Anytime you have to maneuver around a group of immaculately dressed girls in white go-go boots to get into a bar, it's probably a good bet you're going to have fun. That's how my night at the Big C Jamboree
began, and the encounter served as a mighty good precursor to an event that's as unique as any in Chicago.
At 15 years old, the Jamboree (the "C" actually stands for Chicago) is the city's longest-running rockabilly showcase. Rockabilly draws mainly from '50s rock n' roll influences, and over the course of a few hours you're likely to hear everything from classic country to upbeat swing. In the minds of the music's performers, Elvis is still The King, but the large crowd that gathers at Martyrsí once a month puts a different spin on things.
When my friend, Diane, and I walked in around 9:30 p.m., the place was already filled to the brim with gents in cowboy hats and plaid shirts, swing kids with slicked-back hair and wallet chains, leather jacket and T-shirt wearing punks, and classically-attired USO impersonators with tattoo sleeves. Diane couldn't help but wonder aloud what these people's day jobs might be.
Emcee Ken Mottet, his slightly see-through pompadour evidence of his long-time commitment to the rockabilly community, stepped to the stage to introduce the host band for the night, New York's Lustre Kings. Though given to long-winded stories and corny jokes, the amiable host contributes to the family vibe that dominates here. This is a community that seems pretty happy just sharing the music with one another, although outsiders are always welcome (judging from the packed dance floor from the outset, no one was really waiting for an invitation).
As I see it, the main elements of any legit rockabilly performance are impressive sideburns, cool suits, an upright bass and three to four references to Memphis, Tennessee. The Lustre Kings had all aspects covered in their short opening set (they would return for several more as the night went on) before giving way to a parade of other bands. There's rarely a break in the action, thanks to a highly regimented schedule that ensures each group is ready to go as soon as the last finishes up.
Some highlights from the ensuing sets included a guitarist whose strap was encrusted with glittering red jewels and a jazzy rendition of "Danke Schoen" from the elegant female lead singer of The Flatcats.
Of course, the most memorable performance was that of The Janes, the boot-wearing conglomerate we'd been eyeing all night, wondering when they'd hit the stage. In fact, they didn't use the stage at all; they took over the dance floor in their shiny dresses to do a choreographed dance reminiscent of the Fembots from Austin Powers (though, unfortunately, without the high-caliber mammaries). They were followed by a second group of dancers, these ones decked out in varsity sweaters and looking appropriately perky during their up-tempo routine.
Maybe it was The Janes' performance, or maybe I was just tired of watching that Asian guy in the plaid shirt who'd been tearing it up all night, but something inspired me to get out on the dance floor after a couple hours of being a spectator.
Diane and I were soon executing clumsy twists and turns along with the rest of the exuberant crowd, and I'm pretty sure I didn't hear anyone snickering. When you've got a rather large couple in overalls dancing next to you and a group of would-be Charlie's Angels shimmying on stage, it's pretty easy to glide along unnoticed. If being noticed is your thing, though, The Big C Jamboree provides plenty of opportunities for that, so stop on by. Just don't forget your boots.
Martyrs' (3855 N. Lincoln) hosts The Big C Jamboree on the first Thursday of every month beginning at 9:30 p.m.
Ben Rubenstein jumps under the covers every other week in an ongoing search for freebie music that rocks. If you know of a no-cover night he should check out, email him.