What fresh hall is this?

It seems unlikely that three guys who only started drinking legally within the last five years can succeed where veteran club owner Chris Schuba failed, but brothers Brian and Craig Musburger and their lifelong friend Max Shure, working together as Clark Fork Productions, are sure giving it the old college try. In 1998 the three Evanston natives hope to remodel and reopen the city’s vintage Coronet theater as a full-time, eclectic live-music hall.

Three years ago this month, Schuba, owner of the popular north-side club that bears his name, opened the Coronet with a similar agenda, but noise complaints from neighbors and a liquor license that restricted drinking to the lobby before the show and during intermission led him to abandon the venture in June 1995. The building has been vacant ever since. Clark Fork’s renovation plans include ripping out the fixed seating and adding terraces to give the space, which holds about 500 people, a “20s jazz club” feel. Shure and the Musburgers hope to attract not just jazz but also bluegrass, blues, reggae, folk, world, rock, and children’s acts.

But while Shure makes an “educated guess” that 70 to 80 percent of Evanston’s population supports their plan, it’s the support of a few–one key alderman and the residents who live near the theater–that will most likely determine their success.

Though they’re well connected (the Musburgers’ dad, Todd, is Phil Jackson’s agent), the Clark Fork principals have no experience in the nightclub business. And their four-year lease, which includes an option to buy, is contingent on getting a liquor license that will allow them to sell alcohol inside the theater and throughout the performances–an unprecedented feat in Evanston history. The birthplace of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Evanston was completely dry until 1972, when a few liquor stores opened downtown and restaurants were granted permission to serve alcohol with food. In the 80s the city added a classification for bars, which are required to serve food. But even now there are only three such establishments in town, all of them in the core business district near Northwestern University. The Coronet is in an area with more permanent residents, on Chicago near Main.

Clark Fork will put in its application for the license in the next few weeks, and Shure says he doesn’t expect a decision until spring. In the meantime, there are the neighbors to deal with: at least one well-organized group is fighting Clark Fork’s plans. To appease them, so far Clark Fork has hired a sound company to eliminate noise leakage and vowed not to sell alcohol at all during all-ages shows.

The alderman for the Coronet’s ward, Melissa Wynne, says she thinks the company has a solid business plan and wants the theater to reopen, but that she’s not convinced that all the neighbors’ concerns, which also include depleted parking and large groups of people dispersing from the venue late at night, have been sufficiently addressed.

“If she votes with us we’ll probably have all the aldermen we need to get our liquor license,” says Shure. “If she doesn’t it will be a hell of a battle.”

Free Music’s New Digs

Free-music venues in Chicago are like dandelions–the faster they get mowed down, the more there seem to be. The upcoming closing of Urbus Orbis, where percussionist Michael Zerang put on his broad-minded series, will without question be a setback, but there are three more rooms ready to take up the slack.

The Monday night free-improvisation concerts at Myopic Books (1728 W. Division), started nearly four years ago by Weasel Walter and subsequently organized by guitarist Kevin Drumm and now clarinetist Michael Colligan, have been attracting their most consistent audiences ever. “Lately the attendance has regularly been around 15, but sometimes as much as 30,” says Colligan. Hardly what you’d call a crowd, but not bad for largely unknown musicians playing difficult music. A five-day event Colligan put on a few weeks ago was taped, and there are tentative plans to release the recordings.

Over the river at Xoinx Tea Room (2933 N. Lincoln), reedists Robbie Hunsinger and Tim McLoraine, who play together in the trio Corvus, are curating a brand-new free-music series, and the acoustics of the Fusion Gallery, a cozy back room with hardwood floors and high ceilings, are promising. “Most venues have been geared toward the louder end of things,” says Hunsinger. “I’m really interested in having this space showcase the more intimate side.” The 1998 roster so far includes Kent Kessler, Ken Vandermark, and Tim Mulvenna, as well as small groups like Jack the Dog and Van’s Peppy Syncopators.

And finally, last weekend, Kahil El’-Zabar presented his Underground Fest at the NTU (pronounced “into”) Performing Arts Gallery, a new space at 1716 S. Michigan he’s running with Olu Augustine, who presented AACM groups and out-of-town acts like Pharoah Sanders and Gary Bartz at a tavern of the same name in the 60s and 70s. Though El’Zabar has yet to confirm any bookings for next year, he says he wants the venue to function as a scaled-down version of his multidisciplinary Traffic series at Steppenwolf. “It’s not as formal,” he says, “but it gives artists a chance to work things out, and allows younger artists to perform.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Craig Musburger, Max Shure, and Brian Musburger photo by Nathan Mandell.