Chicago – a travel recommendation for music lovers
It may sound a bit dramatic, but Chicago is a city that breathes music. And not just in terms of record stores, of which there are plenty to discover in a city of this size. Every evening you can enjoy live music, whether it’s from established acts, up-and-coming bands or on open stages. For music lovers, the third largest city in the United States is definitely worth a visit.
You’ve probably heard of “Chicago Blues” already. “Chicago House” is even considered one of the origins of House Music. Well-known artists and bands from the city include Kanye West, the Smashing Pumpkins, Muddy Waters and Sam Cooke, Earth Wind & Fire, Ministry or Wilco, who immortalized two of the Marina City Towers from downtown Chicago on the cover of their almost legendary album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”
During our stay in Chicago we lived in a hostel in close proximity to Wrigley Field, the stadium of the Chicago Cubs. For those less interested in sports: it’s a baseball team. One of the biggest fans of the team is a certain Eddie Vedder, who also wrote the stadium anthem. Unfortunately, it was released on a 7″ vinyl single only half a year after our trip to Chicago (and the prices on Discogs are frustratingly above $200). Additionally, both Lollapalooza and the Pitchfork Festival take place here. It’s definitely a great starting point for a musical exploration of the city.
Did not make it to all the record stores
Of course, I had made a list of record stores that I would like to visit if possible. In the end such plans rarely work out because a) a city like Chicago has much more to offer than just record stores, and b) the distances in such a large city are very long – even longer than, for example, in Berlin. I often find it difficult to take public transportation for half an hour or more to visit a neighborhood where nothing else exciting is happening just to go to a single store. Additionally, record store owners tend to have obscure opening hours or the ones displayed on platforms like Google Maps are not properly maintained or up to date.
As a result, I didn’t manage to visit Dusty Groove, Favourite Records, Record Breakers, Pinwheel Records or 606 Records. Fortunately, there were still plenty of stores left, and I would like to introduce a few of them.
Reckless Records has three locations in Chicago: in Lakeview, Wicker Park and downtown in the Loop. The Wicker Park store, situated in a neighborhood often referred to as a hipster hotspot, is just a few meters away from the setting of the movie High Fidelity. What many may not know is that “Championship Vinyl” was not an actual record store, but a vacant space on North Milwaukee Avenue, which now houses a cycling apparel shop. A few hundred meters down the road, you’ll find the Reckless Records store. In addition to a wide selection of new and used vinyl records, you’ll also find an abundance of DVDs, tapes and even old VHS cassettes. However, I must admit that I didn’t quite navigate the store well. That’s why I preferred the second location in Lakeview. The store offers an immense and well-organized selection spanning across all genres, both new and used. If you can’t find something here, you have no taste in music or an exceptionally obscure one. The only drawback was that the store was quite crowded, with customers jostling in front of some shelves, making browsing less enjoyable. But first, it was Saturday afternoon, and second, it wouldn’t be fair to blame Reckless Records for that. As a result, I skipped the third location in the Loop since Chicago certainly doesn’t lack record stores.
Shuga Records has already been a familiar name before my trip to Chicago. After all, it is one of the largest online record retailers in the world. It even has its own entry on Wikipedia, which not many record stores can claim. The physical store is beautifully designed with stylish wooden shelves, a vast selection of various genres, some merchandise and listening stations for previewing music. Overall it’s a very modern store that caters to the growing vinyl generation. You can get a better sense of the store by watching this short video on Vimeo.
At Dave’s Records, you know exactly what you’re getting just by looking at the storefront. There’s a big sign that says: “NO CD’S NEVER HAD ‘EM!!! NEVER WILL!!!” This place is strictly dedicated to vinyl. And I must say, they have a lot to offer for collectors. Especially when it comes to second-hand records, you can find a treasure trove here. According to their website, they have around 40,000 records in various formats in stock. They also have a dedicated section for local bands and labels.
One of the oldest record stores in town… Dave’s Records has been serving customers since 1969 – wow! Since the emergence of house music in the 1980s, the store has focused on electronic music. But you can also find hip-hop or (Italo) disco LPs on their shelves. As you know, those aren’t necessarily my preferred genres, so I didn’t find much here that interested me personally. Nevertheless, the atmosphere is definitely worth a visit and fans of the mentioned genres should definitely check it out!
Bucket O’Blood caters to the preferences of various groups of nerds. Alongside a nice selection of vinyl records in the heavier genres, you can also find manga comics, graphic novels, puzzles and games here. It would probably be the store where I would hang out the most, even though it’s not centrally located in the Avondale neighborhood. In any case, I did take home a few records from here.
Bric A Brac Records
Another store that caters to collectors of all kinds. Here you can not only find vinyl records, but also everything that pop culture has to offer. As a child of the 1980s, it’s a little paradise for me because they have tapes, VHS cassettes (I think I’m one of the few people who still has a VCR at home), old movie posters and toys from the 80s and 90s. And it’s all set up in a really stylish and loving way. Pure nostalgia!
Oh, and one thing to always keep in mind when visiting the record store (and other stores): the price listed on the records always needs to have the tax added. It can be a bit unusual and lead to confusion at the checkout during your first visit when you realize that you won’t just be paying the $20 that’s written on the label.
A time travel to the 1920s
As I mentioned before, Chicago has a lot to offer musically. On our first evening, despite being jet-lagged, we made our way to Metro Chicago, a really nice venue that opened in 1982 and has seen countless bands perform. Pearl Jam played their first Chicago gig here and recorded a live album in 1992. On that January night, Destroyer blew away our fatigue and our USA trip couldn’t have started any better.
Another highlight was visiting the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Uptown. It is one of the oldest jazz clubs in the United States and the longest continuously operating nightclub in Chicago. During the Prohibition era, the club gained notoriety as a meeting place for the Chicago Outfit and Al Capone was even rumored to be its unofficial owner. Capone’s table still stands there today, from where he had a view of the entrance and exit at all times. The performance of a typical swing orchestra made it feel like a fantastic journey back to the 1920s.
I highly recommend the city to everyone, even though its image isn’t always the best. And for good reason. While I personally never felt unsafe in Chicago, the city is known to be one of the most violent in the United States. I still remember an Uber driver warning us not to go past a certain subway station (I forgot the name) because it would be extremely dangerous for “white people” in the southern part of the city. The South Side is often referred to as the most dangerous neighborhood in the USA, and in 2016, there were 762 murders in Chicago – a number that is hard to comprehend. At least for someone from germany!