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Chicago’s Blues Clubs Face Uncertain Future:

Three clubs vandalized while pandemic, protests and looting threaten re-openings

By Linda Cain

DATELINE: June 6, 2020

On March 16, 2020 Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker ordered all bars and dine-in restaurants in the state to close in order to help stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Nearly three months later, the state is slowly allowing re-openings, but not for indoor music clubs, bars and restaurants. Musicians were the first to get hit the hardest with all of their gigs into the foreseeable future being cancelled. Chicago’s internationally renowned blues clubs closed their doors, leaving the owners and staff to face a multitude of financial problems as well. The Chicago Blues Fest was to be held June 5-7, and it was cancelled, depriving the clubs and musicians of their busiest and most lucrative week of the year. The future for them all is uncertain.

The long period of shelter-in-place ended with the cruel murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation and the world to demonstrate against inequality, racism and police brutality but were marred by violence and looting that broke out among the mostly peaceful marches.

Chicago was not spared from the crime wave and neither were our famous blues clubs. We spoke with the owners and managers of some of the city’s top blues clubs to find out how they fared during the chaos on the long weekend of May 31-June 1, 2020.

Rosa’s, Kingston Mines and B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted remained safe. Buddy Guy’s Legends, Blue Chicago and the Water Hole did not.

Buddy Guy’s Legends, 700 S. Wabash (at Balboa), is a music venue, a restaurant and a shrine to blues history with a wealth of photos, memorabilia and autographed guitars on display. Manager Marc Maddox reported that looters only broke windows. “A couple of windows were damaged but no one entered the club. We are happy that the damage was minimal. We are looking forward to re-opening when they allow us.”

The Water Hole, 1400 S. Western (near University of Illinois, Chicago) was broken into. Lori Lewis, a.k.a Low-reen who leads the Maxwell Street Market Blues Band and has been hosting weekly Wednesday blues jams there, told us what happened. “The Water Hole sustained damage Sunday night. The plate glass windows in the front were broken. Two men entered, went to the back of the building, and then tried to leave out the doors near the back. The doors are a little quirky, have odd locks and often stick. So while the alarm was going off, the police showed up. The young men were still in the place trying to get out. They were arrested. One young man is from the western suburbs and the other is from the southern suburbs. No real damage except for the windows. All the booze is there, untouched. And things are boarded up now.”

Blue Chicago, 536 N. Clark (at Ohio) met a worse fate, as did much of River North. Owner Gino Battaglia relates what went down at his club Saturday night, “They broke all the windows. They had a field day. A neighbor in the high rise across the street shot a video of it. He saw somebody with a bottle of liquid who tried to light it and start a fire so he called the police and fire department. They came right away since they are right down the street and chased him away."

He continued, "But then later looters came back. They took all the booze. But they left the sound system and paintings alone. They wrecked some bar stools and tables.

When we closed for the Covid-19 shutdown, we emptied the safe and ATM machine and left them open, so they didn’t wreck those. But they trashed the cash registers.

Faddo, the Irish pub around the corner, really got trashed. So did Maggiano’s, and all up and down Clark Street. I heard from our tenant that the looters went to Oak Street and cleaned out all the high end stores. It was really bad. I couldn’t go there myself because the Oak Street exit ramp is blocked off. I also heard from our insurance adjuster that somebody took an axe and chopped up the wooden bar inside one of the places down the street from us,” Battaglia reported.

Up north on Halsted Street, the neighboring blues bars Kingston Mines and B.LU.E.S. remain unharmed. Jennifer Littleton, longtime manager of B.LU.E.S., was relieved to report: “We have been fine on Halsted Street, fortunately. On Sunday I went over at 6 p.m. and our whole block was fine. Kingston Mines was putting up boards over their windows, but I believe that was to be preemptive. I do go by once or twice a day to check and pick up mail.”

Tony Mangiullo, owner of Rosa’s Lounge on 3420 W. Armitage Ave., checked on his club to find that all is intact. “We don’t have a glass storefront window and we have bars on the door. We have artwork covering the front of the building but that is fine too. I am sorry to hear about Legends and Blue Chicago. Both have glass storefront windows. And that is what looters look for, an easy target to get in and out quickly.”

A veteran demonstrator who has attended his share of marches since he moved to Chicago from Italy in the early ‘80s, Mangiullo noted, “I’m a protestor myself and most of the protestors are not associated with the looters. They are criminals. Or they are a group that has the opposite agenda of the protestors and want to make them look bad. I’d say 90% are peaceful, serious protestors. And they want to use their collective voice to call for change.” Manguillo said he attended a march on the South Side from King Drive to Washington Park on June 2 and described it as “peaceful, with the police there to help.”

Both Rosa’s and B.L.U.E.S. have hosted live streaming performances by blues musicians (not open to the public) on their respective stages, in order to help them raise money through online tipping and donations. Due to the chaos surrounding the protest marches and fears of looting, with streets and exit ramps blocked off and the National Guard stationed in Chicago and some suburbs, that charitable practice has been temporarily suspended.

While most live stream performances have been hosted at home by solo artists playing without their bands, Manguillo saw a need to help the entire band, since side players --drummers, bass players and keyboardists, etc -- aren’t like band leaders who can go it alone. “My fight was to bring an entire band back to work with live streaming.”

“We initiated contact with the State to include clubs like mine to be able to stream live with full bands during the Phase 2 reopening. And they approved it. And some of the bands we had here made some real money. But we had to shut that down for now because of the protests and looting. But we will rebroadcast previous shows,” he noted.

But the future remains uncertain for live music, dependent upon what the pandemic will dictate.

“As far as reopening, bars will be in the very last stage to be reopened and when that does happen, we will have to follow the CDC, city and state guidelines, but since this is all new, we don’t have exact details about what those will be yet,” said B.L.U.E.S. manager Littleton.

Blue Chicago’s Battaglia is also concerned about the future of his venue.

“As for reopening, it will take a while. We can’t social distance, we’re so small. We have been paying employees, we applied for funds to do that. But we’ll be out of money soon. So we’ll pay them out of our own pockets as long as we possibly can.

We had bands seven days a week, but if we can’t have a full audience, we can’t afford bands. We’re hoping the bank doesn’t call in the loan. Our tenants who own the restaurant in our building can’t pay the rent to us, either.

I don’t know what will happen. We have to wait and see. I don’t think it will be back to normal for at least a year. We may only be able to open two or three times a week, and only have duos perform. I wish we could still have bands every night.

The bars that serve food like Kingston Mines and Buddy Guy’s will be able to open sooner, since they can do social distancing. I don’t know when we will open. Maybe Phase 4 or 5? So many questions are unanswered. Let’s hope for the best,” Battaglia said.

Manguillo remains determined to weather the storm for Rosa’s; after all, he named the venue after his mother. “I don’t know when we can reopen again. We will be the last. It will be tough to maintain social distance. My operation is minimal with only four employees – a bartender, waitress, doorman and myself. Unless we can get serious funding, it will be tough.”

He continued, “A real businessman would decide it’s time to quit. But I can’t give up. Rosa’s is not just for me. It’s not just a business.”

“We have a history, a legacy. The masters – Jimmy Rogers, Junior Wells and Big Walter – they all helped me. I can’t turn my back on them. Compared to what our blues forefathers went through, this is nothing,” he declared.

“That is the only motivation for me to not give up.”


Visit our Club Guide to find out about live streaming and updates for Chicagoland’s blues venues.

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