Paul Stark | Chippewa Chapel


Already long known as the voice of KDHX’s popular “Ska’s the Limit,” Paul Stark was also recognized by the visitors the late Frederick’s Music Lounge, where he held up a corner of the bar on many an evening. Always a gregarious sort, Stark was the fellow that kept the trains moving on time at Frederick’s, which shuttered this spring, to the disappointment of many live music fans.

The weekly schedule at Fred’s offered the “Noiseday Hootenany,” a concept that reigned for a few years as the leading open mic in town. When the venue closed, it didn’t take long for Stark to hatch a plan that would keep the spirit of that seven-years-running night alive at barrooms all over the South Side. It’s an idea called the Chippewa Chapel and Traveling Guitar Circle & Medicine Show.

Recently, we caught up with Stark at the Tower Pub, a short walk down Morganford from the Tin Can Tavern, where that night’s open mic was just about to switch on.

Was Chippewa Chapel devised before or after the doors were locked at Frederick’s?

After; it hadn’t even crossed my mind prior to that. The week after we closed, we were cleaning out the bar and went out looking for something to do that Thursday night, and I didn’t have much luck. I went to a lot of spots and didn’t find much interesting, musically. Those that did have something had a cover charge. The following Tuesday, I was at a pub in the neighborhood, Riley’s, which hadn’t had live music prior to then. I got the idea that night. Maybe a place that doesn’t have music could have it, so let’s take it on the road.

What have been some of your favorite surprise spots so far?

There are some I’ve enjoyed more than others, I think because of the newness of having music in a place. Mr. Bill’s Clubhouse we like a lot. It’s a big building, a lot of space. And it was early on in the tour; a lot of people found it, a lot of familiar faces were there. There were people there that night we hadn’t seen since the bar closed. A month and a half later, people got to meet each other again. That was a favorite because of the reunion aspect of it. They’ve all been fun because each bar has its own atmosphere, with familiar faces coming in to lead. It’s hard to pick one favorite.

How closely do the audience and performers mirror those at Frederick’s?

The core of it is probably a group of six to ten people who were regulars at Fred’s. Another half or two thirds just joined up or are playing for the first night because it came to their corner bar. They were hanging out there anyway and found, “I can go up and sing for my friends tonight.” They don’t have a guitar with them, weren’t prepared to do it. But once they got there and saw equipment to borrow, they showed off for [their] friends.

Is there something interesting about this for the performers, bouncing from space to space, rather than having to play a set location’s open mic?

Yes. Most of the time, they’ve not gone on a scouting mission before that night. They’ve got an address, a map, and don’t know much about the place, at all. A lot of them are surprises. [For] most of the people, it’s the first time they’ve been in that bar. Bartenders have their own personality. Each has different drink and food menus, as well.

Are there certain songs you’d like to not hear again anytime soon?

No. I figure if they’re played that many times, they’ve become classics; they’re all fine. Unlike the security of being at Fred’s every week, we don’t always have the same people showing up, playing the same songs every week. There are some songs that I’ll have a discussion during, but I’m not sick of any of them.

An open mic night can, over time, become an insider’s club. How does this one stay welcoming?

I think because of the change of venue; that’s a big part of it. Nobody’s completely familiar with the environment. They don’t know their favorite barstool, they’re not knowing the timing of how it flows in a place. That’s the big difference, the traveling. Nobody has as much control of an environment as they did.

This might be a week-to-week thing, as well. Some weeks, people might be there for every reason but live music. Do you ever find a mild culture clash between those specifically there to take part and the regulars?

Very infrequently. Definitely, sometimes a regular at a bar has been surprised we were there. Most of the musicians who are good at this know how to warm up an audience. Play something peppy, or something that the room will know already. Play a cover, then their song after that. Seldom are they shocked, though sometimes they take a while to warm up to it.

A last thing: This has been word of mouth, but also a Web movement. How much has the Web helped in growing this?

So many people are using MySpace, so many people are in the habit of using their computer every day, that for anyone promoting anything, the Web is useful. I think it’s important, maybe more so, than word of mouth is saying “” It makes me think of one of my favorite things about this: Musicians that have been at any open mic who are meeting each other, especially now that we’re moving around. Maybe a guitarist finding another. Bands are being formed through this. That’s pretty cool.

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