Last Days At Lounge Ax – Lounge Ax (Chicago, IL)
When Lounge Ax shut its doors in the wee hours of January 16, a chapter in Chicago rock history ended. The scruffy-as-it-was-legendary club on the city’s North Side carved its niche in the indie-rock ’80s and nurtured Windy City bohemians through the ’90s, but met its inglorious end when an investment banker bought the building late last year and evicted his tenants.
The club didn’t go quietly: Its last two weeks of operation became a lost-our-lease farewell tour starring favorites both local and national. Each night, capacity crowds jammed the long, low room to sweat and jostle at even closer quarters than usual while watching bands who’d forged both friendships and careers on the tiny stage make just a few more memories.
Lounge Ax was co-founded by Julia Adams in 1987 but didn’t really start making its mark until talent buyer Sue Miller bought into the operation in 1989. With the addition of Miller’s connections and reputation, Lounge Ax quickly rose to indie-rock prominence. “At a time when indie-rock was seen as edgy and experimental, they brought in bands that would otherwise have passed on Chicago,” says Doug LeFrak, who was then a student at Northwestern University and Lounge Ax regular. Now he books bands at another Chicago club, Schubas, and runs Sugar Free Records.
Miller and Adams were adventurous in their booking of national touring acts — hosting the likes of the Replacements, the Minutemen and Uncle Tupelo — and loyally supportive of local music, providing an outlet for a burgeoning hardcore scene spearheaded by Naked Raygun and the Jesus Lizard.
As years went by, faces changed, of course, but Lounge Ax always hosted cutting-edge indie-rock: The Replacements begat Jon Spencer Blues Explosion begat Yo La Tengo begat Neutral Milk Hotel. Local hardcore faded, but post-rock bloomed; the Lounge Ax house band, the Coctails, were central to that scene.
It wasn’t by accident that both bands and fans kept coming back. Musicians knew they’d be treated fairly and taken care of, and fans — even if they sometimes loathed the club’s cramped confines and barbaric bathrooms — felt they weren’t just beer-buying bodies.
“It’s an easy place to play,” says Mekons and Waco Brothers frontman Jon Langford. “It’s not a great dressing room; they’re not going to give you food. But it’s the personal touch; there’s no difference between the club owners and the bands there. They’re the same people.”
“There’s a real community there,” says local singer-songwriter Chris Mills. “Sue and Julia’s respect and consideration for the bands, and their love of bands in general, radiates through everyone who works there. Their friendship and support is why bands keep coming back.”
Adams and Miller took a particular interest in nurturing young bands. “We’ve always really enjoyed being a part of finding bands we like when they’re young and nobody comes out to see them, and trying to help build their careers,” Miller says.
“I remember the first time I saw the Handsome Family,” says Adams. “I saw them at a street fair and thought, ‘We have to get them.’ Now they’re one of my favorite bands.”
Opening for Jeff Tweedy on January 4, the Handsome Family’s Brett and Rennie Sparks didn’t hide the fact that they’ll miss the club. They plugged their upcoming CD-release party while lamenting that it would be their first not held at Lounge Ax. That it was their last appearance on the little stage gave even the mundane a kind of gravity: “That may be the last time you break a string at Lounge Ax,” Rennie said when Brett snapped one during “Drunk By Noon”.
In recent years, Lounge Ax — along with other Chicago clubs, including Schubas, FitzGerald’s and the Hideout — has played a major role in anchoring the city’s alt-country scene. The rough-and-tumble roots sound touted by local label Bloodshot Records was honed at Lounge Ax, and the club regularly hosted the label’s acts, from out-of-towners such as Texans the Meat Purveyors to local up-and-comers such as the Blacks.
But it was the club’s special relationships with higher-profile alt-country artists that set the Lounge Ax apart. Langford was a regular fixture, whether leading one of his myriad bands (Mekons, Waco Brothers, Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Skull Orchard), showing his paintings, or just carousing. The Old 97’s played several memorable shows there, and, under the pseudonym Yellow Leather, the Jayhawks debuted new material on the Lounge Ax stage in the summer of 1998. But most importantly, Lounge Ax was Jeff Tweedy’s home turf.
No one can quite recall exactly when Tweedy first played Lounge Ax. It wasn’t Uncle Tupelo’s first Chicago gig; that came at the Cubby Bear, when Sue Miller was booking bands there. But when the Belleville, Illinois, trio’s first album was released, they followed Miller to Lounge Ax. The club outlasted the band, but in a way, Tweedy never left: He and Miller were married there in 1995.
“I remember an Uncle Tupelo show in 1989 or 1990,” Adams says. “I was standing in the back; there were maybe 50 or 60 people here. I said, ‘This is an incredible band.’ … Jeff was just this tongue-tied kid then. It’s been amazing to watch: Now he’s a dad, and a great artist.”
Over the years, Lounge Ax became Tweedy’s favorite place to play, and to see other bands. “If you stand as close to the stage as you can get,” Tweedy says, “it almost doesn’t matter who it is. It’s about as immediate and as great as rock ‘n’ roll can be. Just being that close to people having such a good time playing music is inspiring. I’ve written a lot after coming here and standing up front and getting my ears good and ringing, then going home and feeling rejuvenated.”
Since Tweedy formed Wilco in 1995, the club has served as his laboratory. Sometimes Wilco would play there to warm up for a tour; sometimes Tweedy would appear with a bandmate. Most often he’d play solo acoustic shows at the club, trying out new material and reworking his catalog.
The familiar, intimate setting afforded Tweedy the confidence to take risks that often returned great rewards. That was never more apparent than last February, when Tweedy unveiled the songs soon to be released on Summer Teeth. The material was not just fresh but raw; it fired in the singer a flinty intensity he often flashes but less frequently sustains.
“It’s good to reconnect with songs in that stripped-down way,” Tweedy says. “Usually the first half-hour, I’m struggling to get used to the idea of a song just being me and a guitar again. By the end of the show, I feel really reconnected to what’s at the core of a song. It’s good when I go back in the studio to remember that stuff. So I’m going to have to find something to occupy that role.”
Tweedy’s last solo show at Lounge Ax kicked off the club’s long goodbye on January 4. That it took place on a weeknight didn’t stop fans from lining up hours early at the club’s door. Tweedy, arriving just after 5 p.m. for his soundcheck, couldn’t decide whether to be flattered or frightened that there were already 10 people huddled against the snow outside. Then he went across the street and bought them all hot cocoa.
That show won’t be remembered with his best. Distracted by new-dad duties (his second son, Samuel Lincoln, was born on December 22), Tweedy had hardly slept in days, much less prepared for the performance. Onstage that night, he seemed unfocused; his set list was hardly adventurous, and he flubbed lyrics more than once. But as he has often done at Lounge Ax, he gave fans a preview of his works in progress, singing five unreleased originals and two new tunes with lyrics by Woody Guthrie. At the time, Wilco was working on the Guthrie songs in their Chicago studio for inclusion on the forthcoming sequel to Mermaid Avenue, their 1998 collaboration with Billy Bragg based on Guthrie’s archived lyrics.
Tweedy returned to the Lounge Ax stage on Saturday for an unbilled appearance with his Wilco bandmates as part of a tribute concert to the late Doug Sahm. The bands paying tribute to the songwriter represented almost as many genres as Sahm had in his 30-year career, and Wilco was no exception: With Tweedy, Jay Bennett and John Stirratt each taking a turn on lead vocals, they touched on funk, pop and roadhouse rock.
Most groups played two songs — one written or performed by Sahm, and one of their own. Among the covers, highlights included Frisbie’s power-pop treatment of “Catch The Man On The Rise”, Chris Mills’ weary reading of Bob Dylan’s “Wallflower”, and Andrew Bird’s loose, chaotic “Song Of Everything”.
The following night (Sunday, January 9) was perhaps the most eagerly anticipated of the farewell shows. Though the club advertised its headliner as “Summer Teeth”, nobody from Green Bay to Gary was fooled. And it seemed they all turned out, beginning to gather as early as 1 p.m. The 300 fans who got in were only a fraction of those who stretched the line down the block, through an alley, and — according to some reports — past the nearest El stop, three blocks away.
Guitarist and singer Scott McCaughey flew in from Seattle to open the show with a set that celebrated the best of Lounge Ax’s free-spirited tradition. McCaughey’s band the Young Fresh Fellows had a long history with the club — “way back, even pre-Lounge Ax, basically,” McCaughey said, explaining that Miller had earlier booked them at Cubby Bear (just like Uncle Tupelo) and even once before that at Gaspar’s, which formerly occupied the current site of Schubas. More recently, McCaughey has become a sideman with R.E.M., but he also fronts a revolving cast of musicians under the moniker Minus 5.
Tonight’s version of the Minus 5 consisted of McCaughey fronting Wilco, with Tweedy taking a rare, nostalgic turn on bass. They romped through 13 songs, most of which had never been performed before. Whether McCaughey compositions or covers of Neutral Milk Hotel (“King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1”, with Wilco drummer Ken Coomer on trumpet) and Johnny Cash (“I Still Miss Someone” and “Home Of The Blues” led by Langford), everything was happy, sloppy garage rock. But when McCaughey and Tweedy closed with a revved-up run-through of Mott The Hoople’s “I Wish I Was Your Mother”, the lyrics’ longing and regret were both palpable and fitting.
Onstage at Lounge Ax for the first time in eighteen months and the last time ever, Wilco let it all hang out. Their opening salvo of “Always In Love” and “Summer Teeth” was jubilant; through it all, Tweedy never stopped smiling. That mood changed when a creeping feedback squall introduced “Misunderstood”. Bathed in green light, the band turned pensive, restraining even the normally cacophonous bridge. But with the coda came an explosion: Tweedy’s raging screams (“I’d like to thank you all for nothing! Nothing! Nothing at all!”) bled frustration and disillusion.
The storm passed as quickly as it came, however, and the band bounced back with a jaunty take on “Hesitating Beauty” from Mermaid Avenue and a standout new Guthrie song, “Mountain Bed Of Leaves”, a nine-verse epic distinguished by Tweedy and Bennett’s lush, warm melodies on acoustic guitar and the lyrics’ Whitman-like sensuality and sweep.
During encores that almost outlasted the main set’s duration, Tweedy eulogized the club. Wilco pulled out an older rarity, “Should’ve Been In Love” from their 1995 debut A.M., for the occasion, and nodded one last time to the past with a searing version of the Uncle Tupelo Anodyne gem “The Long Cut”. The band finally said goodbye to Lounge Ax with a trashy take on the Mermaid track “Walt Whitman’s Niece”; guitar tech Jonathan “JP” Parker did his worst Billy Bragg imitation as lead vocalist.
Wilco wasn’t the only band that regularly sells out larger venues to return to Lounge Ax one last time in January. Tortoise, Shellac, and Man or Astroman? all played to overflow crowds in the final weeks. And three notable reunions occurred, as local legends Red Red Meat, Eleventh Dream Day and the Coctails all got back together for headline gigs.
Lesser-known bands who’d long been loyal to the club also returned to pay their respects. Calexico and Giant Sand brought their desert shimmer to the stage on January 11; two nights later, the Palace Brothers played a fleeting set of the contemptuous country-soul that is Will Oldham’s trademark.
The shuttered Lounge Ax is only the latest casualty of gentrification along Lincoln Avenue and throughout the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. In fact, the club and its tattooed and pierced crowd had long seemed out of place among the boutiques and sports bars that now choke the area.
“It’s symptomatic of America,” Langford said of the club’s closing. “It’s part of a bad trend in this country. It would never happen in Europe, where the governments support culture.”
Miller and Adams say they were shocked by the eviction, even though the club’s location had seemed precarious ever since well-publicized neighborhood noise complaints and police harassment led to the establishment of the Lounge Ax Defense And Relocation Fund in 1995. The indie-rock community rallied to the club’s side then, organizing concerts and selling a CD to benefit the fund. Miller and Adams have looked for a new site ever since.
Now the pair hopes to reopen, despite their difficulties in finding a suitable location and the city’s licensing labyrinth that awaits even if a new site is found.
“I feel really good,” Adams says. “In my heart I think it’ll be reopened; I don’t know how or where. But with the genuine outpouring of sadness that people feel, I don’t see how we couldn’t.”
“It’s been surprising and heartwarming how much love we’ve felt,” Miller agrees. What’s more, she adds, “it’s in our blood. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”