It’s not unusual for a DJ to walk into a club planning to play one sort of thing only to have some bigwig order him, midperformance, to play something else. That practice is unheard-of at Play, an experimental dance music series held every Monday at Danny’s Tavern, a low-key house-turned-bar on Dickens just east of Damen. Organizers Bob Davies (who performs electronic music under the name Pal:ndrom and DJs as simply Bob) and Ray Rodriguez (aka DJ Ray_Rod) give their guests the freedom to play whatever they want, even if it’s nothing like what they’re known for. There’s no cover charge–DJs spin for tips–and yet the series attracts local celebs and touring artists alike.

Davies, who’s 26, grew up on the northwest side, and as a teenager would go to suburban punk shows held in deteriorating clubs, basements, and skate parks. In 1991 he started playing guitar in PLR-1, a teen pre-emo punk band that gigged around the suburbs with bands like Cap’n Jazz and Sidekick Kato. “It was a big influence on me as far as being able to do cool things independently,” he says. “These shows taught me that organizing underground [activities] isn’t that tough.” Toward the end of high school, when he started buying house music and attending raves, he was struck by the parallels between the punk and underground dance scenes.

In ’94 Davies left home for the University of Kansas in Lawrence, a town he found too small, and after a year he transferred to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Though he majored in studio art, he took sound-design classes so he could use the university’s recording facilities. He formed an ambient noise band called Rehab. with a high school pal, Brian Kelly, and he cultivated his DJ skills spinning downtempo (a category that includes trip-hop and other chilled-out electronic music) weekly at a wine bar.

Upon graduating in 1997 he moved back to Chicago and almost immediately began an internship with Charles Little, who ran a small graphic design firm and the dance-music promotions outfit PURE out of the same office. “I didn’t have a lot to do with the PURE event stuff,” Davies explains, “but there was a lot of crossover in the office, and the bulk of our design work was event related.” Davies and Kelly both joined Star Phase 23, an established space-rock band, though they also continued working together as Rehab.

At a party Davies met Alex Horn, a video artist who performs under the name Nanodust. When Horn persuaded the owner of the now defunct restaurant Okno to let him hold events upstairs there, he urged Davies to drop off some of his work. Davies brought over samples of his graphic design stuff along with a demo mix and landed a job doing the restaurant’s menus and promotional materials. Within a few months he was also spinning trip-hop and jungle while Horn projected video art. But the slick restaurant wasn’t attracting the kind of crowd that appreciated loud, dark, undanceable music, and after a few months the relationship soured. Kenny Kordich, a bartender at Okno, was also a manager at Danny’s, and he suggested they try something there instead.

By March 1998 Davies and Kelly had set up Play as a once-a-month residency at the Bucktown bar, and they and other local DJs played any kind of electronic music they wanted. Horn contributed video when he could, but he was busy elsewhere and his participation soon dwindled. A year later Kelly quit Play, Star Phase 23, and Rehab. over a “conflict of interests” Davies declines to discuss. Davies had grown used to working with a partner, he says, so he asked Ray Rodriguez, then a dance-music buyer at Quaker Goes Deaf, to step in.

Rodriguez, also 26, grew up in East Chicago, Indiana, and, like Davies, he started going to raves in ’93. In ’95 he started at Quaker Goes Deaf, still commuting from Indiana, and stocked the electronic music section with obscure IDM and electro records. He moved to the city in ’98 and quit the shop just before it went under in ’99. Soon Play was running like a well-oiled machine, bringing in DJs and live electronic acts from LA, New York, and Europe as well as popular local DJs like Josh Werner and Derrick Carter. In December of ’99 German electronicist Oval packed the place; last year a visit by British DJ Mr. Scruff had patrons standing in line around the block.

Word quickly spread that there were two promoters in Chicago who loved music and didn’t lay any restrictions on the artists. Despite Play’s nonexistent budget, out-of-town DJs and electronic artists jumped at the chance to spin there, coming through to work at huge clubs and staying a couple extra nights just to cut loose at Danny’s. Past guests have included Italian DJ D’Archangelo and Germany’s BodenstŠndig 2000.

Sometimes DJs show up even if they aren’t booked, and once B-52’s front man Fred Schneider stopped by (on the advice of TRS-80). One Monday night in the fall of 2000, John Hughes, owner of the local Hefty label, came into the bar because he’d heard his artists’ records were making appearances on the turntables. He struck up a conversation with Rodriguez–by then a clerk at Weekend Records and Soap–and a few months later hired him to handle Hefty’s sales, distribution, and advertising.

Lately Davies and Rodriguez have been expanding their community to incorporate members of the visual art world too. By 2000 Davies had landed a job as junior art director at an upscale marketing and advertising company (he’s since been promoted to senior digital editor), and was using his resources at work to design and print flyers and handbills. Last year, however, he allowed six other artists–some pros, some not–to get involved, making each one responsible for two months’ worth of promotion. The results ranged from cutesy collaged postcards to bright red foam balls embossed with minimalist white text. “The Play visual aesthetic is just as important as the music,” Davies says.

Rodriguez says the things that keep Play going are more abstract–intimacy, mutual respect, open-mindedness. Inside the candlelit bar he and Davies encourage DJs and musicians to trade demos, and they don’t squawk if someone wants to hand out flyers for competing events. The music doesn’t always have a discernible beat, but when it does there’s bound to be a small crowd on the dance floor. The DJs often bring their own crews along, says Davies, but the regulars come because they know they’ll get something fresh.

Among the more notable Play events scheduled in coming weeks: Hood (April 8), Jamie Hodge (April 29), and Def Harmonic (June 24). Bob and Ray_Rod open for Plaid, Nobukazu Takemura, and Mira Calix this Friday, March 22, at Metro.

Peter Margasak is on vacation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.