“Music Friendly Dancing,” reads the black awning on Western Avenue. For 20 years and counting, the Empty Bottle has been living up to that promise with dance parties, cheap drafts, and an undiminished sense of weird.
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1992. It was a night like any other at the Empty Bottle. The buck-fifty beers poured freely and the clacking of pool balls could barely be heard over the jukebox, but something wasn’t cutting it for owner Bruce Finkelman. So he rounded up some Polish regulars and asked them to build a stage on top of the pool table. Hours later, there was a line of people stretching down the block, anxious to take a swill of a since-forgotten band called The Cocktails. Standing toward the front, just close enough to catch Finkelman’s eye as he cracked open another can behind the bar, was one pissed-off landlord.
Such is the story of how the Empty Bottle came to stand in its current location, just a block and a half south of the first hole-in-the-wall it called home. The Bottle christened its new digs on Halloween of 1993, hosting back-to-back-to-back shows that pushed the (then) brand-new sound system to its limits. In the 20 years since, the venue has remained a bastion of grit and grunge even as the sleepy neighborhood around it has become, well, even sleepier. Just to the north, the gutter-level charms of Division Street’s Polish Broadway have given way to pricey boutiques and tacky sports bars, but the Bottle seems to have existed in its own bubble for a while now. Punks, mods, rude boys, metalheads, and representatives of every other subculture imaginable continue to bum cigarettes under the black awning on Western Avenue that reads “Music Friendly Dancing.”
Plenty of famous (or soon-to-be famous) personalities have joined them over the years. California desert rockers Queens of the Stone Age blasted out a bruising set in 1998, the White Stripes made a pit stop on the diamond-shaped stage before blowing up in the early 2000s, and more recently bands such as So-Cal punk trio Wavves have used the Bottle as a platform to generate buzz among Chicago’s music cognoscenti. The venue is a sort of celebrity in its own right, having appeared in everything from DIY music videos to local director Joe Swanberg’s 2013 romantic comedy, Drinking Buddies.
The Bottle doesn’t let any of this publicity get to its head. Everything about the bar—the defeatist name, the Free Music Mondays, the talent buyers’ penchant for the weird and esoteric—suggests a refreshing lack of bigtime aspirations. This is the kind of a place where a can of Hamm’s will probably always cost $2, and that’s fine by the people who work here. Even the recent rehab of next door’s Bite Cafe hasn’t done much to temper the Bottle’s divey vibe.
Of course, it would be hard to mess with anything at the Bottle, what with the immortal Ice Cube watching over the proceedings at all times. A framed portrait of the rapper hangs from the ceiling above the bar’s front entrance, right next to a mangled hunk of metal that used to be the door to a Chicago Police Department car. Decorative touches such as these—plus the creepy baby-head wall art and artist Ian Ferguson’s procession of hermits on the greenroom’s walls—are what give the Bottle its distinctive character.
Still, the bar would be nothing without its bread and butter: a seven-day schedule of touring acts and local headliners punctuated by monthly events such as Windy City Soul Club’s Saturday-night dance party. Here are three upcoming shows that demonstrate why the Bottle never stays empty for long.
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Venue photos courtesy of the Empty Bottle