Honoring the vanishing musical culture of Wicker Park | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Honoring the vanishing musical culture of Wicker Park 

In some ways, Dorian’s is just one more boutiquey bar and restaurant. But its record store and music bookings connect it to the neighborhood’s 1990s arts community.

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Dorian’s programming director Joe Bryl spins records on the small stage behind the bar. - PINAR ISTEK
  • Dorian’s programming director Joe Bryl spins records on the small stage behind the bar.
  • Pinar Istek

Last month, Block Club Chicago broke the news that Texas cooler company Yeti would open its second brick-and-mortar store in the 4,796-square-foot Wicker Park space occupied till February 2017 by long-running music venue the Double Door. Earlier this month, the odds of the venue reopening in the neighborhood apparently declined to zero when a sign reading "Future home of the brand new Double Door" appeared at a Smashing Pumpkins pop-up at the Wilson Avenue Theater in Uptown.

Both developments provided new opportunities for locals to bemoan the fate of Wicker Park, though in fairness the Double Door, which opened in June 1994, helped fuel the rising rents that eventually forced it out. In a 1994 Reader story, Jeff Huebner wrote that complaints about gentrification had been simmering since the mid-80s, and in the early 90s, tensions boiled over between established Latinx residents and the majority white newcomers who'd built a burgeoning arts community in the neighborhood. The Double Door opened two months before his story came out—and three months after the New York Times put a spotlight on Wicker Park in an effort to declare Chicago as "the Latest Next Seattle."

As Reader culture editor Aimee Levitt pointed out in the 2013 story "The migration of the hipster," Wicker Park had lost its reputation as a hotbed of anything by the turn of the century. Today rents and property values continue to skyrocket, and in June, real estate firm CA Ventures bought the Double Door's old building for $9.1 million.

The legacy of Wicker Park's time as a creative hub survives here and there, though. Subterranean has one of the most eclectic concert calendars in the city, and last month its Tuesday-night hip-hop open mike series celebrated its 20th anniversary with a concert headlined by west-side heroes Do or Die. Chop Shop has booked some surprising up-and-comers and exciting reunions since veteran talent buyer Brian Peterson took over in 2015. Danny's Tavern (technically in Bucktown) dodged a bullet in 2015 and continues to endear itself to fans from several different scenes: it's where Chicago jazz drummer Makaya McCraven recorded his 2017 mixtape Highly Rare, where Beau Wanzer has hosted progressive electronic-music night Hot on the Heels for 12 years, and where friends and fans recently paid tribute to the late Phil Hertz, founder of dance-focused distributor Crosstalk International.

The small record store that fronts Dorian’s has an even smaller listening booth that doubles as the entrance to the bar and restaurant. It’s also the only room with windows. - PINAR ISTEK
  • The small record store that fronts Dorian’s has an even smaller listening booth that doubles as the entrance to the bar and restaurant. It’s also the only room with windows.
  • Pinar Istek

The neighborhood's bona fides as a destination for serious music people got a boost in September, when a new venture called Dorian's opened in a storefront of the Flat Iron Arts Building at 1939 W. North. The space includes an intimate bar and restaurant with a small stage for live music and DJs (ostensibly the main draw), but from the sidewalk you can't see any of that: it's all hidden behind a tiny, brightly lit record store. The store's wide, shallow space is just 120 square feet, and its listening room, equipped with a turntable and headphones, is only slightly bigger than a phone booth. The only way to get into the bar and restaurant (a much more generous 2,500 square feet) is through a sliding door in the western wall of the listening room. The name "Dorian's" doesn't appear anywhere on the front of the building. Instead the front door says "The Record Shop" and lists hours of operation unusual for a retail space: 5 PM till 2 AM Thursday through Saturday, 5 PM till midnight Wednesday and Sunday.

I was skeptical of the gimmick at first. The vinyl format increasingly seems like more of a lifestyle accoutrement than a way to hear music. When record-subscription service Vinyl Me, Please launched in 2013, it bundled the discs with cocktail recipes intended to complement the "listening experience," which made its shipments look like starter packs for affluent wieners willing to pay for simulations of good taste. Were the records for sale at Dorian's playing a similar role?

Dorian's co-owner Zack Eastman is also co-owner of Logan Square hot spot East Room, so he already knows how to cater to music fans. He had music in mind when he started batting around ideas for the business with the other two folks involved—Debonair Social Club co-owner Steve Harris and Beauty Bar operating partner Derek Berry. The three of them had already used the Dorian's space for three pop-ups: the Saved by the Bell diner, Saved by the Max, which ran from June 2016 till May 2017; the Riot Fest restaurant, Riot Feast, open for three months in summer and fall 2017; and the Fake Shore Drive tenth-anniversary bar, Fake Shore Dive, which lasted three days in October 2017. The partners considered continuing with pop-ups, but Eastman says they were worried the bloom was off the rose. "We were seeing this success," he says, "and then also dilution of that whole style of short-term concepts."

The records that line one wall of the bar and restaurant aren’t back stock for the shop—they were added as an acoustic treatment. - PINAR ISTEK
  • The records that line one wall of the bar and restaurant aren’t back stock for the shop—they were added as an acoustic treatment.
  • Pinar Istek

Eager for a permanent project, the trio stuck with the combo of food, drinks, and music, deciding to abandon the tie-in aspect of the pop-ups, whose novelty seemed destined to expire. "It's a big thing for all of us to say, 'How can we make music a focal point in this space as well?' That was something that we really tried hard to accomplish," Eastman says. To help, they recruited scene veteran Joe Bryl as programming director. Bryl has been DJing in Chicago since 1982, and his CV reveals him as a consistent thread through decades of Chicago nightlife. He cofounded adventurous jazz venue HotHouse in Wicker Park in the mid-80s, became the first DJ for River West nightclub Funky Buddha Lounge in the late 90s, served as musical director for Ukrainian Village dance spot Sonotheque in the 2000s, and started as music programmer at Bridgeport bar Maria's Packaged Goods in 2012.

Harris pitched Bryl on Dorian's late last year. At the time, Bryl had been DJing at cozy spots such as Sportsman's Club and the Whistler, sometimes with friends Scott McNiece (of record label International Anthem and music-programming service Uncanned Music) or Alejandro "King Hippo" Ayala. During his sets, he would experiment with what he perceived to be fringey music in order to test his audiences.

"People were really kind of focused, and insistent even, on grooving to the music, even though it might be some spiritual-jazz track that was 20 years old," Bryl says. "There was an interest I didn't understand at the time that existed out there. I think it has some relationship to how artists like Kamasi Washington, and even how people on the International Anthem label like Makaya McCraven, are making inroads into the mainstream. It was a heartening thing to see people's interest in music I thought they might not have a relationship at all to."

Bryl brings the same sensibility to his job at Dorian's. In the short time it's been open, he's shown how broad the umbrella of jazz can be—and that such music can feel at home in a space that also showcases DJs interested in soul, boogie, outre house, and hip-hop. Among Bryl's DJ bookings so far are Alejandro Zerah (aka Leja Hazer), a Gramaphone Records employee and cofounder of the globally minded Hesperian Sound Division label; Shazam Bangles of DJ collective Boogie Munsters, which focuses on boogie, funk, and soul; and house and hip-hop veteran Tone B. Nimble, who also has a keen ear for gospel. Bryl also sporadically books live jazz combos on the 250-square-foot Dorian's stage, located behind the bar—Chicago jazz saxophonist and composer Isaiah Collier performed with his trio, the Chosen Few, the first weekend of December.

The view from the Dorian’s stage, over Joe Bryl’s shoulder - PINAR ISTEK
  • The view from the Dorian’s stage, over Joe Bryl’s shoulder
  • Pinar Istek

Bryl hired McNiece and Uncanned Music to re-engineer the space acoustically to benefit DJs and live performers. McNiece recommended buying a sound system from Italian company Esoteric Pro Audio, because the International Anthem artists who'd played London's Total Refreshment Centre in fall 2017 had been so impressed by the EPA setup there. "It wasn't a muscular PA, but it was really natural sounding and full," McNiece says. Dorian's purchased two of EPA's compact Trio systems, one for each leg of the L-shaped main room. "It's very clear—you could do a live gig or a DJ gig, and it could have a resonance," Bryl says. "It could be loud, but at the same time, you and I could have a conversation like we're having now and it's not gonna be intrusive."

Bryl also oversees the record store, which doubles as a check-in and waiting area for the main room (and also sells vinyl until closing time). Most of the 12-inches in stock are used, and many come from Bryl's personal collection—he estimates he's amassed 20,000 records over the years. But he also buys vinyl from International Anthem and Chicago-based record-resale site Reverb LP, and further fills out the Dorian's stacks with selections on consignment from DJ David Tropicalazo (who brings in records from Mexico City) and former Shake Rattle & Read owner Ric Addy.

Dorian's store holds roughly 600 records. Bryl says they've sold about 300 since opening in September—the bar and restaurant bring in the real money—and they refresh part of their stock at the beginning of every month. There are no LP divider cards, but when I stopped by the night before Thanksgiving, the selection was broadly organized by genre—jazz, soul, Latin, indie rock, funk, hip-hop. I didn't expect to buy anything, but I couldn't help myself when I found a 1986 copy of Schoolly-D's 1984 debut single, "Gangster Boogie" b/w "Maniac."

The door from the listening room to the bar is just out of sight to the left. - PINAR ISTEK
  • The door from the listening room to the bar is just out of sight to the left.
  • Pinar Istek

Eastman and his collaborators intended to give the bar and restaurant at Dorian's a tiki feel: chef Brian Fisher, formerly of Schwa and Entente, devised a menu distantly inspired by Polynesian food, and beverage director John Hess included tiki-inspired cocktails on his menu. They were less interested in tiki-bar kitsch, though, and more in creating an immersive experience. After my pre-Thanksgiving visit, when I caught DJ sets by Star Creature Universal Vibrations owner Tim Zawada and Chicago hip-hop legend the Twilite Tone, I got a mild shock when I stepped back onto the sidewalk and into the cold wind, in part because it's impossible to see the street from inside—I'd temporarily forgotten where I was.

Dorian's is right around the corner from the old Double Door space, but it provides a degree of reprieve from the congested, hectic six corners neighborhood. In some ways it fits the area's new character—it's boutiquey and a little pricey, with $13 cocktails and "shared plates" going for $15 to $22—but in others, most notably the way it respects music and the people who love it, it respects the values of 1990s Wicker Park. "Double Door closed down, and for a lot of people that signified the cultural demise of Wicker Park," McNiece says. "For something like Dorian's to pop up not long after that, it's a nice reminder that the culture lives on."  v

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