Photography: Chicago

Photography: Chicago

Well I’m a poor boy, long way from home.
Well I’m a poor boy, long way from home.
No spending money in my pocket, no spare meat on my bone.
Now, people ask me, “what does a poor boy do?”
Now, people ask me, “what does a poor boy do?”
Poor boy sews patches on his clothes,
Stuffs newspaper in his shoes.
I’m goin’ back to Chicago, man, that’s where I’m from.
I’m goin’ back to Chicago, man, that’s where I’m from.
I got so many friends in Chicago,
Place just can’t do me no harm.

-Howlin’ Wolf “Poor Boy.”

If you follow me through my various social media accounts, you may recall that last month, I was in Chicago, IL for a major conference related to my day job, and of course, I took advantage of some vacation days and a free flight to cover some live music and meet friends and associates before the work portion of my trip. But I should begin with a rather unsurprisingly true story: while riding the trains and roaming the streets of Frankfurt-am-Main, Amsterdam and Dordrecht,Howlin’ Wolf’s “Poor Boy” reverberated in a deeply personal way for me — I was a poor boy, a long away form home after all. However, as I was about to head to Chicago, the song took on a different meaning as I was heading to a city where I knew and dealt with a number of people through this site and through social media, who were looking forward to seeing me during the eight days I was in town.

I landed at O’Hare International Airport at a little after 8:00pm Central Time, and after getting my luggage, I took a cab to the Hotel Chicago West Loop, where I the first spent the four days and three nights. I was starving and walked over to the Wise Owl Drinkery and Cookhouse a few blocks away to eat while I was waiting for White Mystery‘s Francis White. After a dinner of fish tacos and a couple of pints of Guinness, White took me to some of his favorite places — Cole’s Bar in Logan Square, a bar that reminded me of countless Williamsburg and Lower East Side bars, where we chatted over pints of Lagunitas and was introduced to several locals.

A few hours later, we stopped at the famous The Weiners Circle for Chicago style hot dogs and Polish sausage with all the trimmings. While there, Francis White showed me a a Conan O’Brien skit that gave me the proper context as to how it would be on a busy weekend night: impatient staff, yelling and insulting drunken idiots. We then went to the Continental Lounge, one of Chicago’s 4am bars to close out to night and as we were arriving there, I run into a friend and colleague, who I know from NYC. And as it turns out, she was accompanying the members of Diarrhea Planet while they were touring with The Darkness. Of course, the members of Diarrhea Planet knew Francis, adding to the small world vibe of the entire trip. More beer was had, and I wound up chatting with my friend and half the members of Diarrhea Planet about music, touring and a bunch of other things.

Francis dropped me off at my hotel at 5am. And of course, I was supposed to meet my friend and longtime Twitter, Instagram and Facebook follower Margaret Lovell, who was going to take me to the Museum of Contemporary Art to check out a retrospective of the work of Howardeena Pindell. Naturally, I got up, had a late start, needed to do some blog stuff and wound up getting lost. And of course, everyone in Chicago tells you “well, you know, the Lake is east,” without realizing that if you can’t see the goddamn lake and/or can’t orientate yourself east, it doesn’t matter! I eventually found my way to the museum and the retrospective was inspiring as Pindell has a singular vision while taking on race and popular culture among other things.

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Muddy Waters, the King of the Chicago blues.
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The Chicago Theater

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We had a late lunch at Tommy O’Toole’s and Margaret walked me to the train. I was rushing off to see The Afghan Whigs with Built to Spill. (Most of the trip featured me rushing off from one place to another and then to another like the White Rabbit or something.) Originally, the show was scheduled at the Riviera Theatre, but it was changed to The Vic Theatre, and of course, I didn’t check to see that the venue or anything else changed until I showed up at the wrong venue, wondering why no one was there. I wound up taking a Lyft, which was faster than getting back on the train. And while rushing to The Vic, I received an email from Diversion Records‘ Scott Simon, who noticed that I had been posting pictures on Instagram that suggested that I had either just been in Chicago — or was currently in Chicago. Through email, we decided to meet after I was done shooting with the show, and that he would take me to The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, to catch local jazz. Of  course, adding to the trip’s overall theme of running into people I know or randomly meeting people I’ve dealt with professionally, during The Afghan Whigs’ set, I see Axxons‘  Adele Nichols, who had showed up a bit before me, and was standing by the stage — and the entire time, I had been standing about 7 people from her. And although it was arguably some of the worst lighting I’ve seen  in some time and one of the most difficult shows I’ve shot in the past few months, it was an incredible show that featured the Built to Spill covering The Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang” and ended with The Afghan Whigs covering Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” one of my favorite Don Henley songs. I briefly chatted and flirted with a woman, who appeared to be in her 40s, and as she was swaying in ecstasy with the music, she told me that the show I was at with her, was the first concert she had been to in her life.

I wind up going to over 100 concerts and shows a year as both a blogger and as a fan, and every time I go, I remind myself that for someone at that show, it may be the first concert they’ve ever felt “the warm thrill of confusion/that space cadet glow,” as the song says.

Scott Simon picked me up and we went to the Green Mill where we chatted about music, had several beers until closing time, and in my happily distracted state, I almost forgot my phone on the bar. While we were chatting with a homeless man, who was begging for spare change, the bouncer bursts out the door and says “Did one of you forget your phone?” “Sir, it was me. I’m a dumbass — and thank you for telling me or I would have been in trouble for most of the trip.” I had my entire itinerary on my phone, including addresses of where I was going for shows, where I was staying, every email about every single show I was attending, confirmation emails and all of it.

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Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks.

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We wound up having late night Mexican at a nearby spot and continued chatting about music and politics — and of course, my second full night ended at 5am with me walking into my hotel.

My third full day in the Windy City began with some blog work, and heading off to get an Italian Beef at Roma’s on North Cicero, as per Fluff and Gravy Records‘ John Sheepski and although it took me an hour to get there from my hotel by subway, it was fucking worth it. You gotta get it with the juice. It’s messy but who cares? From there, I went back to The Vic Theatre to catch The Wood Brothers with Nicki Bluhm. Unsurprisingly, one of the waitresses, who served the lower level general admission remembered me. “You’re back?” She said with a smile. I hadn’t been familiar with The Wood Brothers and I had written about Bluhm’s incredibly soulful single “To Rise, You Got to Fall,” but it was an incredible show. I wound up chatting with a group of women, who traveled from Minnesota and Iowa to see The Wood Brothers, and they were quite a bit of fun.

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Some gorgeous artwork in a Chicago subway station.

White Mystery’s Alex White had invited me to catch her DJ at an April 13th themed event at SPIN Chicago, and inexplicably, I decided to leave my messenger bag with my camera near her, while I chatted with two of her friends, eat an extremely late dinner and catch a Risotto ball eating contest, in which the winner ate 18 in 60 seconds. There was a photographer, who Alex had known, who was there photographing the event and at one point, this photographer had placed one of her cameras on top of my messenger bag. I  didn’t think much of it. But some time later, as the bar was about to close, I noticed that my coat was there and my messenger bag with my camera, my lenses and every single memory card I owned was missing. Not only is the camera new, as I purchased it in January, I stupidly didn’t insure it, because I’m normally extremely careful of my camera. Luckily, we caught this photographer as she and her companion were about to leave.

The universe proved to be very kind to me.

Day four, was the first day of actual day job related work. I had to show up at the convention center to set up the booth, and I managed to cut my right palm with a box cutter. And of course, I had plans to catch and shoot some Chicago blues, and had a show on Monday night. So was pretty awesome.

Diversion Records’ Scott Simon suggested I go to Kingston Mines in Blues Alley to catch some local blues and while the Saturday night crowd was the equivalent the Bridge and Tunnel crowd in Manhattan, the music was incredible. Joanna Connor is a local institution and goddamn it, that woman can fucking wail and play that guitar. During Connor’s set, I met and chatted with Connor’s 80 something year old momma, who was originally from Brooklyn sitting my the stage, The time, she was beaming with pride and nodding her head along to the music while drinking tea. I stayed until 1 because I had a 10:00am meeting on Sunday morning but this lovely older woman, told me that she had planned to stay and watch her daughter play until closing time, which was at 5:00am that night. God bless her, huh?

Before I left I caught a little bit of Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials play a rowdy and mischievous set of blues full of sexual innuendo and double entendres.

Day five was a bit more low-keyed as it was the first full day of the convention. But I saw one of my Dutch colleagues, who had landed that afternoon for a drink. I stopped at Aurelio’s for some incredible thin crust pizza, went back to my hotel to drop the left overs off, and went to a local bar, where a White Sox fan brought me a drink. Sure, man.

Day 6 included a work function that I skipped out on after about half an hour to catch Ono with Ganser and Courtesy at the legendary Empty Bottle.

My last full day was quiet. I was broke and wanted to go home. But I came across a historical marker a few blocks from the second hotel I stayed in, near Millennium Park that referenced the Blues Trail and the Great Migration. As the sign said: More black people came up from Mississippi than any other state during and after World War 2 — for a good union job, to be free of racist, Jim Crow bullshit, for the hope and promise of anything better than what they knew. The old train station was at the foot of what’s now Grant Park, and as the sign noted, some of the folks, who came up included Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, who came up from Memphis and a long list of others. For days, I had been walking some of the streets they walked on when they first arrived in Chicago, broke and hungry but full of hope, perhaps wearing a cheap suit and a cheap hat.

I stood at that sign and cried a bit. I thought of my great grandparents, who just like those black folk, fled the South and headed North. It was humbling to think of the risks they all took to get up North. And I was awe-struck to know I had stood in a similar spot that all of these musical greats once stood in.

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After seeing The Bean, I wound up standing by the banks of Lake Michigan in a cold rain, much like how I once stood at the banks of the Main River 3 and a half years before. What a trip, folks. I had an epic time. Chicago and its people treated me so very well. And I can tell you that the people i’ve met through music have been among the best, smartest and kindest people i’ve encountered in my 39 years on this earth. So many people went out of their way to welcome me to their hometown, taking me to their favorite places, introducing me to their friends, colleagues and associations, bought drinks or food or paid a cover. Others gave me some great tips as far as places to eat, places to drink. I didn’t see much of the touristy stuff but I’ve managed to go where the locals have gone to eat, to drink and catch music and it gave me real sense of the city. As a friend, who spent quite a bit of time going to Chicago as a teenager said to me, “Chicago’s got grit, soul and history.” Goddamn it, he’s right. IMG_0113

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For these photos and more, check out the Flickr set here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmkWqDD8

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