Robert’s Westside joins several independent venues within a short drive west of the Loop that have settled in the western suburbs.
By Mark Guarino
Dec 4, 2023, 6:00am CTUpdated 11:30am CT
When Donnie Biggins stepped into the space he would repurpose as a music club, he knew he had a lot of work ahead of him. The former sports bar was littered with flags of professional sports teams, Coors Light signs and multiple televisions hanging off the wall. Some of the bar equipment was damaged.
“It’s where everyone watched the Blackhawks. I even went there to watch games,” he said.
That was earlier this year. In just three months, Biggins turned that same space in downtown Forest Park into Robert’s Westside, a new, medium-sized music club designed to bring both national touring and local artists to the near western suburbs. Already the former promoter has recruited for his lineup R&B singer Rhea the Second (Dec. 6), blueswoman Shemekia Copeland (Dec. 30), blues guitarist Toronzo Cannon (Jan. 17), singer-songwriter Heather Lynne Horton (Jan. 18), and Black Joe Lewis (March 7).
All that work in a short number of months is poised to help turn Chicago’s western suburbs into a destination zone for live music, the kind of thing typically enjoyed by people living in the heart of the city. Robert’s Westside now joins several independent venues within a short drive west of the Loop that are finding that suburbs like Forest Park and Berwyn are far friendlier to live music than the city of Chicago.
Escalating rents and property values in Chicago are driving people west to buy homes or rent, so an audience of ex-urbanites is on the rise. Plus, local municipalities are starting to see greater value in how a vibrant live music and restaurant scene can bolster an otherwise sagging commercial district.
Biggins gave the space a complete overhaul by stripping it down to a bare space, repainting and reconfiguring the layout. He installed a Martin Audio sound system and built a stage with clear sightlines. Because the venue is located steps from private homes and condos, he wrapped the stage in soundproof curtains and insulated the club to trap sound within its walls.
Within a few miles radius from Robert’s Westside, music fans will find other options for live music. FitzGerald’s in Berwyn remains a long-time anchor, showcasing Americana acts on multiple stages nearly every night of the week. Berwyn also is home to the Friendly Music Community, a combination storefront saloon, music school, coffee bar, and music room where the owners have started booking national acts like songwriter Amy Rigby and local heroes like members of the Flat Five.
Also in Berwyn: The Outta Space, a destination for local roots country, bluegrass, and pop bands; the Harlem Avenue Lounge, a long-time juke joint featuring the best of the local blues scene; and Distro Music Hall, which features predominantly Latin rock.
In neighboring Oak Park, the independent non-profit space Compound Yellow books players from Chicago’s experimental jazz and rock scene while Unity Temple, Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1908 masterpiece, is beginning to double as a special concert hall for national artists like Lucinda Williams, Joe Pug, and Jeff Tweedy. Dominican University in River Forest often brings in touring acts like Marcia Ball, Shawn Colvin and T Bone Burnett.
Biggins, a second generation Oak Park resident, said he opened Robert’s Westside because he observed “a huge void in the western suburbs” for genres such as R&B, punk, hip-hop and other “genres that don’t get the time or energy” in the area. He wanted to create a home for local artists, but also convince national booking agents that their bands can play to capacity rooms both in Forest Park and in the city because both areas cater to two different audiences.
“This community, whether you grew up here your whole life like me or you’re a city transplant, you’re used to seeing shows at Empty Bottle or Schubas. But a lot of people don’t want to go into the city anymore. I’m looking to give people what they want,” he said.
Biggins, 37, learned the business by booking the Shams, his band, in the early 2000s; he eventually started booking local band showcases around town, which led to a job as a talent buyer for House Call Entertainment where he filled rooms like Beat Kitchen and Subterranean. He purchased Tonic Room in Lincoln Park in 2016 and eventually retooled it as the Golden Dagger where he booked local and national Americana and rock acts. In 2017, he began a five-year run booking FitzGerald’s full-time, although he was already helping book the club’s popular American Music Festival starting in 2012.
Other opportunities started coming his way: The Acorn in Three Oaks, Michigan, Unity Temple, and Oak Park’s annual Oaktober Fest, where Biggins has booked Charley Crockett, CJ Chenier, Lily Hiatt, and Band of Heathens over the years.
Forest Park Mayor Rory Hoskins said that as a University of Texas student in the 1990s, he watched how Austin prospered by rebranding itself as “the live music capital of the world.” So, in 2022, he pushed his city council to reverse outdated zoning laws that once prohibited liquor establishments from hosting live music. “My hope is that Forest Park is the live music capital of Chicagoland” as a result, said Hoskins.
“We have young people moving in and they want entertainment options … so to the extent that Donnie Biggins can create a thriving entertainment venue can only be a good thing,” he said.
Along with multiple venues, music schools are also opening at a fast clip in the area. Besides local chapters of the School of Rock and other private ventures, musician Rob Pierce created the Friendly Music School, which he directly patterned after the Old Town School of Folk Music (an organization he tried, and failed, to recruit to open a satellite in Berwyn).
The location is busy throughout the day at night, with classes for children upstairs, a coffee lounge brewing in the afternoon, and the bar serving drinks and camaraderie next door. “The void I’m filling is a place to experience freedom and to believe you’re a part of something. You’re not just going to a restaurant and seeing some live music. We believe it’s our job to connect everybody,” Pierce said.
For Biggins, a bedroom community is also what sets his new venue apart from rock clubs in the city. “One of my favorite things about small venues is the artist-fan relationship that can be built for decades,” he said. “I tell agents, hey, I am going to give you an opportunity to create relationships with people who are here for the long haul, who have 30-year mortgages and are not leaving these towns. We can be your fanbase for a long time.”