Beau O’Reilly keeps the folk cabaret alive

Categories: Chicago Reader
His weekend bookings upstairs at Jimmy Beans Coffee preserve the intimacy, smarts, and daring of this endangered musical tradition.

The email Paul Finkelman received last month from Beau O’Reilly read simply, “Can your car fit a piano? . . . Please advise.”

The answer was obviously no. Finkelman owned a small hatchback—and besides, there was no way a piano would make it up the narrow stairs at Jimmy Beans Coffee, where he works as manager. O’Reilly has recently transformed the cozy second-floor room above that Logan Square storefront coffee roaster into a weekend cabaret. It’s quickly become a home for folk singers and other left-of-center performers orphaned by the dwindling number of venues that cater to intimate listening—in recent years, for instance, No Exit and the Heartland Cafe both shuttered after decades-long runs.

Hours later, O’Reilly and “three European guys in track suits” showed up with the piano, says Finkelman. In under an hour they somehow hauled it upstairs in time for the show that Saturday night: singer-songwriter Vernon Tonges, who accompanies his full-throated howl with his stomping foot, and Crooked Mouth, O’Reilly’s rock band, now in its 14th year. “It’s been a good kind of crazy,” Finkelman says of the cabaret, which opened in March. “To know Beau is to know Chicago.”

Indeed, O’Reilly has been a fixture on the city’s theater and music scenes since the late 1970s. That’s when he moved here from DeKalb, where he cut his teeth in the folk world by booking Juicy John Pink’s, a club that he and his friends briefly took over in 1975. At the time, folk music had largely died as a popular phenomenon in America, except in Chicago—here it breathed a second life throughout the decade due to a healthy ecosystem of clubs in Old Town and Lincoln Park, where singer-songwriters such as John PrineFred HolsteinMichael Smith, and Steve Goodman honed their craft.

O’Reilly either saw or booked all of them, including national folk music luminaries Greg Brown, Eric Andersen, Rosalie Sorrels, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. A revelation he had in those days is what drives him, at age 68, to use Jimmy Beans to make his return to booking shows: tiny rooms are mighty rooms for making it easier to showcase “work that’s surprising and well-made.”

“You can really see the craft. One or two people with acoustic guitars can not only do that as well as a big band, but they can do it more fluidly,” O’Reilly says. “And that’s a remarkable thing to experience for an audience member—work being made especially for you right in front of you. It’s a rare thing.”

The cabaret space at Jimmy Beans holds about 25 people, which means every performance is a boutique experience. O’Reilly greets audience members downstairs in the cafe and directs them up a narrow wooden staircase that leads to what could be an apartment living room—except for the PA system, the lighting rig, and the wooden risers with seats.

“There’s nowhere to go—it’s a captive audience,” says Chris Schoen, a member of Theater Oobleck who has long incorporated songs into theater performances. On a recent Saturday night, he used his Jimmy Beans set to do something that’s unfortunately become rare in the world of Chicago folk: perform solo to a room of active listeners. During his set he broke the fourth wall to poll the audience about chord progressions, chatted up a woman in the front row who’d brought her comfort dog, and spoke about the influence of the late Ohio songwriter J.D. Hutchison before performing Hutchison’s “Since My Bird Has Flied Away,” a mesmerizing ballad elevated by Schoen’s fluid and playful fingerpicking.

“You want to be seen and heard, and that’s why you do it, but that comes with risks and vulnerability,” Schoen says. “It’s a good scary.”

Jimmy Beans opened in 2016. Finkelman, 32, was hired in 2018 and soon started using the upstairs space for community events: art shows, a Juneteenth exhibition, meetings by local groups. O’Reilly met Finkelman in a classroom at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he teaches writing and Finkelman is among his students. “It’s hard to find anywhere in a big city to just gather, especially if you want to do art,” says Finkelman, who says the pandemic has further eroded people’s desire to get together. COVID continues to hurt many music clubs and theaters, but O’Reilly figures that keeping things small—fewer seats to fill, less risk—could be a sustainable path forward.

“Fringe theater and acoustic music get away with making smart work right now that big venues can’t,” O’Reilly explains. “Partly because I don’t have to sell 300 tickets tonight in order to do my show. I just have to sell 15. Because my show is for those 15 people. And I’m OK about that. I’m hungry for it. I want that kind of direct connection.”

That formula has been a hallmark of O’Reilly’s since the beginning. He came into this world in a big family—he’s the fifth of 14 children—that was squeezed tight into a small cottage in Crystal Lake. His parents were both theater performers, singers, and writers; his father, James O’Reilly, was notably the artistic director of the Court Theatre at the University of Chicago and the Body Politic Theatre in Lincoln Park. O’Reilly likewise became a pillar of the theater scene, cofounding the Curious Theatre Branch and working as a prodigious playwright and actor; he’s also recorded and performed with numerous musical groups, including Crooked Mouth and Maestro Subgum & the Whole.

For O’Reilly, as with most music and theater artists on the fringe, going small has always worked best to create moments that are difficult to forget. One night in December 1994 at the Lunar Cabaret (a Lincoln Avenue storefront where O’Reilly booked for about five years in the 90s), Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt watched one of O’Reilly’s plays early in the evening, then headlined the late show. Van Zandt, at that point little known outside folk-country circles, was deep into his alcoholism. In the 25-seat room, he sat on a stool and watched the play. When it was over, he turned to O’Reilly and asked with utter sincerity, “Can you write me something and make me beautiful too?” When Van Zandt performed Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Street” that night, he started crying and couldn’t finish. He was dead two years later.

To open for Van Zandt, O’Reilly had booked Diane Izzo, a local songwriter and friend he helped showcase over the years. She too didn’t fit the traditional folk mold; her dark and lyrical self-titled 1999 album drew comparisons to Patti Smith and Nick Drake, and her songs were later covered by the likes of Jim James from My Morning Jacket. She died in 2011.

Lunar Cabaret, like other small homes O’Reilly has created for acoustic music over the years, belonged to a fading tradition of folk clubs. In Chicago, the phenomenon of the folk singer as we understand it today dates back to the 1950s with the College of Complexes, an itinerant space that for decades hosted freewheeling soapbox debates, art shows, poetry, plays, and music, as well as the Gate of Horn, the nation’s first nightclub exclusively dedicated to folk music. The tradition later found fertile ground at the Fifth Peg, a Lincoln Park storefront where John Prine got his start, the Earl of Old Town, Somebody Else’s Troubles, and Holsteins, and later still at the Heartland Cafe and No Exit, both in Rogers Park.

Today, house concerts make up the majority of the touring circuit, though several venues continue to operate in the Chicago area: the two locations of Uncommon Ground and the Gallery Cabaret, all in the city, the Two Way Street Coffee House in Downers Grove, and the monthly Maple Street Concerts series in Lombard, among others.

Chicago folk singer Andrew Calhoun, whose career stretches back to the days O’Reilly booked him at Juicy John Pink’s, calls the Jimmy Beans space “an ideal venue” because “it has the intimacy of a house concert with the focus of a theater.” Calhoun, who will play the room on June 3, headlined it last month. He sang original songs plus others transcribed from Scottish poet Robert Burns, all without the PA—primarily because, to him, it sounded more natural that way. It’s a style tailored for attentive ears. The cabaret “is exactly what I need as an outlet where I know people will be listening,” he says.

The cabaret is not only for longtime practitioners but also for newcomers. A triple bill last month included Evan Wood, an SAIC student exploring songwriting, and Jim Joyce, a Chicago high school English teacher who played a deconstructed set of folk-punk and comedy.

Encouraging new folk-minded songwriters by giving them a space is O’Reilly’s new mission. The music, powerful in its minimalism, deserves it, he says.

“It’s a precious commodity—this was hugely important music, not only in 1966 but in 1936. It’s how culture moved around the country,” O’Reilly says. “Woody Guthrie wrote hundreds of songs, not because he was bored but because there was a lot to talk about. That’s something that’s worth preserving and is still what makes it exciting.”

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