The Vortis Diaries: Six hours at Ronny's on Saturday night

June 21, 2010

Located at the corner of California and Dickens in Logan Square, before its reincarnation as a neighborhood watering hole, Ronny's Bar was a garage. Chicago's ace punk-rock promoters MP Productions regularly stage shows there, and for those occasions, they've renamed it "Ronny's Center for the Performing Arts." But there is considerable irony in that grandiose title.

Ronny's is inarguably best described as "a sh*thole." But it is as wonderful a sh*thole as sh*tholes come.

Its nondescript fa├žade can make Ronny's hard to find, especially amid the chaos of post-Puerto Rican parade festivities. But we knew Saturday would be special when, for the first time any of us in Vortis or anyone at MP could remember, the neon marquee magically flickered on. Sure, it was missing an "n." But it still was "phonetically correct," as Louie Vortis enthused.

No matter how vibrant their underground music scenes, most mid-sized cities -- Madison, Milwaukee, Chapel Hill, or Ann Arbor -- are lucky to have one venue like Ronny's sporadically hosting five- or six-band punk-rock bills. Chicago has half a dozen. But even given this bounty, Ronny's is special.

Vortis first played the place between Christmas and New Year's Eve, 2008. It was the coldest day of the winter, and the bands -- which included a young group from Florida which hadn't packed winter clothing and had been waiting in its unheated van for several hours before the door man arrived to open up -- could see their breath inside the club. Even so, Ronny's smelled of cat piss, as it always did, which was hard to explain, because there never was a feline in sight.

Spanning the door where bands load their gear in and out was a thick marble slab which, besmeared by snow and ice, became treacherous to anyone struggling with an unwieldy bass drum or a 90-pound Marshall cabinet. Most of us fell prey to this hazard at one point or another, suffering a sore butt, a twisted ankle, or merely some wounded pride. But it was character-building.

In recent months, Ronny's has been subject to slow but steady renovations. The marble slab still is there, but the dry wall lining the music room has been finished and painted black. A stage has been built --a short stage about six inches tall, but a stage nonetheless. The big, broken statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe has been removed, and a new plywood booth has been built for the sound technicians. (It replaces the old tiki bar, which was troublesome because it was on casters and would sometimes roll across the floor during a show.) And, most amazingly, the joint no longer stinks --  or most of it doesn't, anyway.

For a true taste of the old Ronny's, you have to brave the restrooms, which remain gloriously unaltered. C.B.G.B. was infamous for its toilets, but as someone who's played both clubs, let me tell you, Ronny's wins -- or loses, as the case may be. Words really can't do its facilities justice.


Chris Vortis is juggling work on a PhD in 18th Century Literary and Aesthetic Theory and a day job in graphics with his true calling as a punk rocker nonpareil, and he recently was outed to a coworker, who asked what the punk-rock experience is like. "I don't know what kind of bathrooms you frequent," he said, "but I go to all the worst ones in the world."

That is one truism about the life of a grass-roots gigging musician that rarely is discussed, just as you never hear about the behind-the-scenes ordeal of packing the gear, loading the gear, unloading the gear, setting up the gear, breaking down the gear, loading the gear, and unloading the gear again at its original storage space -- a process that can be three or four times as long as the amount of time actually spent onstage -- or the fact that the set is a mere fraction of the six or seven hours spent in a club between soundcheck and load-out at the end of the night.


Vortis: Sitting, waiting, drinking.

Because, for Vortis, eating before a gig is strictly verboten -- it just makes you logey when you're trying to play 18 songs in 30 minutes -- there are only two things to do during this long stretch. One is drinking. The other, of course, is supporting our fellow bands, which on this night started with a Chicago quartet called the Larroquettes, named, no doubt, for that great thespian from "Night Court."


The Larroquettes

Ably anchored by a solid bassist named Mariah (just Mariah), the group churned out nasty, dirty, blues-based garage-rock crunch -- the members cite the Mummies and the Cramps among their heroes -- and a fine start to the night it was, especially when the set ended with trashed drums and an onstage wrestling match.


The Brothers of Barabas

Things slowed down a bit with the second Chicago foursome, the Brothers of Barabas, who did a more generic yet indefinable indie-rock choogle. It wasn't that the group sucked, exactly; just that its stiffness and apparent lack of enthusiasm belied the otherwise festive spirit of the night.


Stand & Deliver, Fat Sammy on the floor, obscured by my crappy iPhone photo

Much, much stronger -- indeed, the highlight of the bill -- was Stand & Deliver, a quintet from Indianapolis led by Fat Sammy (just Fat Sammy), formerly the vocalist of About the Fire. Sammy's new group continues in the screamo vein, and the needly, single-note guitar lines and over-abundance of earnest sentimentality can be a bit annoying, especially when Sammy starts talking about fallen friends and the challenges of bringing a kid into this world. But ultimately the man was an undeniable presence, stomping through the crowd -- he spent the whole set on the floor of the club, because no six-inch stage could contain him --and it was impossible not to be swept up by his passion or his bandmates' propulsive energy.


No Enemy

Hailing from suburban Park Ridge, the penultimate act of the night, No Enemy, had plenty of passion and energy, too. But it also had a bit too much corporate West Coast pop-punk a la Blink-182 or local ex-pats Fallout Boy, which unfortunately overwhelmed the old-school Midwest Pegboy/Shot Baker elements.

Finally, there was Vortis. We came. We rocked. And then there were the other five and a half hours we spent at Ronny's Center for the Performing Arts -- which, for us, is said with no irony whatsoever. With or without the whiff of cat pee, it remains one of our favorite places in the rock universe.