With its eclectic variety of local and regional talent, the Underground Wonder Bar is like a cross between the Green Mill, Redhead Piano Bar, Wild Hare, and the similarly named Underground Lounge. The result is a combination of blues, reggae and jazz that attracts a variety of clientele as diverse as the music. Add to that a dimly lit, intimate, somewhat swanky atmosphere combined with the fun vibe that exudes from owner Lonie Walker at the piano an her legion of regulars and you’ve got one of the best little music clubs in the city.
Located just a few steps below the street on Walton in the Gold Coast, the Underground Wonder Bar remains popular with those that seek it out. The Wonder Bar is not cheap, so expect to pay around $10 to the bouncer (unless you sweet talk him) after 10:00pm. Pay your cover, descend the stairs, pass through the glass door, and you’ve entered the dark and smoky Underground Wonder.
Although rather narrow, the room is long with seating up front at the window and down the crowded aisle next to the bar on the left. If you decide to sit in this area, I recommend sitting at the bar. The bartenders are friendly and, if you buy them shots, they’ll not only be your best friend at least for the night but they’ll also probably return the favor with a shot or a story. Across from the bar hangs a garbage lid on wall used in one of Stomp’s shows next to framed reviews of the Underground itself.
Recommended seating is at one of the tables along either side in front of the band. Here, it is much easier to see and hear the band, and you get the full effect of the tiny red lights and mirrored walls. Tables up front have white votive candles and white paper tablecloths with crayons to draw on them, and a waitress will cater to your needs (your drink needs, at least). The Wonder Bar no longer serves its “international new age cuisine,” but does allow you to bring in whatever you like. On a side note, I found a strange hole the size of a tennis ball located behind the banquette at the table on the right, next to the bar, below the Professor Longhair poster, alternately blowing hot and cold air. Hmmm… You never know what you’ll find at the Underground Wonder Bar.
Bands play at the far end of the room, every night of the week, in front of a Van Gogh Starry Night backdrop and baby grand piano. In addition to jazz, blues, and reggae, there are acoustic guitar players, torch singers, and Lonie Walker. Lonie is also the owner and she plays “acid blues” with her “Bad Ass Band” every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night. According to a recent Chicago Magazine article, Lonie got her start in music by hitchhiking from her home in Green Bay, Wisconsin, down to Chicago when she was 16. She then studied jazz theory at DePaul University while she opened for Oscar Brown, Jr. by playing piano at Ratso’s, a jazz club on Lincoln Avenue, and at The Happy Medium, on Rush Street (now unfortunately a Johnny Rocket’s). Lonie then went on to perform at musical cabaret revues like The Roxy and the Gaslight Clubs at the Chicago Hilton O’Hare and the Palmer House with her first band called “Lonie Walker & Co.” During the 1980’s Walker also toured with Joe Kelly’s Gaslight Road Show complete with sleazy dancing girls kicking it up behind her. At the end of the decade, Lonie Walker purchased the venue once known as the Domino Lounge where in-your-face blue humor was served up nightly, and opened up the Underground Wonder Bar in 1989. The “Wonder” in the bar’s name refers to Lonie Walker’s perception of herself as Wonder Woman, having opened her bar at the age of 34.
Lonie Walker’s “Acid blues” seems more like a combination of jazz and lounge singing, played with a combination of piano, bodhrán, bongos, bass, and horn. The current Underground roster of regular musicians includes, “jazz vocalist Kimberly Gordon, contemporary electric violinist/singer Heather Horton, and Robin Kay singing her wild originals with a funky beat.” Lonie has also been known to attract other artists like Steve Winwood, Liza Minelli and Herbie Hancock whom have sat in with her band. Lonie also likes to get the crowd involved by routinely asking you to “give it up” for fellow musicians as well as to throw your hands up to form a “W” shape when she yells out “Wonder Bar!” Opening bands go on at 8:30 p.m. and the late show goes from 10:30pm to 3:30am.
Timid patrons beware: when you go to the bathroom, you have to walk through the band. One night when I was there, the bodhrán player not only juggled tambourines, but also danced around those answering the call of Mother Nature. My advice: if you don’t like being the center of attention, don’t break the seal! As you wait in line (bathrooms are only one-seaters), check out the physical map of Mars on the ceiling in the dark, narrow passage.
The Underground is open until 5:00 a.m. on the weekends, and serves as a welcome departure from Beaumont’s, Deja Vu and the Hangge Uppe. As a result, the Underground attracts a variety of locals after work, tourists, conventioneers, live music, lounge lizards, other musicians, friends of the musicians, and late night swingers. The crowd ranges in age, profession, race, and interests. The resulting mix compliments the music and staff creating a friendly, low-key atmosphere. There always seems to be someone interesting to talk to.
Named after a suggestion by her son, Lonnie Walker opened the Underground Wonder Bar in 1989. The bar was formerly the Domino Lounge that featured “the vanishing art of blue humor” (read: dirty jokes) by stand-up comedian Frank Penning. Metromix calls the resulting transformation, “the kind of place that the locals like to think only they know about,” and as a local, I couldn’t agree more. I recommend going for the colorful and lively late show when Lonie and her Bad Ass Band play on Saturday Night. For more information and upcoming shows, check out the Underground Wonder Bar website. Wünderbar!
“Real fun music”