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Feature Thu Sep 13 2012
By Jonathon Schaff
Around 11pm last Saturday night, it started to rain on the line of people waiting to get in to the Empty Bottle, the dive already jumping inside with an at-capacity crowd. I was out there attempting to conduct some interviews about the city's soul music scene when the weather arrived. The rain was unexpected, tacked on to the end of a long, cool day that felt like the first of fall. After five minutes, the rain turned into a mini-monsoon. But nobody in line budged.
They stood out there getting wet, waiting for a few people to leave, so they'd have their chance to dance to obscure old soul records, a throwback phenomenon sweeping Chicago that's straight out of the mod scene from 1960s London. Dressed in vintage shirts and pleated skirts, those in line were willing to brave the elements in order to experience the music of their parents' generation. It's nights like Saturday that seem to suggest the rebirth of soul music in Chicago is here to stay. Most of the people in line knew perfectly well that these days, another opportunity to attend another venue's soul night is right around the bend, but nobody budged.
Inside the Empty Bottle, the four DJs who make up Windy City Soul Club had been spinning records for hours, working the packed house into a sweat. WCSC accounts for one half of the major Chicago soul music DJ outfits. The other half is called Soul Summit, and their soul night is held at the Double Door in nearby Wicker Park. A week before last Saturday's show, I sat down with the WCSC DJs to get a better idea of what they were doing, how it compared to Soul Summit's soul night, and how all this soul came about.
Dancers pack the floor at a previous Windy City Soul Club event (Photo by Jordan Cinco)
"We play northern soul, which is an up-tempo, Motown-y sound. Records that were pressed in limited numbers in the '60s and '70s," said Jason Berry, one of the club's founding members. "[Soul Summit] does a lot of late '50s, early '60s, and funk records." He added, "[Soul Summit] likes that sort of sound, a little cleaner, a little more produced." Windy City Soul Club plays original 45s, exclusively, records cut mostly in Chicago by bands trying to make it big in nearby Motown. For this set of DJs, geography counts as much as the time frame. For instance, don't expect to hear any Otis Redding from the Windy City Soul Club DJs — Otis recorded on Stax Records, based out of Memphis, and, despite attaining legend status, the sound just doesn't vibe.
Banning Otis (and his many excellent contemporaries) from soul night might come off as pretentious, but these DJs have the luxury of being picky; each member of the quartet owns thousands of hyper-specific soul records, their unique collections acquired over the course of a lifetime. Some of their particularly rare 45s are reportedly worth small fortunes. DJ Nick Soule drives up to Detroit once a month to pick over their record stores. The original cut records have a fuller quality of sound to them, which makes for better listening and euphoric dancing. And, as Nick points out, "It's like fine art collecting. It's always better to have an original."
[Check out this mix, provided by the Windy City Soul Club.]
Windy City Soul Club and Soul Summit are different in other, less nuanced ways. Soul Summit spins at the Double Door, a substantially bigger venue than the Empty Bottle, which means more room to move, but less intimacy. At the Double Door, Soul Summit occasionally hosts live music acts such as JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, whereas WCSC is a strictly vinyl affair. But rest assured, the two outfits are on good terms. They each host their own soul night about once a month, and they try to be conscientious with their scheduling. That means willing Chicagoans can hit up a high quality soul music dance party nearly once every two weeks.
The official motto of Windy City Soul Club reads "Chicago's Rare Dance Soul Party." Those under the age of 30, which was most everyone at the Empty Bottle last Saturday, might not recognize more than one or two tracks all night long. The penchant for obscure song selection is one way that WCSC differentiates itself from traditional Top 40 dance clubs, where predictability is king. According to Jane Flotte, 25, who came to dance on Saturday night, the unpredictable music makes for a more positive experience. "The energy is different. Everyone here is just really happy. At other bars there's always someone crying. Boyfriends and girlfriends fighting. Normal bar things. Here, everyone is in a good mood. It's the cheeriest place."
So how did it all come about? Like all good stories, Windy City Soul Club's began in an illegal speakeasy above an antique shop. Their first official show was held on November 1, 2008 at Heart of Gold, an "unofficial venue" stashed in a fourth-floor Lincoln Park loft. Eighty-five people showed up, few of them knowing quite what to expect. A month later, the DJs did it again, and 350 people packed into the loft. Word had spread. At their January show, Chicago magazine was on hand to take photographs. The resulting article they published led the city to shut Heart of Gold down permanently.
With a suddenly uncertain future, Windy City Soul Club bounced around town, looking for a more permanent home. They tried out the Viaduct Theatre, but the theater lacked the proper paperwork for dancing, something WCSC attributes to Chicago's "crazy licensing" regulations. "We got Footloose'd," said Nick Soule. They played Club Foot, Darkroom, and Liar's Club, often on weeknights to empty dance floors. Then, for a few months they inhabited Sonotheque, where they began to build a steady fan base until the bar shut down to become the Chicago outpost of the Beauty Bar chain. But a Sonotheque connection came through, and the group relocated to Empty Bottle, where they've held court since December 2009.
Approaching their three-year anniversary at Empty Bottle, it's worth asking if this is all meant to last forever. Are two soul nights sustainable? Is Chicago really a dance city? When will we get bored? DJ Xavier Velez curtailed my anxieties. "It's soul music for a reason. Everyone can feel it in their heart and their bones." Jason Berry chimed in. "Chicago gave the world house music. There's a great dance music legacy to uphold." DJ Aret Sakalian simply said, "Dancing won't die."
Every soul night I've attended — around ten of them — has been a landmark party, nights worth remembering long afterwards. Last Saturday was no exception. After the people waiting in line that got rained on finally made it inside, they brought the rain in with them, and the humidity inside the already warm Empty Bottle spiked. Dancers were soaked through. Aret laid down "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," the first universally recognizable track of the night, and the night crested. The crowd went bananas, and I imprinted the moment in my memory.
The last song played at the end of every Windy City Soul Club is "Southside Chicago" by Otis Brown. The song is short and sweet; Otis sings in a mellow tenor that gets everybody smiling. Early Sunday, as Otis Brown faded out, the ragged 3am crowd knew that they'd shared in something uncommon. Everyone filed zomebie-like out of the bar and into the cool morning, where all was quiet, and where it had stopped raining.
Windy City Soul Club's next show is Sunday, September 23, 2012 at the free "What's Happening!!" block party, sponsored by Longman & Eagle and Old Style. The event takes place from from 4-10 pm, on Schubert, at Kedzie, adjacent to Longman & Eagle in Logan Square (Details in Drive-Thru). Soul Summit's next show is on September 22 at the Double Door, with guest DJ Brad Hales of Ann Arbor Soul Club. The show is free.
About the author: Jonathon Schaff is a Chicago-based writer and dancer. Follow him on Twitter @jonschaff.