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A Tribute to Local Independent Musicians and My Most Unexpected Chicago Reunion

I’ve never met Robert Plant. Never shared a room or a building with him. I know we’ve been in the same country at a few points in our lives, and we might have intersected cities once or twice. On a personal level, though, Robert Plant is still a massive, thundering deity living over the hills and far away. He is to be heard and worshipped as he sits on his golden marble throne somewhere on the top of Mount Olympus, never to be touched by us lowly knaves.

This is actually just fine with me for the most part. I like Robert Plant a lot, and love his work whether he’s there playing it himself or with Jimmy Page, Alison Krauss, Strange Sensation, or the immortal band that put him on the map, Led Zeppelin. I own many of his albums, including the maligned Dreamland; the classic Principle of Moments; the severely underrated Mighty Rearranger; and the anthemic Walking into Clarksdale, which he created with his old bandmate Page. Beyond the incredible music, though, what would a guy like Robert Plant have to offer a humble dayworker such as myself? I have no doubt that Plant loves each and every one of his fans, but for a trendsetting bigshot of a musician like him, it probably gets tiring to hear from millions of people – some whom are truly nuts – how they own all your work and are obsessed with House of Cards as if those millions of other fans didn’t exist. If we were to end up sitting next to each other on the Amtrak, I’m fair sure I would struggle to find any kind of common ground on which to base any casual conversation. (Although I would be sure to ask “Dude, you’re Robert Plant! Why are you riding the Amtrak? In business class, no less?”) Don’t get me wrong; if I was ever offered an opportunity to meet Robert Plant one-on-one, I would take it. Then afterward, we would both return to our agreed-upon roles: Me as the starry-eyed fan looking up from a ground level containing thousands of others just like me and him as Thor moonlighting as a musician. I pay ticket money, he plays In the Mood, and we go on with our lives.

I started following local bands when I was in my mid-teens, after cursory reads of the local entertainment section of the newspaper revealed a world of hidden music I wasn’t aware of. At local festivals, I started becoming more attentive of the bands I was watching. McCarthyism was an early favorite of mine, and I later learned of the music of Kilbrannan and moe. Upon my return, one of the first things my best friend did was take me out for St. Patrick’s Day in South Buffalo, where we spent the night jamming to the unique musical stylings of Penny Whiskey, a band that rose from the ashes of Kilbrannan after their breakup a few years ago. During the St. Patrick’s season in South Buffalo, in the Goin’ South Irish Feis, Jackdaw is a hot ticket. In my last few years before I moved out of Buffalo, going down to the Buffalo Irish Center to hear live music became a way for me to socialize; albeit only to an extent, because at that point I had alienated myself beyond most human contact and didn’t know quite how to socialize with people.

It wasn’t until Chicago that I began to really appreciate the small-time, independent local acts and the color they brought to the neighborhood. Moving there, I was clueless about the local culture, and knew that I was going to have to learn about it if I was to be anything more than a hermit. After living in the city for a few months, I joined a political group which happened to be renting space in the NNWAC building in Bucktown. Our meetings happened to overlap with music nights on Mondays, when one of the local bands would play in the front of the building while my group sweated in the back. Leaving the group after some seven months freed up my schedule to finally visit the NNWAC building on a Monday to listen to the music and take in the show. I quickly came to like the crowd there; I also loved the fact that the bands were always up for a chat with the audiences, and willing to play with us; I would shout the occasional mock request immediately after a set closed for a Rush song. (Usually it was By-Tor and the Snow Dog. One band cleverly responded by teasing me about their second act being nothing but a Rush medley.)

As I took in more of the local sights and music, I got to better know what the performance venues looked like, and I became a regular at a weekly talent night in what a friend described to me as an underground art gallery. The place was called Quennect4, and it was so rebellious that it wasn’t even registered, meaning it didn’t exist to the powers that be. It was housed in the ruins of a business which didn’t exist anymore, which all meant the Police could (and a couple of times, did) raid it. They were so secretive, they encouraged people to stay inside to smoke in a designated smoking area. The up and coming bands around Chicago got to know me there. One band once asked me to go onstage and play bass with them, but I had to say no on the entirely reasonable ground of “I don’t play bass. Or anything else, for that matter.”

The connections between musicians and audiences in small indie venues are always more personal. Starting out playing in a small place, I imagine it’s hard for musicians to think of themselves as Robert Plant or Bono. There’s no security row to block the people at the show from the stage, and those small shows – especially when they feature bands that haven’t yet made names for themselves – have much more of an anything goes atmosphere. The invitation to play bass at Q4 made me love the place, and I loved it all the more a few minutes later when a random audience member audibly said “Fuck it, I’m gonna go up there and play some bass,” and then did just that. Playing a show in the middle of 60,000-seat Soldier Field, standing some seven feet above the front row where you can’t see anything but tops of peoples’ heads, might have a disconnecting feeling. Everything is carefully organized and choreographed, and the highly alert security forces are all prepared to throw you out for moshing when you should have been waving a lighter. For the indie bands, it’s just between them and complete trust in an audience so close, you can feel the afterburn of their Jack Daniel’s shots.

After my little scotch ordeal concluded on Monday, I thought it was time to reacquaint myself with Chicago’s musical underground. It had been awhile, after all. The quest to do that took me to a small pub called Schubas, which coincidentally took me right back to Southport. Schubas was holding a singer/songwriter showcase featuring the locals: MER, Johnny Perona, Scott Burdsall, Meagan Hickman, and Tim Stop as a featured artist. Although I tried to keep up with the Chicago indies, that group of names still didn’t mean very much to me. The one person onstage whose work I knew – who I knew – was a woman there to lend her vocals to Perona: Leslie Beukelman. I knew Leslie from back in those early music nights. Along with Nanette and the music night organizer, Rob Clearfield, Leslie was among the first people outside of work or politics I spent time around. While I met a lot of the musicians Rob brought into the sets, Leslie always stood out by virtue of her radiant smile and otherworldly singing voice.

After paying the cover, I quietly stepped into the Schubas showroom in the back and took a quick look around. The show hadn’t started yet, and the audience had apparently decided late arrival was fashionable. I returned to the front of the bar and ordered a beer; being a beer snob, I went with one of the local delicacies: Green Line, a brand of 312, named for the city’s area code. Taking my time sipping the frothy liquified hops, I returned to the still-sporadically-populated showroom and quietly looked around. There wasn’t anything unique or charming about it; it came off like the proverbial smoky room Journey probably had in mind when they penned Don’t Stop Believin’: Dark, standing room only, warmed largely through body heat. No smoke, though, because Chicago law forbade it. No wine or cheap perfume either, although the night was young. Its charm was in its charmless, no-frills, practical approach. I approached the deejay box along the right-side wall and leaned against it, hoping to appear inconspicuous. That effort was mooted because I was dressed like a giant white glo-stick. As far as going unnoticed went, I might as well have grown a pair of angel wings, because even that couldn’t possibly have made me more visible.

All of the musicians sounded excellent. I took a particular liking to Hickman and Stop (whose band was the second set), and in fact I was going to put my name on Hickman’s mail list but I got occupied doing other things. I talked with one of the other patrons, a friend of Hickman’s who was there to lend her his support. The crowd trickled in during the set, and by the time the songwriters were finished, there were enough people in the room for me to lose the musicians as they mingled and charmed while working the room. This was ultimately why I chose to start supporting the local indies, no matter where I lived. Off the stage, whatever divine aura that maybe existed was gone, and the musicians went right back to being the regular people from their neighborhoods. People who loved their music enough to want to create and share it with others, possibly over beer or coffee. There was a genuine affection between these artists and the people in the audience who had ponied up the money to see them.

Leslie sounded incredible, as she always did. She was allowed to sing one of her own songs, with which she killed the room. At some point, I stepped out to retrieve a scotch on rocks to calm my nerves a little bit. I wanted to jaunt out of the crowd and say hello, but I’m shy, very introverted, and not a big fan of self-embarrassment and I wasn’t sure if Leslie remembered me. Although Nanette and Rob both became valued and trusted friends, I hadn’t seen Leslie very often. Although we had spent a lot of time around each other way back when, it had been so long that I figured worst case scenario, she misses me and I don’t push it. Best case, she remembers my image vaguely and I have to jog her memory a little. I knew there was no threat of her snapping at me, because she had always exuded a naturally warm and sunny personality which could put a seasoned Marine drill Sergeant at ease. Yet, people losing patience with me and breaking keeps lingering as a fear, no matter who, and no matter how unreasonable. I’ve had this fear of Nanette, the last person on Earth who would verbally attack me. I was badly overthinking this whole scene, but a lifetime of being the outcast tends to do that. My head was still going at warp speed when Leslie reached the back of the room and we made eye contact.

She smiled. “Hey! Do you remember me? Leslie!”

Did I remember? How could I forget?

“You don’t make yourself an easy person to forget,” I said.

I meant every word of that. Leslie was still her cheerful, outgoing self for the next 20 minutes while we caught up. I chose to give her the nutshell version of the turn my life had taken rather than the full one. She came up with an endless number of questions to ask, and we talked about things from the sorry living state of Buffalo to our mutual friends to our own pasts in Chicago. I got comfortable enough to confess that I was a little surprised she remembered me so well. Musicians have to have good memories if you think about it. Leslie’s was at least as photographic as my own. She also appeared happy that I had come from a place all the way over in Lincoln Park just to see this show. I actually didn’t think of it as some major distance. What was it, four stops on the nearby Brown Line? Maybe five? It didn’t seem all that significant to me. Showing up didn’t exactly make me Marco Polo going to China.

Leslie had to go – she said she would be sticking around for a quick beer before heading out the door. I turned my immediate attention back to the stage, where Tim Stop came out and rocked his set. I left after awhile myself because I was busy the next day. Still, the night had been a good one. It had exhibited everything I loved about independent musicians and given me a reconnection with someone I had known from way back in the beginning, when everything in my life (and apparently hers too) was going right.

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About Nicholas Croston

I like to think. A lot. I like to question, challenge, and totally shock and unnerve people. I am a contrarian - whatever you stand for, I'm against.

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