Chasing the Music: A whirl-weekend in Chicago

Polica perform at House of Vans in Chicago
Polica perform at Crate Diggers Record Fair, part of Red Bull Sound Select's 30 Days in Chicago festival, at the House of Vans in Chicago, IL, USA on Nov. 5, 2017. (Jeremy Deputat/Red Bull Content Pool)

Sometimes your favorite band announces a tour, and they left off a stop in your hometown. Sometimes you're already traveling and decide to squeeze in a show. Seeing live music away from home can be just the tonic you need. Chicago is a brief flight or road trip from Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Indiana -- plus, it's packed with talent, diversity, and music history -- so it tends to be one of the first places Midwesterners look for music adventures. To get to know Chicago and its scene, I spent a recent weekend chasing all the concerts and music-related events I could. Here's what I learned.

Red Bull Sound Select is the truth.

The national organization partners with local curators (including Doomtree Records and Totally Gross National Product in Minnesota) to throw affordable, diverse shows all over the country. For the last three years, they've organized 30 Days in LA, hosting a show every night for a month. And this November, they've brought the same concept to the Midwest for 30 Days in Chicago. I see this as one of the biggest music events in the country, on par with major festivals like Lollapalooza, so I decided to make the trip for rap blog Fake Shore Drive's 10th anniversary show (featuring Big Tymer$, Tee Grizzley, Twista, the Cool Kids, and a heap of other Chicago rappers. Chance the Rapper showed up just to lip-synch behind King Louie) and a Crate Diggers record fair featuring Minneapolis band Poliça. Both were a blast.

It's possible to literally not plan and find something to do in the city.

When I flew in, I thought I'd spend Saturday afternoon waiting around for the night's show. Two hours later, I'd noticed a sign for One Book One Chicago, a Chicago Public Library program, and discovered a trove of music-related events going on in precisely the open space on my calendar. As part of a music-centric Lincoln Park walking tour led by urbanologist Max Grinnell, I ended up learning about Chicago's Blues Alley, touring Lincoln Hall during Mipso's sound check, and meeting several friendly locals. (There are dozens more One Book One Chicago events to come, including film screenings, book discussions, more walking tours, and a conversation with Mavis Staples at Harold Washington Library Center on Dec. 14 -- all inspired by the book selection, I'll Take You There by music critic Greg Kot).

Seeing a hometown favorite in a new locale is a good idea.

Last time Poliça played the Twin Cities, they nearly filled First Avenue. But in Chicago, they drew 150-200 people to House of Vans, which meant I got to show up during openers Ohmme (like the yoga catchphrase) and stand in the second row all night. Poliça played at least a handful of new songs, and all night, the vibe felt low-key and comfortable.

Blogs are cool in Chicago.

Sometimes people will comment about my note-taking at Twin Cities shows (anything from, "Are you making a set list?" to my least favorite, "Are you writing in your diary?"). But at the Fake Shore Drive show, a young guy walked past me and did a double-take. "Do you write for a blog?" he asked. When I nodded and explained why, he shook his head in awe. I could immediately tell how important blogs are to the culture.

You can stream some Lincoln Hall shows via Audiotree.

Audioleaf (a team-up of Audiotree and Michigan's Greenleaf Companies) bought venues Lincoln Hall and Schubas Tavern from brothers Mike and Chris Schuba in 2015. Since then, Audiotree has started sharing video of concerts performed at Lincoln Hall (and, less frequently, Schubas). Here's part of a recent show by Minnesotan band Now, Now.

You've got a good shot at finding a Prince record in Chicago.

You know how Prince albums get scooped up like free Costco samples here? When I visited the Crate Diggers record fair at House of Vans, I saw Parade, Around the World in a Day, and Batman in the same bin, and I was barely even looking. Stores like Reckless Records and Dusty Groove had just as many.

Chicago rap has a dude problem.

Granted, the issue is hardly unique to that community. But as much as I enjoyed the Fake Shore Drive anniversary show, I kept noticing that only one woman ever held the mic: the host. Even the rapper known as Femdot was actually a dude (full name: Femi Adigun). Chicago rapper Noname is scheduled to headline her own 30 Days show on Nov. 21, so that's cool. But on the night purported to celebrate 10 years of rising Chicago rap, I had to wonder: Who are the women and girls the scene hasn't put on?

You can't take Minnesota out of the girl.

I went to Chicago to appreciate its music scene, but I ended up doing my fair share of Minnesota evangelization in return. On the walking tour, each person named their favorite venue as an icebreaker; I started gushing about First Avenue. During Poliça's show, the man next to me noticed producer Ryan Olson standing in the photo pit, adding effects via a mini-gear set-up. I explained what he was doing there and shared one of my favorite trivia: Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) wrote Olson fan mail as a middle-schooler.

While going to Chicago reminded me just how proud I am of the Twin Cities, it also made me wish we had certain luxuries at home. Mass transit made it incredibly easy to navigate the city without a car, and it was easy to find post-concert food with several restaurants staying open until midnight, 2 a.m., or even 4 a.m. I saw young people of all races enjoying music together, which can be hard to find here. So while I was glad to be headed back to Minnesota, I came away inspired to make my home even more friendly to music and all its fans.

8 Photos

  • Chasing the Music in Chicago
    The view from Morgan, a West Loop "L" stop for Green and Pink Line trains. (Cecilia Johnson | MPR)
  • King Louie performs at Portage Theater in Chicago
    King Louie performs at the 10th Anniversary of Fake Shore Drive, part of Red Bull Sound Select's 30 Days in Chicago festival, at the Portage Theater in Chicago, IL, USA on 4 November, 2017. (Jeremy Deputat/Red Bull Content Pool)
  • Chasing the Music in Chicago
    Record buyers dig through crates at House of Vans in Chicago (Cecilia Johnson | MPR)
  • Big Tymer$ perform at Portage Theater in Chicago
    Big Tymer$ perform at the 10th Anniversary of Fake Shore Drive, part of Red Bull Sound Select's 30 Days in Chicago festival, at the Portage Theater in Chicago, IL, USA on 4 November, 2017. (Jeremy Deputat/Red Bull Content Pool)
  • Red Bull Sound Select display at House of Vans in Chicago
    Red Bull Sound Select display at House of Vans in Chicago (Cecilia Johnson | MPR)
  • Red Bull Sound Select advertisment in a pharmacy
    Red Bull Sound Select advertisment in a pharmacy (Cecilia Johnson | MPR)
  • Polica perform at House of Vans in Chicago
    Polica perform at Crate Diggers Record Fair, part of Red Bull Sound Select's 30 Days in Chicago festival, at the House of Vans in Chicago, IL, USA on Nov. 5, 2017. (Jeremy Deputat/Red Bull Content Pool)
  • Polica perform at House of Vans in Chicago
    Polica perform at Crate Diggers Record Fair, part of Red Bull Sound Select's 30 Days in Chicago festival, at the House of Vans in Chicago, IL, USA on Nov. 5, 2017. (Jeremy Deputat/Red Bull Content Pool)