Smart Bar
Chicago, Illinois



To black, too proud.

For what amounts to a dirty basement slathered in black paint, Smart Bar has quite a reputation. It’s been a local favorite DJ spot in Chicago since its opening in 1982. Originally home to originators like Frankie Knuckles and Joe Smooth, Smart Bar continues to satisfy Chi-town’s dance music enthusiasts with residencies by DJ Colette, John Acquaviva and Justin Long.

Smart Bar and the Metro, the 1,100-capacity upstairs rock venue, are housed the former Swedish Community Center, built in 1927. The club brings in a little bit of everything due to the connection with the Metro, which often throws building-wide events with two DJs playing simultaneously, or has celebrity DJs spin after-parties. For instance, after M.I.A. and LCD Soundsystem upstairs at Metro, Diplo (Philly based indie DJ darling and M.I.A.’s boyfriend) and James Murphy (lead singer of LCD) performed at Smart Bar.

There’s really nothing to see inside, since the club only has two rooms, a small bar with some stools and tables, and a good-sized dancefloor with another, longer bar adjacent. But that’s not the point. The crowd that comes out to most Smart Bar nights is all about the music, and dances until the bar closes at four or five in the morning. We sent this month’s Stalkers to see if the spot is still worth breaking curfew over.

Stalker #1
So we went to Smart Bar to see Peter Hook from New Order, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the night turned out well enough. Drinks weren’t dirt cheap, but not as pricey as most trendy clubs, so I was able to down a few before Hook started spinning.

He played a bunch of early ’80s tracks that one might expect, though hearing him throw in some Joy Division stuff was a little surprising. He wasn’t a stellar DJ, of course, but it was fun to hear what moved the influential bassist.

Smart Bar doesn’t have the best acoustics, and things tend to bounce off the tight walls and sound a little booming, but it’s still better than most. Another cool thing about the club is that the DJ booth is level with the dancers, and if you happen to have a connection, it’s very easy to walk back there and talk with the DJ. Overall, the crowd wasn’t as crazy as it usually is, but then again, an aging rock star never really draws a crowd of club kids.

Stalker #2
First thing I noticed was that the recessed street level entry was heated, and although there wasn’t a line I still appreciated the dose of warmth as I fished out my entrance fee. So the Metro was on street level, and Smart Bar was in the basement, but I stood there for a minute dumbfounded – seems Smart Bar is the kind of place everyone (else) has been to so many times that they don’t need a sign. To me, this is a good sign, but still annoying.

Indeed, the interior was that industrial shiny black that says either “I’m hiding something” or “I’m hiding everything,” which in this case seemed to be just an innocuously misshapen room and some low ceilings. The bar was large and well serviced with two big entrances to the main floor on either side that allowed a peep at what was going on among the dancers.

I met Stalker #1 kind of early, since I wanted to see Hookie’s whole set, and so no one was dancing. The floor of Smart Bar is sunken, so people were hovering on the edge like teenagers at a pool – no one wanted to go in first. Hook started DJ-ing, wild stuff like early Beatles, The Smiths, and, you may have guessed, New Order remixes. I couldn’t believe how many people were there at the booth with old
12-inches to get autographed. One guy actually knocked the needle when he inexpertly handed over his album. Of course Hook couldn’t DJ, he was being mobbed! I was sort of confounded that Smart Bar hadn’t anticipated this and set up some more intense VIP or security. Then again, it was nice to have this legendary dude there right near the floor, obviously psyched.

Dancing really got underway when the show upstairs let out and a deluge of young indie types came down (including our Stalker #3) to dance off some of their rocker lethargy. The only thing that really annoyed me was that there was really no where to sit in the main room, and since the floor was sunken, people kinda hovered up on the ledge. Fine, but then there was this hostess constantly navigating the crowd and her aggressive presence stood in contrast to the otherwise very homey and chill atmosphere.

Stalker #3
I was upstairs at the Spoon show, so I missed the beginning of the set. Peter Hook was spinning some recent stuff, but he mostly played sort of cheesy versions of New Order’s own songs and stuff that sounded similar. People were getting into it though. I started dancing straight away and saw a bunch of people from the show dancing, and eventually I convinced #1 and #2 to stop being cool and dance too. People were really excited and dancing, which was great because it was a Monday night. Two things I love about Smart Bar always – great sound system and huge women’s restroom. Even though the furniture in there is kinda dumpy, it’s still nice to feel like the club
gets it.

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Copyright 2005 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2005 TESTA Communications