Blues Bar Celebrates Three Years

Emily Vaughan

By Emily VaughanThe Daily Northwestern

It was Bill’s Blues Bar’s third anniversary, and musician Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater took the stage to wish the intimate Davis Street establishment a happy birthday.

Clearwater, formerly of the gospel group Five Blind Boys of Alabama, headlined the celebration Saturday, playing a combination of soulful blues ballads and Chuck Berry-style rock to a full house.

But first, owner Bill Gilmore gave a heartfelt thanks to patrons for supporting the bar.

In typical blues tradition, Gilmore said, they were celebrating the milestone a little late. The actual anniversary was Aug. 7.

The plainly-furnished bar, wedged between Turin Bicycle and Pine Yard Restaurant, has slowly built a fan base with Northwestern students, many whose only experience with blues had been from a certain John Belushi movie.

“There just wasn’t much of a live entertainment scene in Evanston,” Gilmore said. “I thought there would be a great demand for it.”

Other college towns such as Madison, Wis., Berkeley, Calif., and Cambridge, Mass., have more of a tradition of live music venues, he said.

“We keep finding people who don’t know we’re here,” he said.

Gilmore, who has owned seven different clubs in New York and Chicago during his 30-year career on the blues scene, opened up shop at 1029 Davis St. five years after moving to Evanston in 1998.

But despite an initially cool reception from students, the bar has attracted a loyal following.

Evanston resident Jeff Kashycke has been a customer since the day the first act played Bill’s Blues in August 2003.

A lifetime blues fan, Kashycke called Bill’s Blues opening just blocks from his home a “dream come true.”

But Gilmore found this sentiment absent among most younger people

“It doesn’t seem like the college market is much interested in blues,” he said. “Most of our blues audience is 30 to 40 and up.”

Not many Northwestern students patronized the establishment for the first 18 months, Kashycke said.

“We had a lot of poor nights,” he added.

To appeal to NU students, Gilmore has adjusted his line-up. He added indie rock and hip-hop acts on Thursdays and an open mic night on Mondays.

He sweetened the deal with free admission with a WildCARD to Friday and Saturday blues shows.

“The Chief” Clearwater was an obvious choice for the anniversary show. Not only is he a regular performer – he’s also an investor.

“I wanted to give people a place to hear blues without going downtown,” Clearwater said. “There is no other blues club on the North Shore.”

His relationship with Gilmore began in the late 1970s. The two met at the old Kingston Mines, Chicago’s oldest blues bar that has since moved locations.

Clearwater joined the Chicago blues scene after moving to the city in 1950. He has played in Gilmore’s former Chicago clubs, which include B.L.U.E.S., 2519 N. Halsted St., and in Bill’s Blues for almost three years. But he’s performed at NU since the 1980s.

“I probably played at every frat house on campus,” he said.

And he said his fan base is expanding.

Communication senior Susannah Cunningham has been frequenting the bar for a year.

“I initially never walked in because blues doesn’t attract me,” she said.

But since she first visited the bar to see a non-blues act, Cunningham has warmed up to the genre. The atmosphere is a big part of what draws her back.

“You feel like you’re part of some exclusive social network,” she said.

Gilmore and Clearwater hope to make Evanston an extension of the historically prominent Chicago blues scene.

“I had two clubs in New York, and most of my acts came from Chicago,” Gilmore said. “People tend to look for blues in Chicago, like deep dish pizza and the Cubs.”

The challenge for Bill’s Blues is the fading interest in the musical genre, but Clearwater is optimistic about the future of blues, especially with younger audiences.

“Somehow blues is like the old man’s river,” Clearwater said. “It just keeps rolling ahead.”

Reach Emily Vaughan at [email protected]