Good Night Chicago: A Brief History

The Flag of the City of Chicago I was born at Great Lakes Naval hospital just north of Chicago. My dad was in the Army and stationed at nearby Fort Sheridan and we lived in Chicagoland until I was four. Our family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I grew up, but I always had a fascination with Chicago. That fascination grew when my best friend and GLONO founder Jake Brown invited me to the annual spring break trips he took to the city with his mother. Two teenage boys wandering the streets of downtown Chicago was sure to lead to something, and for me it was a determination to someday return to my birth city.

College and years wandering from job to job in Michigan kept me from following through on that dream until 1999 when my girlfriend and I decided to just pull the trigger and make the move. We’d grown bored with Grand Rapids and we had a couple friends who’d recently moved to Chicago so why not? That decision was the start of nine and half of the best years of our lives.


One of the friends who’d recently moved to the city was Johnny Loftus. We’d known him through our friend Dano (host of GLONO’s annual Winter Retreat) and he quickly put us in touch. I met up with Johnny at the Gin Mill in Lincoln Park to get drinks before a solo acoustic Jeff Tweedy show at the now closed (and dearly missed) Lounge Ax. During the course of our conversation we realized that Johnny worked with one of the members of my favorite band from Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti: Grin. Matt Schwarz worked right next to Johnny at an archival film company. The whole band had actually relocated to Chicago just months earlier. Better yet, they had a show scheduled that coming weekend at Cal’s Liquor. Oh yeah, they changed their name too. They’re now Quasar Wut-Wut.

Though it was always something I thought about, it actually took me two years to form my own band in Chicago. Another college friend, Jude Lemrow, moved to town and he and I had a little project in Kalamazoo called the Blue Ribbon Brothers. Jude on drums; me on guitar and harmonica. Why not resurrect the name?

I ran an ad in the Chicago Reader looking for a bass player. Matt Usner responded and within an hour of our first meeting in my basement in Lincoln Square, Jude and I asked him to join our new group. Jordan from Quasar Wut-Wut put us in contact with a multi-instrumentalist named Ben Benedict and the four of us made up the initial configuration of the Blue Ribbon Brothers. We put out an EP, recorded by Jordan and Matt at Camp Quasar, and started playing shows.

Eventually, Matt, Jude, and I started getting different musical ideas and Ben’s style didn’t fit. Admittedly, I didn’t handle it well. Ben was committed to other bands and so we ran an ad looking for another guitarist. The original idea was for the three of us to form a new band with another guitarist and get together with Ben on occasion. At least, that’s how I justified it to myself. One night Ben arrived for rehearsal the rest of us thought he’d skip to find us rehearsing with another lead guitarist. It was shitty and I wish I’d been better about it but the new guitarist was fucking perfect for what we wanted to do. Ben was out, Mick Radichel was in.

I’ve played in a LOT of bands. Usually just a reconfigured core of musicians, a new name, and a style change separated one from the next. Throughout most of those bands was Joshua Rogers. I convinced him to come to Chicago and sit in on an acoustic set Mick and I were playing at the Beat Kitchen. A few weeks later he decided to leave Ann Arbor and also make the move here. That left me with two drummers.

Jude is one of my closest friends and has helped me countless times with projects big and small—all without expectation of repayment or even thanks. He’s been my recording engineer and road manager and driver and comic relief for ten years. Joshua has been my drummer for 15 though and he and I have a musical connection that is natural and innate. We’d also changed musical direction again and Joshua’s style was what I needed.

Matt, Mick and I changed the name to Riviera and sat down with Jude to talk about where he fit in. We handled this discussion much better than ours with Ben but it still took Jude by surprise that we wanted to switch drummers. We were entirely sincere though when we told Jude we wanted to him to still be involved and we bandied about the idea of him running sound effects and loops as part of the live show. Jude’s a drummer though so it clearly hurt his pride that we were asking him to step out from behind the kit for someone else. Proving he’s a bigger person though Jude settled in as our recoding engineer and produced more with the extremely limited resources we had than most producers can conjure with an unlimited budget and gear. He’s recorded everything we’ve done since the Blue Ribbon Brothers American Music EP and I’ve never been more proud of my musical output.

Since we changed the name and the musical direction of the band we needed to fill out the sound we heard in our heads. We needed a keyboardist. We had a kid named Dan Schiller in the band for a while but he was over-extended with other musical and film projects and he really didn’t seem interested in the drone-y simple song structure we were working with at the time. He just didn’t fit.

Yet another friend from Michigan had moved to Chicago and asked us if we’d like to play a small rent party at an apartment on the north side. It was February so naturally it was a Valentine’s Day themed event. In fact, it was a pajama party. We loaded into an old social club that had been converted into housing and were amazed that these kids had a full-size, working bar in their basement. Pouring taps was a curly-headed kid with long black sideburns and a leopard-print robe on. He later sat down at a keyboard and led a loosely assembled band of friends through several covers, most notably “Tiny Dancer.” Here was our keyboardist. His name was Josh Boisvert.

Josh joined the band and three weeks later we played our first sold out show at Schubas for the CD release of our Broken Hearted Dreams EP. Back in Grand Rapids I’d tried to book my various bands at Schubas and was always politely turned down. To sell out this small, but widely regarded venue was a moment of particular pride. We wouldn’t have another sell-out show for at least another year, and that followed on the heels of a much bigger deal.

I’ve been a fan of Wilco’s since I heard “Passenger Side” on a mixtape while on the way to see Crosby, Stills and Nash in Detroit in the mid-90s. I traveled to Chicago from Grand Rapids a handful of times to see the band and Tweedy solo before finally moving here. I vividly recall listening to Being There the day it was released and diving headlong into an obsession that would spark arguments and foster friendships with people online I’d never met. I also remember GLONO Records co-founder Vitas teasing me for being star struck when Jay Bennett tripped over my feet while scurrying to the stage at one of those famous drunken Lounge Ax shows. To me, they were a perfect band.

Nine years after hearing Being There from a dirty couch in Grand Rapids I was opening for Jeff Tweedy at the Vic Theater in Chicago. A mutual friend of mine and the Tweedy’s organized a benefit show and she asked us to open. I’d met Jeff Tweedy a handful of times before at various Hideout shows and other small events but opening for him at a sold out theater show is still the highlight of my musical career. I will forever be grateful to Dr. Judy for making it happen.

Within a few weeks of that show Riviera opened for three former members of Uncle Tupelo: Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar (in Des Moines, Iowa), and John Stirratt (with his sister Laurie in Lansing, Michigan). Our first full-length album came out around that same time and we got a lot of positive reviews. It was the high point of the band.

It is extremely hard to keep a band going. In addition to writing songs and rehearsing them to the point where you’d play them in front of people, you have to promote yourself and your shows and your products. Most professional bands have someone to do that for them. Riviera did not. It’s even harder to maintain the effort when you end the night getting yelled at by a club owner who expected you to draw three times more than you did. I mean, you opened for Wilco and were named one of the Best Bands in the City by Metromix! How can you only draw 20 people?

Six years is a long time to do anything and that much time booking shows is miserable. We still had some great moments, like headlining a stage at Taste of Chicago or flying down to Austin to shoot a video (another huge thanks goes out to filmmaker Jeremy Sexton), or playing a showcase at CMJ in New York. But driving eight hours through the Iowa plains in February to play for eight people and open for a joke band is not fun. It gets old. I got old.

Riviera recorded one more album and to me it sounds like our White Album: some really cool songs but clearly five keys going in slightly different directions. The release of Capital found significantly less praise and interest than At the End of the American Century and I took it personally.

My son was born in early November 2006 and my life has never been the same. I kept going to the twice weekly band rehearsals but they were becoming less and less satisfying. I wanted to be home playing with my kid. He loves music and as he gets older he loves to hear me play more and more. I’ll likely play with a band again but for the time being I couldn’t manage both. On May 28, 2007 Josh B and I played the last show under the Riviera name. Matt, Mick, and Joshua weren’t there.

Throughout it all there was GLONO. That we’ve been online since 2001 writing about the music that moves us is another point of pride. I’ve been able to meet some of my favorite musicians and see our readership rise (slightly fall and then rise again) for eight years. We launched a label. It failed, but we did it. We put our collective money where our mouths were and put out music we thought others would like. Quasar Wut-Wut’s Taro Sound is still one of my favorite album and it sells steadily, if not in large quantities. I’m still proud of the Riviera albums and hope that our putting them out wasn’t as much vanity as synergy. We had an outlet and I had another message.

It made sense at the time but we way overestimated the influence GLONO had over its readers to buy something. A fraction of our readers have actually bought a Glorious Noise Records release. For now, Glorious Noise Records is on hiatus. We may break open the dusty crates for an intriguing new project from Quasar Wut-Wut but that remains to be seen.

We’ve expanded our vision to other projects in the last eight years. The label was the first, but we also opened a National Affairs Desk and a Sports Desk. POLJUNK remains, the Out Route does not. Still, at the center was Glorious Noise. The motto “Rock and Roll Can Change Your Life” is always the point for us.

I’ve lived in Chicago nine and a half years. The girlfriend I moved here with is now my wife. Our son was born here. Jake’s son was born here exactly four weeks later. Three of my wife’s friends married three of my friends, including two members of Quasar Wut-Wut. They all met here in Chicago. Tomorrow I am moving to Portland, Oregon where I’ll start a new job and life and open the Northwest Office of Glorious Noise.

I’ll miss the shows and parties we’ve had together in Chicago. I’ll miss my commute through Lincoln Square. I’ll miss the Hideout and the Huettenbar. I’ll miss the Fireside in Ravenswood. I was here to see Barack Obama elected President of the United States and I’ll miss seeing what that means to the city I love. I’ll miss the music scene but I won’t miss the strain it’s under by way of asinine laws intended to restrict small-time promoters (like GLONO). I’ll miss the street fairs and the Park District events. I’ll miss being within driving distance of the Sinatras and my family in Michigan. I won’t miss Lawrence Avenue but I will miss seeing the Riviera Theater that is the namesake of my favorite band.

Good night, Chicago. I’ll miss you.

MP3: Blue Ribbon Brothers – “Friends in California” (acoustic demo)

13 thoughts on “Good Night Chicago: A Brief History”

  1. Leaving so soon?

    The musical story certainly hits home and the background saga was neat to read. Know I have slaughtered many beers whilst listening to Riviera, and your work here was certainly not in vain (hell, many of us need our GloNo and PolJu fix daily)! Sorry I never got the opportunity to meet you in person all this time; you’re a kindred spirit. Best of luck to you and your family for the move, and I know I’ll see you around the interwebs, at least.

  2. Derek, Chicago has been incredibly richer with your presence, both musically and prosaically. I’m really glad I’ve had the chance to meet you in person a few times, and still listen to the Leppotone comp that you made me. It bums me out to hear you’re moving, but I definitely wish you and your family luck, and hope that should you start another band, that you bring ’em here to Chicago!! We’ll be waiting to read missives from the PNW asap, kwim?

    With regret upon yr departure,

    DJMurph

  3. Dude-

    I was the guy who burst into your rehearsal space (in Rogers Park- above the costume shop) when you guys were playing one night.

    I felt like a total choad after doing that but now I’m glad. Doing something like that is not my usual style.

    I was so happy to be practicing in the same space as you dudes (most of the bands in there sucked). Gave me a bit of hope for my band.

    Anyways- great read. Good luck with everything in the Pacific NW.

  4. aw, that was nice to read. must be hard to move so far away from the city and people that you have grown to love so much. may it be a good move, good luck to you!

  5. Shit – this was unexpected. Portland sounds pretty decent, but Chicago definitely won’t be the same w/out youse.

    Keep up the correspondence from out west!

  6. I think it’s clear in what Derek wrote above, but just in case it’s not I wanted to stress how central a figure Derek is to my group of friends and musicians around the Chicago area. One of Derek’s real strengths is that he brings people together, and there’s already been some half-hearted joking amongst the rest of us that we won’t be seeing much of each other again, because more often than not Derek (or his wife) would get people up off their asses and get together. I am certainly guilty of being an ass-sitter, so without them here I will have to make an extra effort to continue the hospitality and welcoming atmosphere that Derek and Meg would share with everyone.

    It is that same skill that makes him a sought after guy in his chosen field, and why I’m sure he’ll be very successful out there in the Pacific Northwest. Plus he’ll get to snowboard. And be able to afford a real house. And bike to work all year around. Shit, I’m moving too, that all sounds pretty good.

    I will very much miss having him and his wife around, and I know the rest of us in Chicago feel the same way.

  7. Damn you derek you made me cry reading that,and I didn’t want to do that again. Words can’t express how sad it is that you three left us to go cross country. But I’m going to give it a shot.

    I echo what J up above me said. I think for so long we looked upon Derek & Meg as some sort of glue holding everyone or bringing everyone together. And things are just going to be much emptier around here without them.

    And I feel I owe you sooo much for your introduction one drunken night in July and urging one month later at Gunther Murphy’s-I still remember,though you may not how our conversation went

    ” I still have a boyfriend” “yes but Josh is a great guy”.

    And so that went on and on for several minutes til I gave up and gave in and if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have this great husband and awesome kid.

    And I like to think it was thanks to you!

    I do wish you all the best out there and really hope that we can come out and visit soon or you all come out here again too!

  8. so long it’s been good to know you

    the Harvey’s days were great, you and

    I and Matt and Jude, and Purple Dave in tights, etc

    drop me a line when you get settled in

  9. Derek,

    good luck to you and your family in Portland. I really wish I would have had enough guts to try and contact you. I spent so much time in Chicago visiting my sisters over the years. Both you and Jake crossed my mind often.

    Take Care

    Rudy

  10. D,

    Can I have your blazer if you aren’t using it? I keed. Thanks for some amazing musical memories…reading the ‘Riviera Highlight Film’ was cool, as I was there for a lot of it. Always a fan a pal…best of luck to you and your family!

    Peace,

    Kevin

  11. You’re one of the good guys, Derek. I envy the people of Portland for being able to call you neighbor. I’m sure our paths will cross again one day, but we’ll always have GloNo.

    Best of luck, my friend!

  12. Hi- it’s that guy who busted into yr rehearsal space in Rogers Park again once again……

    I posted my thoughts on you leaving 1 year ago to the day. Wow!

    I reread yr post on leaving and it was still very moving.

    I visited Portland last summer and loved it. I had the greatest Himalyan burrito at a food cart, loved the green stuff, and thought it was an amazing musical city.

    I’d love an update. Hope you and the family are well….

    I still check GloNo everyday.

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