Destinations The Unique Frequency of Chicago’s Music Scene

by Kevin Warwick | August 01, 2018

Photo of the Empty Bottle courtesy of Jennifer Winter

You see it in the city's groundbreaking architecture; you taste it in the inventive cuisine; you sense it in the grain of its staunchly eclectic neighborhoods: Chicago, IL, revels in the role of cheerfully unruly cultural hotbed.

And no facet of the mosaic shines quite like the city's legendary, taste-making live music scene. Landmarks are plentiful, ranging from the revered elders you hope will never change, to the brash upstarts surfacing new talent, to the offbeat weirdos that do their own thing.

Relationships between institutions are symbiotic, helping to foster a music community invested in the sum of its parts. Once that characteristic comes into focus, the sprawl of Chicago — both geographically and culturally — feels considerably more captivating than it does daunting. But how to make sense of all that?

Chicago’s underground indie music with bluesy roots

If you want to truly immerse yourself in the electrifying sonic side of the Windy City, a good place to begin your journey is a quarter-century-old corner dive perched at the westernmost edge of the Ukrainian Village neighborhood dubbed the Empty Bottle. The Bottle leans hard into its aesthetic as a dingy, bruised rock club, complete with band stickers plastering the bathrooms, but the bills are chock full of hyped up-and-comers. And if you go on a Monday, admission is almost always free.

Many bands that pile onto the Bottle’s modest three-foot-high stage might be in the DIY hardcore-punk underground scene for life. A select few, however, could be selling out an esteemed concert hall like Metro in Wrigleyville once the indie-pop lightning strikes. “The Bottle has groomed and trained a team of bookers over the years to form a unified culture,” Bill Roe says. Roe — co-founder of Trouble in Mind Records, and a keen observer of the Chicago music scene — calls the Empty Bottle the heir to Lounge Ax, a seminal music club and indie-rock incubator that ran from 1987 to 2000.

interior The Empty Bottle bar

Photo of the Empty Bottle courtesy of Clayton Hauck

Venture a couple of miles out into the heart of the bustling Wicker Park neighborhood and you’ll find the tall and narrow Subterranean, which regularly caters to hardcore and punk bands, but also hosts a popular weekly hip-hop open mic on Tuesdays. The Hideout, a beloved indie club tucked in an industrial corridor that runs along the Chicago River, presents an adventurous experimental-music series on Wednesdays. The recently spruced-up California Clipper in Humboldt Park offers up old-school cocktails to sip as you take in a mix of jazz, country and world music.

Of course, you can't fully experience Chicago music without wading into that signature blues sound that firmly planted this town on the musical map. This freewheeling electric-guitar style — invented and popularized in the mid-twentieth century by a wave of now-iconic musicians who played the city’s club circuit — transformed Chicago into a Midwestern blues mecca. And though institutional South Side clubs like Lee’s Unleaded Blues and the Checkerboard Lounge are no longer open, clubs in the South Loop and on the city’s North Side both preserve and keep the scene moving forward.

exterior signage of the California Clipper in Chicago

Photo courtesy of California Clipper

Cultivating new sounds

While the city is certainly famous for its establishment of both Chicago blues and house — a genre of electronic dance music known for its euphoric, celebratory sound — it remains devoted to its own artistic restlessness. You can hear the evidence via the multi-layered rosters of respected labels like Thrill Jockey, Denmark, Closed Sessions, Drag City and Kranky.

The ethos goes beyond mere sound, though: There’s also a network of small, non-profit arts organizations and venues dedicated to cultivating space for musicians working on the fringes. And Logan Square, one of the city’s nightlife hubs, is a good place to experience this. Swing through Elastic Arts, an intimate venue that sits on the neighborhood’s northwestern border and provides a stage for everyone from forward-thinking improv-jazz players to ambient-noise artists.

Billy Helmkamp — co-owner of the cozy Logan Square cocktail destination The Whistler — recently opened an Avondale bar and club called Sleeping Village, which features a wide range of music and beer (56 taps!). Over the course of a single weekend in June, the venue hosted a record-release show for an inventive Latin music band that blends funk and progressive rock, a night of low-key covers out on its patio and a fledgling indie-rock band that just released debut albums.

“We want to be big enough to attract national touring acts but small enough that we’re not pressured into booking a small selection of acts to fill the room,” Helmkamp explains. “We feel like with Sleeping Village we can help create a next generation of music venues. One that takes the listening experience seriously [as well as] the sound quality, the bar program and the cleanliness. We're serious about making it a world-class beer bar."

empty stage at the Sleeping Village

Photo courtesy of Sleeping Village

A local’s guide to Chicago’s live music scene

For those seeking to dig even deeper into Chicago's musical scene, check out this lineup of some of the city's historic, broad-minded and occasionally lawless spaces.

Green Mill

4802 North Broadway

The Green Mill in Uptown is more than comfortable with its retro roots. Classic Chicago in bar form, the Green Mill has been in operation since 1907 and was once famously a hangout for Prohibition-era gangsters. Manhattan cocktails, classic swing, bebop and the like are the order of the day. There’s a baby grand stationed behind the bar and the marquee features elegant cursive lettering and bright popping lights. The long-running Uptown Poetry Slam on Sunday nights is a non-jazz highlight.


3159 North Southport Avenue

“Playing at Schubas was one of my first professional experiences at a venue and it still stands out,” Miranda Winters says of this warm Lakeview spot. “The staff has always been passionate about local music... The sound at Schubas is [so] versatile."

“The main space is so wide open that there’s nowhere to really hide,” adds Winters, the guitarist-vocalist of Chicago noise-rock band Melkbelly. “Bands are often forced to mingle with audiences, and from time to time I can appreciate the forced-mingle. The building itself is super old and original, which makes their basement green room pretty rad too. It has short ceilings and beautiful stone — and I’ve always loved that you have to go behind the bar to get to it.”

Signage from the Green Mill

Photo courtesy of Kent Richmond

Reggie’s Rock Club

2109 South State Street

Metal. This is the place. A haven for headbangers and circle pits, this industrial-styled near South Side club focuses on everything from brutal doom to black metal to thrash. The main venue is connected to the more modest Reggie’s Music Joint, which branches into booking roots and Americana acts. The building also boasts an excellent rooftop bar with plenty of fried-food options to boot.

Experimental Sound Studio

5925 North Ravenswood Avenue

Founded in 1986, the Edgewater-based Experimental Sound Studio (ESS) is a non-profit organization that includes an intimate performance space, an Audible Gallery, and a recording studio for musicians to compose and explore sound art. Live programming only happens once or twice a week at most, but the sets are extremely well curated and immersive. ESS also founded the Creative Audio Archive to both preserve and further a conversation in sound art.

A haven for headbangers and circle pits, [Reggie's] focuses on everything from brutal doom to black metal to thrash.
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Chitown Futbol

2343 South Throop Street

At first glance this Pilsen spot is just an indoor-soccer arena, but over the past few years it has provided a legit, all-ages option for bands accustomed to unlicensed basement shows and DIY back alley venues. Located in the same neighborhood where legendary Spanish-speaking hardcore-punk band Los Crudos came up, Chitown Futbol provides a rentable space for the south side punk scene to flourish above ground. Just recently, a Brazilian grindcore duo blew through town, pummeling those who stood in the concrete echo chamber with blastbeat assaults.

Rosa’s Lounge

3420 West Armitage Avenue

Rosa’s has been situated on Chicago's northwest side since 1984, along a stretch of Logan Square that in recent years has swelled with cocktail bars and boutique restaurants — Scofflaw and Giant among them — such that today Rosa's looks and feels like a blues relic. From the colorful facade and lively bar sign to the festive-yet-intimate interior, it’s a club that’s honest and loyal to the Chicago blues heritage.

Signage at Rosa's Lounge

Photo courtesy of Rosa's Lounge


2338 North Milwaukee Avenue

Every neighborhood deserves a good, no-cover rock dive. Logan Square has Cole's. The surprisingly expansive bar area stretches back to a venue where on weekend nights local punk and garage bands grab two or three cold ones before staggering their way to the small stage. A spot for the 20-something in each of us, Cole's can get rowdy and sloppy on a Saturday night, sending you stumbling out the door and in search of the next party.

Thalia Hall

1807 South Allport Street

This grand Pilsen concert hall co-owned by the Empty Bottle brain trust was rejuvenated and reopened in 2013, providing the South Side with a reliable roll call of big-name indie-rock, soul and hip-hop acts. Or maybe a movie director will get booked to give a live retrospective of his film soundtracks — that sort of thing happens at Thalia, too. The excellent-sounding venue is attached to the subterranean punch bar called Punch House and the hip, upscale restaurant Dusek’s Board and Beer. Kill some time across the street at the reliable 606 Records or around the corner at Knee Deep Vintage.

interior of Thalia Hall

Photo courtesy of Thalia Hall

Chicago's reputation as a canonical American city certainly precedes it. Spending a weekend, a month or even several years exploring its music scene will help make that status even clearer.

Kevin Warwick

is a Chicago-based editor and writer who has spent over a decade covering arts and culture for publications like the Chicago Reader, Bandcamp, A.V. Club, Reverb, Chicago magazine and Pitchfork.