Second City Sounds: A Chicago Music Guide
Richard Osborn - June 04, 2019

Second City Sounds: A Chicago Music Guide

They Say It’s a Blues Town. But Chicago Now Covers the Sonic Spectrum, from Indie Pop to Post Punk and Beyond. Hear it for Yourself at These Live Music Venues.
Chicago Live Music Venues
Image via Manuel Velasco

Keith Richards swears Muddy Waters was painting the ceiling the first time he walked through the doors of 2120 South Michigan Avenue.

It was June 1964 and the Rolling Stones were visiting the United States for the first time. On the rockers’ list of Americana must-sees was Chess Records, the Chicago blues label they had known only from afar, one that had brought giants like Waters and Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon into their living rooms across the Atlantic.

Richards, 20, had spent a chunk of his post-war youth mimicking their technique, learning their licks, with nothing but mail-order records and a turntable as his guide. Suddenly, there was his guitar hero, born McKinley Morganfield in the Mississippi Delta — he of “Hoochie Coochie Man,” of that full-throated wail — standing atop a ladder before him, bedecked in black overalls, droplets of white paint running down his face.

According to one account, Waters looked down at his shaggy-haired visitors and professed, “I like what you boys are doing with my music.”

That Chess and the Chicago blues should have such a profound influence on the British Invasion shouldn’t have been all that surprising. The South Side, after all, had been a hub for the genre since the days of the Great Migration, when fingerpicking country blues first came north and began to adopt a more urban edge.

Chicago remains a musical hot spot, though today it’s anything but a one-genre town. Nowadays, you’ll find everything from local folk-rock virtuoso Jeff Tweedy performing at The Hideout on the edge of Bucktown and Lincoln Park, to the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra holding court under the stars at the silvery-metallic, Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion.

At its very best, the Chicago music scene exists in the myriad small, standing-room-only clubs scattered throughout the city. Here are seven venues every music devotee should check out:      

Metro | 3730 North Clark: When Guided By Voices called it quits back in 2004, the indie rockers chose to perform their final show at Metro. (Of course, you can’t keep Robert Pollard down; he’s since re-formed the band.) The Wrigleyville staple, after all, has been the site of many groundbreaking musical occasions. This is sacred ground. The 1,100-capacity hall is where many a band got their start (Urge Overkill, Liz Phair, Veruca Salt, etc.). Metallica, Nirvana, Prince and Pearl Jam have also graced the stage.

Aragon Ballroom | 1106 West Lawrence: Come for the Moorish architecture, stay for the sonic artistry. Built in 1926, this Uptown gathering spot accommodates 5,000 fans and has hosted such heavy hitters as Mastadon, Green Day, Soul Asylum and The White Stripes. Rumor has it there are secret tunnels below the building that lead to the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, a prohibition-era bar and former hangout of mob boss Al Capone.

Riviera Theatre | 4746 North Racine Avenue: Gogol Bordello, Bad Religion, Adam Ant and Mac DeMarco are just a few of the acts that will bring their musical talents to the Riviera this summer. The circa 1918 French Renaissance structure holds 2,500, and fans have come to expect the kind of intimate, connect-with-the-audience performances that have made this spot stand out. This is where Tame Impala recorded Live Versions in 2013.   

City Winery | 1200 West Randolph Street: The culinary arts are equally as important as the performing arts at City Winery, where a tasty Mediterranean menu complements the live-stage offerings. Nils Lofgren, Elvin Bishop and Joan Osborne are among the upcoming bookings.

Schubas Tavern | 3159 North Southport Avenue: This brick-built, neo-Gothic treasure has long been a musical epicenter in Lakeview. Richard Buckner has performed some of his most heartfelt shows here. It’s where a young Dave Matthews cut his teeth. Alt-country mavericks The Handsome Family recorded Live at Schuba’s Tavern here.

Kingston Mines | 2548 North Halsted Street: The oldest and longest continually run blues club in Chicago has seen everyone from Junior Wells to Koko Taylor strut their stuff in its spotlight. Open seven days a week, 365 days a year, the Mines is a down-home original that features two bands each and every night. You can also grab some Southern-style BBQ at Doc’s Rib Joint.

Thalia Hall | 1807 South Allport Street: Pilsen has become the hippest ‘hood in Chicago, and Thalia Hall is smack dab in the middle of the action. The Romanesque Revival concert venue’s eclectic summer lineup includes Yann Tiersen, Pedro the Lion, Built to Spill, and Conor Oberst.

The list goes on. There’s Martyrs’ (3855 North Lincoln Avenue), Lincoln Hall (2424 North Lincoln Avenue), Elbo Room (2871 North Lincoln Avenue), Concord Music Hall (2047 North Milwaukee Avenue) and The Vic (3145 North Sheffield Avenue), too. If you plan on experiencing them all, you better get started.