While the finest record labels, magazines, and record stores succeed and endure because of any number of dedicated and hardworking people, the heart and soul of these businesses often is the individual whose vision brought them into being in the first place, and whose spirit infuses everything they do.
So it is with rock clubs. It is impossible to think of the legendary C.B.G.B. without picturing its curmudgeonly owner, Hilly Kristal; the man and the place were one. In Chicago, the spirit of the Schuba family infuses the club that bears their name, as well as their new venue Lincoln Hall. The words “Joe Shanahan” and “Metro” are inseparable, and the same is true of the Empty Bottle and Bruce Finkelman, Martyr’s and Ray Quinn, and… well, really, any club and any owner worthy of your time, money, and support.
To this list we now can add Pancho’s.
Ronny’s always will hold a fond place in the memories of true-grit, grungy, ground-level punk-rock fans and bands, to say nothing of the smell of cat pee lingering in the olfactory glands of anyone who ever visited the place. And the way that the club fell victim to Mayor Daley’s Department of Business Affairs for lack of a Public Place of Amusement license after apparently being ratted out by another venue is nothing short of tragic, with the complainant being utterly contemptible.
(Unfortunately, efforts to confirm the identity of the person who dropped a dime on Ronny’s and several other venues raided at the same time have been unsuccessful—so far. Documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act from the Department of Business Affairs and the Police Department arrived with the relevant names redacted, but the culprit eventually will be outed.)
Thankfully, however, the resilient and ever-dedicated entrepreneurs at MP Shows have found an admirable replacement for Ronny’s as home to their grass-roots punk-rock bookings and lowest-level up-and-comers, just a few blocks north of the old Logan Square club on California Avenue near the “el” tracks. And for Vortis last Friday, its first encounter with Pancho, the man, and Pancho’s, his club, pretty much was love at first shot.
Midway through a long and vastly entertaining evening, Pancho told us that he came to the U.S. from Cuba in 1979 so that his son could begin an ultimately successful battle with leukemia at Children’s Hospital. After family and an abiding fondness for this country’s flawed by effective healthcare system, his biggest love is for America’s favorite pastime, and his restaurant, Cafeteria de Pancho, is decorated floor to ceiling with pictures of him with pretty much every Cubs player you could possibly name, with the occasional White Sock thrown in for good measure.
Pancho’s Bar is connected and located next door, and the décor is more Spartan here: Just a few Cuba tourism posters on the walls. The aromatic smells of media noches, tostones, and Jibarito sandwiches waft over from the kitchen, and they are infinitely preferable to eau de Ronny’s. “The best mojitos in town!” Pancho brags on a poster in the window, and while Vortis didn’t indulge in any of those, they looked as if the bragging rights could justifiably be his, with fresh sugar cane, lime, and mint in abundance. But the tastiest treat behind the bar was Pancho himself.
As Vortis perched on its stools at the far end of the room for much of the night, awaiting our turn on a stage that has yet to actually be built, Pancho kept the beers flowing, stopping by in between to enhance the festivities by jamming along to the sounds emanating from the opening acts by squawking on a saxophone or rhythmically scraping a guiro.
He told jokes. He flirted in a non-obnoxious way with all of the women. He held a flashlight to the menu for customers struggling to read it, and then he reflected the beam off his shiny bald dome. He comped Vortis a round of shots of killer tequila sweetened with a sugary lime juice. And at the height of the evening, he performed an astounding bar trick involving three glasses of water, two drinking straws, two forks, a salt shaker, and a toothpick. (I saw it, but I still can’t believe it, much less properly describe it.)
It’s hard to imagine anyone who loves music and people as much as Pancho following any other pursuit besides the club business, and it’s just as hard to imagine hitting the place and not having a good time. MP says attendance has been up for pretty much all of the shows they’ve done since moving from Ronny’s, just because people like the joint so much more. And we’d have had a great time even if most of the music wasn’t so kicking.
As for the actual sounds on Friday’s bill, things started with a local trio called the Wires, who shared two problems with the most dreadful opening act Vortis has encountered in years, the Paramedics, who opened our show in Milwaukee last month (and who actually are coming to Chicago to play at Reggie’s two days after Christmas). No. 1, they had way, way too many pedals gumming up and diluting the guitar sound. And No. 2, there was an almost schizophrenic diversity to those sounds, veering from a respectable stoner-rock crunch in one song moment to an aimless hippie choogling in the next.
Dirtybird stayed on the stoner-rock tip and was much more powerful and enjoyable for it, while headliners the Venom Lords—who rechristened themselves “the Denim Lords” for the occasion after the Wires misidentified them with a “Stick around for…” early in the evening—delivered both the garage grunge and the pop-punk melody, as well as a heaping helping of front woman Gina Knapik’s drunk but endearing personality.
And Vortis? We came. We rocked. And we can’t wait to get back to Pancho’s soon.