Though I’m not aware of anyone who’s ever officially counted and added it up, on any given night in Chicago, hundreds of bands are performing on dozens of small stages in grungy bars and dark, seedy clubs, sometimes for half a dozen people at a time, but occasionally for many more. Though these gigs rarely get the attention of higher-profile shows, especially by touring acts, the homegrown musicians who play and the people who support them are the heart and soul of this city’s music scene; without them, our town wouldn’t be half the draw it is for musicians worldwide.
That having been said, these gigs can be a crapshoot. In the nearly 12 years Vortis has been gigging, the band only once has walked away from a show without playing, on a frigid Thursday night a few years ago, when the abysmally screwed-up dive that opened in the former location of Déjà Vu on Lincoln Avenue completely botched the stated load-in and set times by shoehorning in “an early show” and pushing the start for us and our friends Anxiety High back by three hours (which probably would have turned into five).
This sort of thing isn’t only a drag for the performers. Most have worked hard to convince fans, family, friends and folks who just owe them a favor to come on out—often in the snow or icy cold, when local bands are pretty much the only bands playing in Chicago—and they’re likely to find those people getting ticked off and possibly turning around and going back home, minus whatever cover they paid, and without seeing the group rather than waiting two or three hours or more.
Saturday at LiveWire Lounge, a newish club at Milwaukee and Kedvale on the Northwest Side, was one of those nights. Vortis played the place in September, and though the soundman, bartenders and owners all were pleasant, it had been a drag having to load all of the gear downstairs into a damp, foul-smelling basement; set it up in that dimly lit hole; carry it upstairs to the stage; carry it back down to the dungeon after the set and then carry it up again to load out at the end of the night. But rocktastic Ellie Maybe recently started as one of three people booking the joint, the boys in Vortis are fans of her and her band the Maybenauts and we decided to give it a second shot when she proposed a Saturday night lineup of four local bands, two of whom we knew and liked.
In our opinion, four bands is one too many most of the time, unless the bill is all-punk and everybody sticks to a 30-minute set, or the club is one of those welcome places where everything goes like clockwork. LiveWire is not. As noted in the past, Vortis prides itself on putting the punk in punctual, so the band showed up promptly for the stated 8 p.m. load-in, along with half of Depravos De La Mour and the drummer of Die Time, only to find a full house of friends and family waiting for the start of—you guessed it—the last-minute addition of “an early show.” And what a show it was.
Billed as “An Evening of Variety presented by the Gypsy Moon Project,” this revue had the informal air of many of the burlesque shows that have become another local staple, though with none of the fun and not much skin. Emcee Laila the Gypsy Moon Dancer started out with some awful womyn’s poetry—imagine the sort of stuff that might be read at the “Women & Women First Bookstore” in Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s Portlandia sketch—interspersing that with some none-too-impressive bellydancing, an all-female drum circle and some sub-, sub-Eve Ensler comedy most notable for trying to outdo that author by repeating the key word in The Vagina Monologues about a dozen times a minute. (Tony Vortis, after half an hour of this, began writing his own variations on the jokes, which were a heck of a lot funnier. Why did the chicken cross the road? Vagina! How many people does it take to screw in a light bulb? Vagina! And so on.)
The only act that delivered on the promise of variety, to say nothing of entertainment and spectacle, was Miss Ammunition. The Chicago burlesque legend closed the not-very-early early show with her justifiably renowned, fire-shooting, sparks-showering, sexually provocative threesome with an angle grinder and a thick (we hope) metal codpiece. Louie Vortis couldn’t stop talking about it, and he captured the scene with his cell phone.
After two seemingly endless variety sets, the schedule now was blown by a good two and a half hours, pretty much guaranteeing that nobody would be left in the place by the time Vortis finally took the stage. A bass, drums and vocals grindcore trio, Die Time kicked off the rock portion of the night and did its absolute best to clear the room of Gypsy Moon leftovers, sending some running to the door with their fingers in their ears as the singer hurled himself into tables, chairs and patrons and rolled around on the floor in an act somewhere between spasms of ecstasy and particularly violent death throes. It was fantastic.
A decent crowd of rock ’n’ roll diehards remained through the fast-moving punk of No Enemy into about half of a spirited, vibraphone-enhanced set by Depravos De La Mour (think of a nastier, more minimalist Oingo Boingo). But exactly six people were left when Vortis took the stage some time around 1 a.m., not counting the bartender, soundman and handful of the other bands’ members who stuck it out. (And by no means was it all of them, which always is in bad form.)
Why do bands even bother on nights like this, you ask? Well, one answer is those other bands on the bill: Sometimes, one might just blow you away, like Die Time did, or help while away the tedious hours spent waiting on a moldy couch in whatever passes for a green room sharing laughs and war stories, as Depravos De La Mour did. But the best reason is that you came to play, damn it. You love playing or you wouldn’t be doing it, and in the end, you’re playing for yourself and your band mates, and anyone else is either irrelevant or an added bonus.
So we came. We rocked. And seven hours later, we went back home with ringing ears, a touch of night blindness from Miss Ammunition’s fireworks and a new batch of non-jokes that no one who wasn’t there would find the least bit funny or comprehensible. That is, if we even dared to tell them.
THE VORTIS DIARIES