What it’s like to see live music in Chicago during the limbo period

·9 min read

If you want to see live music in Chicago right now, if that enduring tribal rite of Saturday night still calls to you, seeing a blues band, nodding to a jazz trio, standing with hands plunged deep into your pockets before the latest Pitchfork darling, as the pandemic winds down, you can do it, restrictions are loosening, but understand: We’re in a limbo period. As Dave Jemilo, owner of the Green Mill told me, it seems slightly different. Sort of like visiting Canada. At his Uptown mainstay, gone are lines at the bar, lines at the bathroom, the old standing room crush. “Instead you got a (expletive) line of people to the corner, fists full of dollars, waiting to get in and say I can only let 50 inside at a time: They come in, they see all the (expletive) room, they say, ‘What the hell! You had plenty of room!’ I say, ‘You don’t like it? Call Lori Lightfoot!’ Other than that, the vibe’s great.

The vibe’s more than great.

The vibe’s weird, fun, uncertain, thankful.

Standing ovations for so-so performances are de rigueur.

Yet dancing is sporadic.

The singer who asks, “How’s everyone doing?” has been replaced with the singer who asks, “Been a long year, right?” Tickets are relatively cheap but not-too-subtle tip jars sparkle from the lip of stages. I spent a recent Saturday hopping around, going concert to concert, dipping a vaccinated toe into our live venues’ socially-distanced kiddie pools. Which, at the moment, means no traditional rock, pop or hip hop shows, none of the usual flocks of 20-something hipsters, and little or no well-known touring performers. They’re coming shortly. But at the moment, it’s all baby steps. “Right now, we encourage people to dance within their pods,” said Jake Austen, manager and booker at The Promontory in Hyde Park. “And that’s better than it was. Last summer, we were open on the patio and we were telling people they couldn’t get up and dance. Which is like the worst thing in a world for a venue — suddenly you become the villain from ‘Footloose.’”

Another thing that’s different: Saturday nights start early.

When I arrived at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn, a yoga instructor in rainbow tights the color of a shimmery fish was leading a couple dozen children and parents through downward dog. Because of capacity limits, artists have been playing more sets for shorter periods, partly to encourage more audiences to cycle in and out. At FitzGerald’s, this also means more families, more clusters of audience who know each other, more variations on Saturday entertainment. Weekends here become free culture festivals of a sort, running from roughly 11 a.m. to midnight, on the 5,000-square foot parking lot converted into a patio. Despite FitzGerald’s having three buildings, everything is outside now. The stage is microscopic and wooden, about 8-feet-by-15-feet, fitted against a weathered brick wall beneath a tin roof. The whole thing was built last year by owner Will Duncan. It looks old and permanent, like FitzGerald’s itself. On stage, behind the yoga, a pair of musicians, a burly guy cradling an acoustic guitar and a younger woman with a violin on her shoulder, waited for class to begin, then began picking out “Here Comes the Sun.”

A small girl walked past in a T-shirt reading “OM.”

The guitarist stepped to the dead microphone and mouthed lyrics to himself. A boy stopped balancing like a tree and stared at him. It occurred to me, though boy looked maybe four, he had probably never seen live music. Beside the stage was glass podium labeled “Voluntary Cover Charge” and another child stood on her tip toes, peering into it.

Afternoon was a more familiar vibe.

A local Pretenders cover band — cleverly named The Real Pretenders — played to 100 people who filtered on and off the patio. Some walked past making eye contact with strangers, singing silently, performatively. Most reclined in red and green wooden Adirondack chairs. It could have been the L.L. Bean company picnic, except for that One Person. You know, that One Person, the One who stands and dances while everyone is seated. That person survived the pandemic and is eager to stand up again.

A few hours later I drove south to Hyde Park to see another tribute show to a Tribe Called Quest at The Promontory. Duncan told me that FitzGerald’s wouldn’t book bigger acts yet partly because they’re more comfortable right now staying outdoors, with modest crowds. Austen at Promontory told me something similar: Though summer calendars of Chicago venues are starting to resemble 2019 again, he’s been pushing his bigger touring shows into the late fall, to when he’s more certain that his room — which typically holds about 500, or 362 sitting (with a handful of standing-room spots) — resembles something a little closer to its pre-pandemic Saturday nights. “I can do jazz, I can do more adult things, I can do neo-soul, but more of a rock show where everyone is seated and the room isn’t full, that doesn’t make that much sense right now.”

At the early show, the room appeared vast, the tables staggered in long distanced rows through the floor — each of these “pods” can only be reserved by groups of two, four or six. Which is somewhat awkward, and you could tell nobody really wants to be the first to loosen up. Party atmosphere or not, it’s closer to a junior high dance, where everyone is waiting for someone else to step out and dance, and so gradually, slowly, it happens. As Austen said, they’re going for a party atmosphere, albeit one where the seating ensures you are not going to meet anyone new.

Sunlight streamed through the patio windows into the dark hall. Lady Red of WSRB Soul 106.3 — wide-brimmed hat, red sunglasses, red plaid — warmed up the audience:

“Chicago, I can’t hear you!”

A smatter of claps.

“Alright look, I need you to wake the hell up! You been home all year, and you should be bouncing off the walls! Anyone celebrating any birthdays in the building?”

“No!” someone shouted.

“Anyone celebrating any anniversaries?”

“Celebrating life,” someone else shouted.

“OK, there you go,” she said.

The Tribe cover band was good, game and large — 10 members, albeit playing initially to an audience of around 25. More people filtered in steadily, the room got louder, the band played with energy. They were big, their sound was big, the room was big, but the audience looked small. The band plowed through the show they imagined, not the one they got. A few people bounced inside designated orbits, careful not to drift. Some requisite hands were waved in the air like they just didn’t care. A woman in back watched the entire thing through her iPhone screen — so yes, That Person is back too. Who isn’t back is The Person Who Talks Loudly During the Music — it would seem too obvious, considering the circumstances. With this modest an audience, you watch the show through the performer’s eyes, you see the empty spaces reflected in their faces.

“Wow,” one of the rappers finally said, “this place is massive, isn’t it?”

These podded concerts are one of the more popular configurations at the moment. Empty Bottle briefly had rooftop shows, Space in Evanston had campfire shows; both Space and Fitzgerald’s will book artists to play your doorstep (Space) or on the back of a truck in your cul-de-sac (FitzGerald’s). But in a venue, grouping the audience into tiny clustered households has seemed the most normal. It’s not ideal, Austen said, but it’s better than last summer, when he wasn’t even sure if a horn should be played in public.

My Saturday night ended early, by pre-pandemic standards. By around 10 p.m. or so. Rosa’s Lounge in Logan Square, one of Chicago’s longest running blues clubs, closes at 1 a.m. these days, hours earlier than usual, and shows are currently weekends only. The aging sign out front promises “DANCING!” but inside, the dance floor is closed. That said, of the live music venues I’ve been by recently, it seemed the closest to the old normal. Albeit, as authentic a blues club as Rosa’s may be, normal means a degree of tourism. At one table, a young man wore a denim jacket with “Keep the Blues Alive” stitched on the back; at the next, a guy wore cargo shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and sandals.

I overhead a woman saying that her sister lives in Florida and won’t get vaccinated but also has tickets to see Elton John later this year, “and so I said to her, ‘Look they’re not going to let you in if you’re not vaccinated!’ And so she got vaccinated — the next day!”

It felt like a suburban crowd, finally getting out.

Jennifer Boberg worked the door, took the reservations and temperatures of each person who stepped inside, then she read everyone the rules: Stay in your area, the dance floor is closed, don’t crowd the bar. Boberg said this behind a face shield, and later, when the band started, she livestreamed the performance. She was a fan of Rosa’s who became so enamored of the place, she said, she decided to help, part-time.

In the back, at the soundboard, sat Tony Mangiullo, the owner, in his usual fedora. He grew up in Italy with a dream to open a blues club in Chicago. And he did in 1984, naming the place after his mother. Decades later, there are almost as many people in the quintet on stage as there were working there. Dave Jemilo at the Green Mill told me that he’s working at his club seven nights a week now. “I’m working here like I was working 35 years ago! I should be playing the big shot and introducing the acts! Instead I’m the sound guy now!” Mangiullo, likewise, is his own sound guy and camera operator.

“Hey everybody,” says the bassist.

A few claps.

Look, he says to the room of 50 or so, might as well have a good time, everybody’s been in a pandemic, nobody in here is getting money back, so loosen up a bit, OK? Alright? Good. And now, Billy Branch! The longtime Chicago harmonica player walks through the dark club and climbs onto the stage and blows right into his first number. Moments later, outside on Armitage, there are only two sounds on this warm Saturday night, and they are also the most stereotypical of Chicago sounds, what sounded like a gunshot a few blocks away, and the sound of live blues, together again, like old times.


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