nader, which he performed between bands using an overhead projector.

But as regular patrons and musicians looking for gigs may have already noticed, the Hideout’s schedule for November and December is relatively skeletal. Devil in a Woodpile still has its Tuesday night slot, and Leroy Bach and Edward Hargrove still have Mondays, but the only national touring act on the calendar ( so far for the next month and a half is Atlanta’s Rock*a*Teens, on December 2.

This slowdown was partly motivated by specific factors–the holidays, Jim Hinchsliff’s wedding this Friday–and partly by the owners’ feeling that they just needed a break. Katie says that she hopes to improve organization and streamline the club’s booking files, which “grew organically–we have a lot of phone numbers on little slips of paper.” But even with fewer regular shows, the Hideout still has its hands full with private and semiprivate parties (including an annual shindig for the city’s snowplow drivers) and miscellaneous events like a Hanukkah variety show organized by John Greenfield. Tim says: “People keep calling me with ideas. I love bands, but what I also really love is these weird multimedia events.”

But he’s also aware of the Hideout’s heightened role on the Chicago music landscape. “The good thing about being drowned, overwhelmed, by music is that it means that it’s a vibrant artistic community,” he says. “The bad thing is it means there aren’t enough clubs. Because this city makes it so damn tough to run a venue if you’re small. There are not enough places just for live music, and live music is one thing that brings people to this city and keeps people in the city…. Sometimes you think, ‘Yeah! I have to keep doing this.’ Other times it’s ‘It’s 3 AM on a Wednesday, and I couldn’t afford to do this if I didn’t have a day job.'”

Lounge Ax Update

Meanwhile, former Lounge Ax proprietors Sue Miller and Julia Adams have not given up on their quest to reopen in a friendlier spot. “I’m ready for Lounge Ax to be back,” Miller says, “especially when I see the old place still sitting exactly like it was the day we moved out. Even an old coffee cup we left by the door is still there.”

Brian Reynolds, the mortgage banker who bought the building at 2438 N. Lincoln a little over a year ago, told the Tribune in January that a group of investors planned to reopen the space as a different bar–so what happened? “The site was in unsafe condition, in our opinion,” says Reynolds. “There were some symptoms–bowed ceilings, a load-bearing wall partially removed–that the previous tenants may have overlooked. So we brought in engineers, architects…and it all took more time and energy than anticipated. But it’s moving forward.” He isn’t sure now whether the new business will be a bar or a restaurant, but anticipates “an establishment that’s very involved with the Lincoln Park community, with a sophisticated atmosphere, quality products, emphasis on service.”

Miller says she and Adams have seen plenty of places that would make a suitable home for Lounge Ax. The difficulty has been in finding one that meets the city’s zoning and licensing requirements for new alcohol-related businesses. “Every alderman has told us we absolutely have to be a restaurant,” says Miller. “Everything is written to prevent new music clubs from opening.”

Liquor and amusement licenses are nontransferable, and the city has made it tougher to get new ones. A new Lounge Ax would need to be 200 feet from any residential zone and from churches or schools, but also 400 feet from any other tavern–unless Adams and Miller decide to go the restaurant route. It would also have to provide parking for 10 percent of its capacity. And to apply for the licenses, Miller and Adams would have to show ownership of the building or a lease–which means they have to commit to a place before they know whether it’s going to be approved. They rely on their attorney to tell them what the odds are for a given site, lest they invest thousands of dollars just to be turned down, and so far none of the dozen places they’ve checked out recently has passed muster. “I’d like to think we’ll reopen, but I can’t say for sure,” says Adams. “I just don’t see any new clubs opening, because it’s so restrictive.”

Peter Margasak is on vacation.

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