BY MARK GUARINO | THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
When Panda Bear takes the stage of Thalia Hall on Wednesday,a new music club will be christened in Chicago, and it will mark a reversal of music to the South Side from the North.
Ever since music clubs shuttered alongside legendary nightclub strips like 47th Street and 63rd Street, following the systemic loss of factory jobs and out-migration of its population over decades, musicians have largely found the majority of work north of Roosevelt Road, where blues, jazz and country music clubs took roots and thrived. However, gentrification of some of these neighborhoods and the emergence of a growing class of college students in the South Loop has created new opportunities in select pockets of the city where concertgoers traditionally have not traveled to hear live music for years.
Operators of Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport in Pilsen, see the hall’s grand opening as a reawakening of a space that debuted in 1893 as an opera house that presented music for nearly 70 years until it closed in 1960s. The space, included in the annual Open House Chicago architecture tour in 2013, was an early mixed-use building, including a restaurant and tavern, and it played an important role in the preservation of Bohemian cultural and political life early last century.
The new incarnation will include live music, community events and more; the four-story building already includes Dusek’s Board & Beer on the ground floor and Punch House, a cocktail-oriented gathering spot. On the roster in coming weeks, besides Panda Bear, are Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle (June 6), GOAT (June 13), Tab Benoit (June 27) and Gillian Welch (July 2).
“What we’re doing is what [founder] John Dusek did: We’re re-establishing what was done then, which is bringing arts and entertainment to this community,” says Bruce Finkelman, who also is the principal behind Empty Bottle in Ukrainian Village and Longman & Eagle restaurant in Logan Square.
Thalia Hall is the first of two projects Finkelman is opening on the South Side with co-owner Craig Golden, who operates Space in Evanston and is Finkelman’s partner at Longman. This summer, they also plan to open The Promontory, a two-story dining and concert space in Hyde Park’s revived bustling business and entertainment corridor at 53rd Street and Lake Park Avenue. The venue will feature artifacts salvaged from the Piccadilly Theater, a 3,000-seat venue, the auditorium of which was demolished in 1972.
Finkelman says music’s role at Promontory will depend on demand. “I’d love to see it open as many days as possible with residencies and weekly events. I love the bullpen mentality of just throwing a bunch of stuff on the wall and see what sticks.”
Despite being on the heels of a recession, live music clubs in Chicago are growing in numbers. That’s little surprise, however, considering the continuing health of the music scene here. A 2007 report from the Chicago Music Commission reported that the city’s footprint of clubs is densely packed in North Side clusters. With a total of 408,420 seats, Chicago is second to only Los Angeles in terms of capacity. Chicago also averages more live performances than most other cities, excluding New York City and LA.
Clubs and small venues dominate the here compared with other cities, boasting nearly 30,000 seats, which is far more than those found in the most musical midsize cities: Austin, Nashville and Memphis.
While then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration did little to follow up on the music commission’s recommendations to do a better job promoting the music scene, the 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan echoed the commission’s sentiments, and last year the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events created two staff positions dedicated to music advocacy and programming.
Viewed on a national scale, the concert business is healthy, with total attendance up 23 percent in North America last year, according to Billboard. In 2012, total attendance fell 6 percent.
“There are a lot more places to play here, even all these street festivals have some serious programming,” says Tom Windish, founder of the Windish Agency in Chicago, which books hundreds of national artists, including Lorde. “That’s a trend I’m seeing all around the country. There’s more people going to shows, so there’s viable business opportunities out there.”
Besides Thalia Hall and The Promontory, live music is perking up in more unusual South Side spots, such as the House of Bing, a Chinese restaurant at 6930 South Shore, where the Friday night Mo Better Jazz Chicago series started two years ago. There is also The Orphanage, a punk club and community center next to First Trinity church, 643 W. 31st in Bridgeport.
The West Side is also perking up along Roosevelt Road in Berwyn with the opening of Wire, a state-of-the-art club that is incorporating a music school and, this summer, a recording studio. Chris Neville, a co-founder who also plays keyboards in Tributosaurus, says that, despite its location, there are very few top-of-the-line 400-capacity venues in the Chicago area. Wire adds to a thriving dining and entertainment corridor that includes FitzGerald’s, the roadhouse club that opened in 1980.
“The North Side is pretty well-served, but this side of the city still needs this kind of venue,” Neville says.
Wire is in a renovated 1920s movie theater; its owners are pushing for national touring acts but also want to make the venue “a congregation space for music people” in offering professional recording and teaching facilities for sound, lighting, production, and music education. Since opening in the fall, the club has hosted weekly residencies for local player, plus national acts like Mates of States and Rickie Lee Jones.
While the North Side remains packed with clubs, more continue to open. Last year witnessed the openings of Concord Music Hall in Logan Square, Constellation in Avondale and a relocated Wild Hare in Lincoln Park. National touring artists like Elvis Costello are also being booked on the North Side at the Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park.
Amid that density, Mark Bruscianelli is opening The Throne Room, a 100-capacity music room at 2831 N. Broadway, adjacent to Renaldi’s, his family’s long-running family pizza restaurant and bar that has operated since 1973. The club opens May 30 and will feature mainly local and touring rock bands.
A drummer who also works in the financial services industry, Bruscianelli says he saw an opportunity because there isn’t a music club within a mile of the restaurant, and he hopes the family name will ensure locals of a quality operation.
“What separates us is longevity of the family in the community. We’re not a corporate company; we’ve been here,” he says. “We’re part of Lake View.”