photo: Courtesy of Nick Flandro
Chicago has some rockin' joints whose claims to fame range from cover-free blues and intimate spaces to famous owners and menus of great Southern grub. Here are our favorites:
There's no stage at this tiny club, so the artists set up shop by the front window, giving everyone an earful. If you get inspired by the varied performances (try the old-school house and stepping music on Thursdays), the stocked jukebox, or just the cheap drinks you've been guzzling at the circular bar dominating the place, you can belt out your own blues during Wednesday night karaoke. Best news: There's usually no cover.
Don't expect to be able to move around much at this typically packed joint, though the fiery performances from many a local legend will have you tapping your feet. Performers generally take advantage of whatever space is available to them, which means the occasional guitar solo on top of the bar. Covers run about $5-$8, but those who live in certain zipcodes get in free on Tuesday "good neighbor" nights; plus, the prospect of free parking with admission on Sunday through Thursday nights should be an added enticement in car-clogged Lincoln Park
Like to dance? Blue Chicago (and its sister club, also on Clark Street) has ample room for you to shake it to the music of local bluesmen and women like Matthew Skoller, John Primer and Big Time Sarah. Cover is $8 Monday-Thursday, and $10 on Friday and Saturday – keep in mind, one admission gets you into both clubs. If you want to commemorate your experience, pick up one of the classic blues posters or T-shirts at the Blue Chicago store down the street.
Buddy Guy's Legends
Yes, this legendary spot is still here, despite persistent rumors to the contrary. Step into the smoky lounge and you might just see Buddy himself (especially during his yearly month-long residency or at one of his famous birthday parties) or one of the many celebrities who drop by regularly (John Mayer and Dave Chappelle were recent visitors). The rest of the time, you'll find a slew of national and regional acts like Shemekia Copeland and Larry McCray; cover is $10 during the week and $15 on weekends. Food is also on hand, with Southern favorites like crawfish etouffee and gumbo to fuel you through the next solo.
House of Blues
Many of the HOB's patrons might think the plush club's name is nothing more than a suggestion, given the plethora of rock and hip-hop artists that take the stage regularly. But take a stroll around to The Back Porch and you'll find all the blues you can handle. The restaurant (serving top-notch soul food) hosts live blues nightly on its stage. In contrast to the often high-priced shows on the main stage, Back Porch performances are only about $12 each.
If you're not a big decision maker, Kingston Mines might not be the place for you; every night, there are two stages of music to choose from, and they're usually both hosting great, raw blues. Doc Pellegrino's club has been doing things this way for nearly 40 years, remaining a rock-solid standard amid a changing neighborhood. For about $12 during the week and $15 on weekends (lines can get pretty long for the bigger names on Fridays and Saturdays), you get entertainment in a large, welcoming environment ... not to mention some darn good ribs and sandwiches at Doc's Rib Joint.
Lee's Unleaded Blues
Though it may be a bit out of the way, Lee's is the kind of place that inspires repeat visits; regulars swear by Vance Kelly and the Backstreet Blues Band on Sundays, for example, or the Monday Jam Session, which starts at noon and goes all night. There's no cover charge, but drinks will cost you 50 cents more during shows. The usually older local crowd is dressed to the nines, so be sure to wear your finest threads for the occasion.
Often described as the "friendliest blues club" in the city, Rosa's does its best to make its patrons feel welcome. Italian immigrant Tony Mangiullo opened the club's doors in 1984, and has been stocking its stage ever since with a mix of traditional and modern blues (he often sits in on drums, as well). Weekday shows cost just $5, and the bigger names on the weekend will run you a still-modest $10.
This barbecue joint may be more known for its pulled pork and ribs, but the place does host live blues and jazz nightly on the tiny stage in the front corner. There's no cover for acts like Eli Jones and the Bare Bones and acoustic blues guitarist Josh Kalmus, so save your money for the wide selection of beer and, of course, the sweet potato fries.
Underground Wonder Bar
Owner Lonie Walker (along with her band, the Big Bad Ass Company Band) is the main blues attraction at this eclectic subterranean club, which hosts jazz, rock, reggae, soul and other styles every night of the week. There's no cover until 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, and until 8 p.m. on other nights. If you want to catch Lonie's late-night sets, you'll pay $8 Sunday-Thursday, and $15 on Friday and Saturday.
Katerina's delights in a musical roster that's nearly as diverse as its Greek-inspired menu. Explore blues, jazz and gypsy sounds from the likes of Yoko Noge, Erwin Helfer and Professor John in a warm environment bathed in shades of red. There are usually two shows per night, and the cover, if there is one, is no more than $5-$10. Mondays are industry nights, a promotion that generously includes theater actors and musicians as well as restaurant and bar employees.
Shaw's Crab House
What goes best with oysters? Shaw's believes it's the blues, providing live music on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in its oyster bar. Local artists like Matthew Skoller, Linsey Alexander, Dave Specter and others entertain slurpers and drinkers alike for no cover. Once you've had enough music, head to the dining room for crab and other specialties.
Bill's Blues Bar
The founder of B.L.U.E.S. operates this Evanston hangout, where you can find music every day of the year. Bill's opens its doors to a variety of music, including folk on Sundays and DJ nights on Mondays and Wednesdays. If you're looking for straight blues, check out the Blues Jam on Tuesdays, or come by on Friday and Saturday nights when stalwarts like Sleepy LaBeef, Lurrie Bell and Eddie "the Chief" Clearwater come to play. Most weekday shows are $5; expect to pay $10-$15 on the weekend.
Harlem Avenue Lounge
If you want to see some blues in the 'burbs, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights are the time to head to this small Berwyn lounge. Here you'll find an array of blues styles, from electric guitarist (and Muddy Waters protege) John Primer to the old-time acoustic blues of Joe Filisko and Eric Noden. Feel like joining in? The Lounge hosts a Thursday night open mic jam beginning at 8:30 p.m. The cover, when there is one, is no more than $6.
Check the schedule before you come to this cavernous, red-lit club; there's only live music on Fridays and Saturdays, and it's not just blues. But when it is, you're in for a treat; regulars Josh Kalmus (Delta blues) and the Deep Chicago Rhythm Owls (swingin' blues) are good enough to get a typically nonchalant crowd on their feet. Best of all, there's never a cover.
Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation
It's not a club, but it's one to add to your list. Founded by Willie Dixon, the Blues Heaven Foundation promotes and pays homage to Chicago's musical legacy. The foundation's legendary 2120 S. Michigan address housed the Chess Records Studio from 1957 to 1967 and hosted recording sessions for everyone from Aretha Franklin to Etta James and Chuck Berry. (The venue is so rich in musical history that The Rolling Stones have a track called "2120 S. Michigan Avenue" on their 12x5 album.) Tours, offered to the public Monday-Saturday, allow a glimpse into Leonard and Phil Chess' former office, the Main Studio where legends belted it out on record, the original sound-proofing room and the rehearsal studio.
Each week, Centerstage Chicago's crack staff will answer a question you have about the city, showing you some of the best places around in the process. Did we miss something? Tell us. Got a question you want us to answer? Ask us and we'll get right on it.