Though it’s taken us forever to cover it properly, B.L.U.E.S. is our favorite blues club in Chicago. Others, like Kingston Mines across the street, Rosa’s Lounge and the New Checkerboard Lounge, all deserve our appreciation, but it is B.L.U.E.S. that has been doing it the longest at their present location – even longer than the annual Chicago Blues Festival has been held. The popularity of B.L.U.E.S. stems from maintaining a balance between authenticity, local appeal and international notoriety. As the name implies, it’s just blues. Period.
B.L.U.E.S. can be found on the east side of Halsted, just south of Wrightwood and north of Lill, and across from the bright orange exterior of Kingston Mines that forms the other side of “Blues Alley,” created when the Mines moved here in the early 1980s. As is often the case in Chicago, B.L.U.E.S. lies at the base of a red-brick three-flat with a tan brick façade. A long, bright neon sign with blue lettering and framed in red highlights the place at night, while a hand-painted, wooden sign hangs below it for those having trouble reading letters vertically, which tends to happen following Cub games.
“Fortunately, the name of this small bar is not an acronym for anything cutesy—Partner Gillmore says the name was chosen in a hurry when the place opened, and he sticks with it now because, ‘I’ve discovered how good it looks in the listings.”– excerpt from “That Lowdown Sound Now Abounds All Around” by Jack Hafferkamp (June 6, 1980)
Step up to the large bouncer at the door and have your ID and money ready. Cover is around $8 during the week and $10 on weekends, which is an absolute deal considering the cheap drinks prices inside (no minimums) and what they charge across the street. Tuesday night is “good neighbor night” when locals get in for free with an address on their driver’s license displaying zip code 60610, 60614 or 60657, while others have to pay full price but are likely to get discounts on future admissions so that you come back. Pass through the threshold and you’ll find a long, narrow interior encased in battered wood. A bar runs most of the length of the south wall, and seating can be found at the bar, at somewhat elevated booth seating along the north end of the room, or at a smattering of rickety wooden tables and chairs found throughout the space. Musicians play on a tiny elevated stage in the southeast corner of the room, behind which hangs an impressive array of t-shirts for sale and a schedule handwritten on a whiteboard. You can also buy a CD or pair of B.L.U.E.S. panties for your wife or girlfriend (or both). As you would guess, photographs of past performers cover the north and back walls while, somewhat strangely, a disco ball hangs above the tiny stage. A transparent glass globe advertises upcoming shows in red laser and a real dartboard is located in the rear, just opposite one-seater bathrooms with no lock on the men’s. In addition to booze, only bottled beer is available, primarily consisting of cheap domestics – what did you expect? B.L.U.E.S. does not serve food and that is as it should be.
Rob Hecko and Bill Gillmore opened B.L.U.E.S. in April 1979, after Hecko graduated from DePaul and was offered money by his godfather to purchase a post-collegiate bar called Omni on Halsted. In trying to find an identity for the new venture, Hecko met Gillmore who had booked bands for years and suggested that they open a blues bar. The idea was born and, since then, B.L.U.E.S. has featured their namesake music every night, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Notable B.L.U.E.S. musicians include Sunnyland Slim, Otis Clay, Big Time Sarah, Bonnie Lee, Johnny B. Moore, Son Seals, Otis Clay, Eddie Shaw, Magic Slim, Eddy Clearwater, Jimmy Johnson, Willie Kent, Jimmy Burns, Vance Kelly, Li’l Ed, and Nicholas Barron, to name but a few. Shows begin at 9:30pm every day except 10pm on Saturdays. There isn’t much room to dance, but if you’re in the mood to shake a tailfeather, no one will stop you.
In the club’s early days, B.L.U.E.S. featured predominantly local bluesmen and only charged $1 cover on Fridays and Saturdays. According to David Grazian in his book, Blue Chicago (2003), musicians also shared from proceeds collected in a blue-painted troll made from papier-mâché, with a long tail and a hole in its head for contributions. The much larger Kingston Mines, originally on Lincoln then on Clark, moved across the street in February 1982, which had B.L.U.E.S. owners nervous until it tripled their revenues and added legitimacy to both operations and clientele synergy as it’s impossible to go to one and not notice, or want to go, to the other. As such, both clubs became more well known around the city and to suburbanites, conventioneers and tourists from around the world who learned of the place through hotel concierges and write ups in numerous publications, including Esquire Magazine. Such popularity led to a second location in 1987, called B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, which lasted until 1999 at 1122 (or 1124) W. Belmont and later become the now-defunct club, Lithium, until a new condo building went up in its place.
“If you have someone visiting from out of town, this is where you take them for some real, down-home Chicago blues without dragging them through a sketchy neighborhood and scaring them out of their simple minds.”-Shecky’s Bar, Club and Lounge Guide 2002
In a neighborhood full of sports bars and faux Irish pubs, most of which also serve as meat markets, B.L.U.E.S. is a welcome oasis of music and devoid of the Lincoln Park Trixies and Chads. You’ll instead find an old-school blues crowd, many of whom are performers themselves on other nights or on breaks from Kingston Mines across the street. These performers mingle with locals during the week and suburbanites and tourists on weekends, and may even try to sweet talk your date if you’re not careful… As such, B.L.U.E.S. brings the spirit of a South Side blues bars, like the long lost Theresa’s Lounge, to the North Side – a relief for most who’d rather not deal with the River North cheesiness or travel deep within the South Side itself. And now that the smoking ban has taken effect, the last most common criticism of the place is moot. For more information and a schedule of upcoming shows, check out the B.L.U.E.S. website. Boom, boom, boom.