Hidden away down a nondescript side street is one of Chicago's secret pleasures. The Art Gallery Cabaret, a local Bucktown haunt for a few decades, is now one of the most unique spots to listen to undiscovered music in Chicago. The long narrow establishment is reminiscent of many Chicago corner taverns dotted across the city. In decades past, these after-work gathering spots served as a place of refuge and camaraderie for Chicago's blue collar working class. It's the kind of place where 60 year old men come to drink, after a meatloaf dinner, wearing fishing flannel and slippers. It's the kind of place where the Midwest is the whole world encapsulated in a snow globe of tap beer and brown liquor. The Cabaret's washrooms are dim, musty, and covered in phone numbers and show bills, but this only adds to the charm. The long bar is perfect for accommodating a group of drinkers, and if you are lucky, you might be able to strike up an interesting conversation with one of the Cabaret's regulars. The majority of the Cabaret's seating consists of cocktail tables strewn about as if a tornado had discharged them from its inner core.
What separates the Cabaret from the rest of the corner taverns in Chicago is the music. Acts of diverse aptitude perform almost every night and the sheer variety can be staggering. Country musicians open sets, only to be followed by middle age, jazz session cats reliving their glory days. Youthful big bands test out their chops on the small stage, and even more youthful punk bands test the limits of the room's PA system. I have been to the Gallery Cabaret on numerous nights and at first I was a skeptic. "Does Chicago really need a continuous amateur hour bar?" After going back again and again, I began to realize that the Art Gallery Cabaret does not offer a pristine musical experience, but an experience based on pure human expression. On a cold January night, I sat at one of the small cocktail tables, drinking a cheap glass of beer and watching a band of elderly jazz musicians, when it occurred to me that we could all be watching television instead of participating in this collective experience. Don't get me wrong, I like television, but there was something special about watching music happen with such a raw veneer and so little pretense. Suddenly, music was just a beautiful mood, and I didn't want to be sitting anywhere else in the whole god dammed world.
For those not overtly motivated by music, the Cabaret offers $4 pitchers of decent local beer, and some might say that cheap brew is more "Chicago" than good music.
The Art Gallery Cabaret
2020 N Oakley Ave Chicago, IL 60647