Presenting concert posters in a year short of concerts
At the beginning of 2011, the Reader launched a redesigned print edition that flipped the music section – the B-side, as it was called, started with a reverse back cover and even had its own table of contents. Our Gig Poster of the Week feature started on this table of contents, as a way to showcase a different segment of the Chicago music community. It’s only been online for years, and I picked it up when I started Reader in February 2019, though I’m pretty sure all of the silliest headlines were the work of music publisher Philip Montoro.
My predecessor (and fellow music writer) Luca Cimarusti showed me the ropes, gave me a short list of some of his favorite artists, and showed me some of his favorites from the posters he had published. Soon going in search of concert posters became one of my favorite parts of my job – I even started arriving at concerts earlier to see if I could find anything on site that could make a future column.
I reached out to the past Reader associate editor Kevin Warwick, who did some of what is now my job when he first started working for the newspaper, to ask him about the rationale for publishing concert posters . Warwick explained that it was intended to give a platform to “artists who may not have necessarily held actual gallery exhibitions, but instead have had their art pasted inside the windows of the shops of discs and stapled all over the empty bottle, Schubas, Subterranean and other places.
Now that social media exists, stapling pieces of paper to publicly trafficked walls is no longer the go-to promotional device of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. That said, concert posters are still a important part of the concert experience – and so are their creators.
I love researching cultural histories of Chicago, so my favorite posters tend to be the ones with more details about the show — knowing the years and addresses, for example, is helpful for us hobby librarians. But I also appreciate the cacophony of city life, which is often reflected in the random, happy nature of concert poster art. Warwick explained that the Reader began by posting posters for the shows its writers covered, but at some point the series became “an easy opportunity to show off art that no one but the locations themselves and a small community of very committed concert posters really showed.”
Of course, 2020 has been a lean year for concert posters. Since March, the pandemic has forced the cancellation of nearly every concert and in-store performance that would have spawned posters in the first place.
In March, faced with an acute shortage of current concert posters, I posted the first of what would be several weeks of replacements: a 1937 poster by Ralph Graham for a performance by the Illinois Symphony Orchestra at the Great Northern Theater (in Quincy and Dearborn at this time). It was printed as part of the Works Progress Administration’s efforts to support artists and musicians during the Great Depression by creating gainful employment in their fields. Current elected officials: remember that this is an option. Future generations will thank you.
This planted a seed for me: why not ask people who like this column to help me create it?
I was still figuring out how to do this when I saw a drawing by Nicole Marroquin about singing DeBarge to your houseplants. Obviously, this wasn’t a concert poster, but it got me thinking, and I decided to invite people to submit not only past concert posters in Chicago, but also “fantastic concert posters ” for concerts that had not taken place but which should have taken place. I posted Marroquin’s art when I made my pitch in early April: “Would you like the 1972 lineup of the Art Ensemble of Chicago to play at the Constellation? How about Dolly Parton and Wesley Willis at the Lounge Axe?
the Reader was then blessed with awesome fantastic posters from you. Artist Eric J. Garcia imagined Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz coming back from the dead to lead a hardcore band in Pilsen’s closed house, Casa Aztlán. Artist Andrea Hill Fitzgerald sketched Prince riding a bike on the South Side before a gig at the Avalon Regal (unfortunately, nothing actually happened). Artist Heather Anderson made a poster advertising a desired CocoRosie show at the empty bottle.
The concert poster of the week has also become a means of honoring the dead. In June, when protests against racist police brutality were all we could think of, I asked artist Tesh Silver to help me design a tribute to George Floyd – it took the form of a poster for a ‘Big Floyd’ concert could’ After performing with his former collaborator DJ Screw, his life took a different turn. And after Dave “Medusa” Shelton died in August, I heard about artist Rob Schwager, who had done posters in the late 80s and early 90s for concerts at Metro Cabaret and Double Door. He graciously gave me permission to use the one he created for a 1987 Meatmen gig at the original Medusa location in Sheffield.
Over the summer, live streams, drive-in concerts, and socially-distanced outdoor shows have become big enough that I can quite reliably find an interesting poster for at least one of them. them every week. I always accept fantastic posters (because I like them), but more and more often I have the choice between works of art which promote real events.
I doubt I’ll ever see posters everywhere again like I did in the 90s, but right now it’s not even the same as February 2020. But as long as people aren’t not too dumb about the COVID vaccine and we’re all sticking to public health guidelines in the meantime, there’s a good chance that in-person shows as we knew them will return. Hopefully we still have independent venues by then. In any case, I am optimistic that once we have a good number of concerts again, artists will start doing concert posters again. If they have the energy and we support them, they will continue to bless our city with their creations. v