Driving down Chicago Avenue past the restaurant Campagnola, there’s a vacant lot symbolic of the many efforts to open a music club in Evanston.
The lot used to contain Coronet, a club owned and operated by the people who now own Schuba’s, a small rock club in Chicago.
Despite booking acts such as Bela Fleck, They Might Be Giants and Rusted Root, strict liquor laws and fan indifference forced the club to shut its doors for good in June 1995.
Last April, another group of businessmen attempted to bring some sound to Evanston’s nightlife when they opened Nevin’s Live at 1460 Sherman Ave.
Now, a year after opening, the bar has discovered that Evanston economics don’t bode well for such a venue. The club is still looking for the right combination of weekly acts and big names to make it a success.
Nevin’s Live had gotten mixed reviews from fans and critics, but owners say they haven’t been deterred by lower-than-expected profits.
In a meeting earlier this month, owners from the Clean Plate Club, which runs Nevin’s, decided not to change the direction of the club, a decision refuting local barstool chatter that the venue was on its last leg.
“We’re steadily improving each month,” said Scott Anderson, marketing director of the Clean Plate Club, “and now we’re even more committed to getting big-name bands.”
Boasting a 225-person capacity and a state-of-the-art sound system, the club seemed poised for success with early shows featuring Yo La Tengo and John Cale of the Velvet Underground. The small stage, fronted by a fully stocked bar and walls covered with old records, has the trappings of many indie rock scenes.
“We’ve been on a slow but steady progression,” said Mitch Marlow, booking agent for Nevin’s Live. But since Marlow started courting acts for the club, some local restaurant owners have said they feared the club was doing poorly.
“We’re still growing, since it takes about a year to get up to speed,” Marlow said.
Indeed, Nevin’s Live tried many different acts during its first year to find out what appealed to the city and campus crowds.
“We have to give different nights to different audiences,” Marlow said. Some regular shows, such as the Monday night hip-hop show, had to be canceled due to poor turnout. An avant-garde performance, the Ken and Jim show, was made a monthly instead of weekly event.
“What we expected didn’t happen,” Anderson said. “We have been going through growing pains.”
Colleen Miller, now a booking agent for the Old Town School of Folk Music and former booking agent for the now defunct Coronet club, said she understands those pains.
“People who live around here like to stay home on their couches,” she said.
Not only did she have to deal with an indifferent community, but tough liquor laws kept many student customers away. “We were attracting only Chicago music lovers … we felt underappreciated.”
But Nevin’s has been able to attract large Northwestern crowds since it began to book jam bands.
“It’s what NU students are looking for,” Marlow said. Bands such as CDO and Buddha’s Belly both have played numerous shows at the club and bring in large student crowds.
“It’s the premier place to play, with such a great sound system,” said Felix Moreno, bassist for NU rock group CDO.
Bigger names also have been willing to make the trip up to Nevin’s to perform. Country star Robbie Fulks is set to play in June, and upcoming shows with Cornmeal, Frank Catalano, and the beginning of the Windy City Festival – a spotlight on gay and lesbian artists – are a big step up for the club, according to Marlow.
“The quality of acts is getting better,” said Dan Golden, guitarist for campus jam band Buddha’s Belly. He pointed to recent shows featuring the B-3 Bombers and guitarist Fareed Haque as examples.
Not all students share Golden’s praise for the club’s booking policy. Many, like Ryan Duval, a member of the bluegrass group The Porch Band, see the club as an extension of regular student performance venues and doesn’t pay much attention to outside acts.
“I really just don’t find things at Nevin’s that often,” said Duval, a Music senior.
Despite the history of community indifference, Marlow sees a positive future for Nevin’s.
“It won’t plateau for awhile,” he said. “It’s just at the point where it’s starting to do what we want it to do.”
In addition, Anderson mentioned an outdoor music festival during the summer and a festival in early fall for returning students.
Nevin’s Live also might stand to gain from a new liquor law up approved by Evanston City Council that extend drinking hours until 3 a.m. Thursday through Saturday, and until 2 a.m. during the rest of the week.
“This law would be great for our business,” said Marlow.