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a city by city guide to the best indie clubs, bars, record shops and local bands

Chicago, USA

By Jennifer Reiter with Kevin Smith

Chicago. Once the hog butcher to the world. Then the city of big shoulders. And many other decidedly masculine phrases. But if you look beneath the mounds of Old Style beer, you’ll find a warm and welcoming city that supports many underground scenes. A city this diverse has been home to record labels like Wax Trax, Thrill Jockey, Touch & Go, Minty Fresh, Kranky, Divot, and Bloodshot. In addition, the city boasts a roster of venues in which to see local, national, and international bands. Other than its musical attractions, Chicago can entertain you no matter what time of year or what your hobbies or persuasions are. Walk along Lake Michigan’s lake front and get lost in Lincoln Park, stroll down Michigan Avenue, aka “The Magnificent Mile” and gaze into designer store windows/crash into tourists (depending on your perspective), or go ice skating in the heart of downtown in winter at Millennium Park, also home to Frank Gehry's latest architectural masterpiece. And while you're at it, explore the rest of the Windy City's world-famous architecture, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Mies Van Der Rohe to Rem Koolhaus. Chicago also boasts one of the world's premiere art museums in the Art Institute. So while you may have to dig for some of your indie needs, this city hosts lots that's sure to take your fancy.


Beauty Bar, 1444 W Chicago Avenue, monthly, free admission, 9pm-2am
Panic plays a mixture of classic alternative club tracks and modern indie hits. They also often host record release parties, providing many opportunities to win stuff!

Planet Earth
Saturdays at the Late Bar, 3534 W. Belmont, free admission, 10pm-5am
New wave classics are spun at a darling little space called the Holiday Club every Friday night. Old music videos are shown on the television sets hoisted on the walls and the DJ seems to play everything one can request. Score!

Windy City Soul Club
The Empty Bottle, 1035 N Western Avenue, $5 admission, 9pm-3am
Chicago's longest running northern soul night.



Empty Bottle
1035 N. Western, 5pm-2am Mon-Wed, 3pm-2am Thurs-Fri, 12pm-3am Sat, 12pm-2am Sun
This triangle-shaped venue really gets the best bands, but in the summer: BEWARE! Their “air conditioning” is not really that at all. Be prepared to sweat! Seen: Camera Obscura, Electrelane, Hidden Cameras.

2011 W. North, times vary
This is one of the most gorgeous and intimate venues. It has a postage stamp-sized main floor and a small balcony encircling it. This space has been around in previous incarnations for many years. Seen: Elf Power, Of Montreal, The Olivia Tremor Control.

3159 N. Southport, times vary
A comfortably small, perfectly square room, this neighborhood venue also has a bar out front with an ace jukebox, and a sweet restaurant adjacent to it. Seen: Jens Lekman, The Essex Green, I am the World Trade Center.

3730 N. Clark, times vary
Just a few blocks from Wrigley Field, this Chicago institution is nearly as legendary. Belle and Sebastian played their first Chicago gig here! Seen: Primal Scream, Gang of Four, Super Furry Animals.

Abbey Pub

3420 W. Grace, times vary
Nearly impossible to get to unless you have a car, if you decide to brave it via bus or a cab, visiting this pub and venue is definitely worth it. Seen: Broadcast, Stereo Total, The Go-Betweens.

2105 S. State St.
A music venue with a record store attached! Located in the Near South Side a couple blocks from from the Chinatown El stop. (MF)

Bottom Lounge
1375 W. Lake St
The old location was a small two room dive practically under the El in Lakeview, now one of the bigger bar/club/venues in Chicago. Still under the El it's now two levels, serves food and has an outdoor deck with a nice view of the formerly industrial, quickly gentrifying West Loop/Near West Side neighborhood. (MF)

Lincoln Hall
2424 N Lincoln Ave
Built on grave of the much loved Lounge Ax this newcomer has big boots to fill. It shares owners with Schubas so it's got good blood. Located in Lincoln Park across the street from the Historic Biograph Theater where infamous ganster John Dillinger was killed. (MF)

Logan Square Auditorium
3145 N Sheffield Ave.
Located in the heart of the up-and-coming Logan Square neighborhood. Seen: Black Lips, King Kahn and BBQ Show, Camera Obscura. (MF)

Vic Theater
3145 N Sheffield Ave.
A great place to see a show. Located in Lakeview with tons of places to eat and shop nearby. Seen: Frank Black, Stereolab, Interpol, Devo. (MF)

The Aragon Ballroom
1106 W Lawrence Ave
A former ballroom built in 1926 in a Spanish/Moorish village theme with twinkling star lights in the night-sky painted ceiling. In its heyday it hosted the biggest names in the big band era. Located right next to the El in Uptown. (MF)

The Riviera Theatre
4746 N. Racine Avenue
Located in the historic Uptown neighborhood this former movie palace has been converted to host live performances. (MF)

The Congress Theatre
2135 N Milwaukee Ave
Former movie palace converted to host live performances. A "bit" run-down, but a decent place to see a show. (MF)


2771 North Lincoln Avenue, Sun-Fri 4pm-2am, Sat 4pm-3am
This two level tavern is the best in the neighborhood. They always have cheap drink specials and a DJ upstairs. Music played includes soul, mod, punk, and country.

Rainbo Club
1150 N. Damen, Sun-Fri 4pm-2am Sat 4pm-3am
The high, tin-pressed ceiling aids in making this bar a bit loud. Be prepared to stand since the tables and booths on the perimeter of this room are usually taken. However, the piped in music is good and the people are cute.

Hungry Brain
2319 W. Belmont
This neighborhood tavern is spacious and comfortable; dimly lit and not too loud. The “stage” has vintage couches so comfy, you may just stay there all night. And their jukebox is immense in its collection.

5210 N. Clark Street, Sun-Fri 11am-2am, Sat 11am-3am, 21+
Visible by the big smiley fish sticking out atop the door, this small bar has a ton of good beers (and Wood Chuck!). In addition, their jukebox is pretty good, too; that is if you like listening to lots of Smiths!

Club Foot
1824 W. Augusta
More of a bar than a club, although people do sometimes dance in the teeny tiny space between the DJ booth and the pool table at this space that resembles a ramshackle rec room. Drinks are fairly cheap and the DJ is always spinning a variety of underground sounds. Don’t be afraid to ask for classic indie pop tunes!

Late Bar
3534 W Belmontf
A bit out of the way, but only only a few blocks from the Belmont Blue Line El stop. An 'Old Chicago' neighborhood bar turned cool hangout. Planet Earth and Windy City Soul Club have been guest hosts. (MF)

Record Shops

Laurie’s Planet of Sound

4639 N. Lincoln, Mon-Sat 10am-10pm, Sun 11am-7pm
A classic indie record shop, this one has all the CDs and records you could want crammed into its space. Its location also has the bonus of being located near the Old Town School of Folk Music, a performance venue, school, and music store.

Reckless Records
3126 N. Broadway Mon-Sat 10am-10pm, Sun 10am-8pm
1532 N. Milwaukee Mon-Sat 10am-10pm, Sun 10am-8pm
26 E. Madison Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 10am-7pm
A small, but classic, Chicago institution, Reckless Records was actually started in London! I prefer the Broadway location, but that is probably because it’s in my neighborhood and, thus, feels homier and more comfortable to me. Besides great, free in-store performances, another Reckless treat is obtaining two free tickets to a gig at the Empty Bottle if you buy one of the artist’s CDs the month of the gig!

Dave’s Records
2604 N. Clark
The multi-colored record window display gets me every time! This tiny shop is all vinyl, but has all your classic soul and modern indie needs.

Dusty Groove America
1120 N Ashland Ave, Every Day 10am to 8pm
This is the record collectors record store. Tons of Soul, Funk, Jazz, Latin, Hip Hop and everything else you'd ever want. These guys routinely buy entire collections and what you see on the floor isn't half of what's waiting in the basement to be cataloged. Located in Ukranian Village. (MF)

Gramaphone Records
2843 N. Clark St.
The legendary Gramaphone Records is the go to place for House, Techno, Hip Hop, Drum 'n Bass DJ's. International DJ's make it a point to stop-in when they're performing. (MF)

Logan Hardware
2410 W. Fullerton Ave
After taking over the storefront of a Logan Square neighborhood hardware store the new owners decided to keep the name and vintage sign. It's a small record store with small 80's video arcade. Games are free with purchase. (MF)

Local Bands

The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir
Though they became quite well known by proclaiming their love of Belle & Sebastian through the media and their songs, this talented troupe of musicians is a rare gem in this city. With two lead singers and songwriters, plus a variety of backing singers and musicians that play cello, violin, and those quirky shaking percussive instruments, their rich orchestral pop will make you dance, clap your hands, and smile.

Canasta shares a band member or two with The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, so that should give you a hint that both bands share a love of orchestral pop. However, Canasta revels in the warmer, slower tones. They also have a bit more female flavour!

The Ponys
This group has gained international attention for their second album. And why not? Their spiky, fuzzy post-punk sound makes you want to jump!

Instumental Metal? I wouldn't describe Pelican's sound as such - it's too beautiful. It is, however, brutal at times. It's the back and forth powerful dynamic that makes listening to Pelican an emotionally exhausting experience.

Mike and Tim Kinsella
Rising from the ashes of emo legends Cap'n Jazz, these two brothers continued working together in Joan of Arc, producing some of the most wonderfully indescribable, interesting, and critically acclaimed music to ever come out of Chicago. Tim still fronts multiple postmodern bands including Friend/Enemy and Make Believe, while Mike's alter ego is the more accessible yet subtle singer-songwriter Owen.

Uber-talented one-man band/multi-instrumentalist Ryan Rapsys keeps making intellectually engaging tunes that cross and blend genres, while always remaining imminently listenable. Every musician in Chicago who counts ends up as a guest on either his or the Kinsellas' records.

Palaxy Tracks
The lush, dripping melodies of Palaxy Tracks seem almost out of place in a city with such a tradition of hard-edged sounds, and the fact that the band once lived in Austin, TX may explain it. They have done a brilliant job of merging near-shoe-gazing pop and incisive rock - a mix that Chicago sorely needed. Palaxy Tracks is probably the best band in Chicago that isn't insanely famous. Yet.


Chicago Reader
Chicago’s most comprehensive (and hefty!) free weekly newspaper also boasts a comprehensive web site. Look here for all your gig, club, and restaurant recommendations.

Slaughterhouse Chicago Scooter Rally
Check your cables, top off the two-stroke and grab your parka! This yearly rally gathers all the mods in one place for a weekend of blue smoking comradery. Vintage Vespas and modern scooters welcome. (MF)

UR Chicago
A free, monthly magazine with info on art, music, film and other cultural interests. (MF)

Additional reviews by Max Forster
Main Chicago photo © Urban75

If you'd like to recommend a club, bar, record shop, band or any indie delight for inclusion in the Indie Travel Guide, please email us. If we've included a link to your band/shop etc, it would be lovely if you could link back to us. Thank you!

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