Front of building photo by Joe Pellegrini
In October of 1994, after eating lunch at a diner, I drove 10 blocks North on Lincoln Avenue past 48 closed storefronts to sign a lease on the old post office building at 3855 North Lincoln. After 5 years of booking bands, promoting concerts, mixing live sound and studio projects on the North side of this city, I felt confident about creating a good venue in this space. I had done every restaurant and bar job from bus boy, dishwasher, bartender, cook, fine dining waiter, and front of house manager since grade school and played hundreds of gigs, but I had no cash- just a business plan that didn’t include failure.
Along with 3 friends, who were my partners for the first 2 years, and a crew of fellow Annoyance Theatre members, we attacked the building with hammers and pry bars, quoting lines from ”Full Metal Jacket” and drinking what was left of the 6 month old beer from a former failed business at this address.
The demolition went quickly, but there was still no cash. Thankfully, through small loans from some friends and family, we were able to keep the rent paid and buy some materials. Up to the day of the lease signing, there was still no name for the business plan. My partners and I could not agree on a name; so, I wrote Martyrs’ on the plan, in reference to the leap of faith we were taking and jobs we were leaving to make this project happen.
Despite the name, the business plan looked good enough for the SBA to loan us enough money to buy a sound system, pay our workers and get the doors open. I passed out tabletops to some artistic friends, who painted them with portraits of their favorite musicians. Since the name was Martyrs’, I told them they had to be dead musicians. Now, like a song that writes itself, there was a concept in place. Martyrs’ would be dedicated to the musicians who give Chris Whitley photo by Flynn their life to their art.
Great shows started happening immediately, and over the years, there have been many magical performances: Chris Whitley’s abstract blues power, the pure musical beauty that is Oregon, the ferocity of a first rocket ship launch in the playing of John Entwistle or Sonny Fortune, the joy of Adrian Belew creating sounds with electric guitar never imagined until seconds before we heard it here in this room, Pete Townshend telling his arrhythmic audience “I'd prefer if you didn't clap” as he shows us why he is so deservedly a rock icon, the absolute silence of a capacity crowd to Saul Williams’s piquant words only minutes after he worked that same crowd into a loud screaming frenzy with his band, the profound rhythm of Arty McGlynn’s guitar accompaniment or Dennis Chambers at the drums.
Gov’t Mule photo by Will ByingtonThe underplays and high profile shows are always exciting, but what is most satisfying for me is to see the progression of young musicians over the years as they hone their craft and achieve success. The regular weekly, monthly and quarterly gigs here have given the artist a stage to figure it out. Martyrs’ is the birthplace of the hilarious and musically excellent Brian O’Hern and the Model Citizens. And, with your support, John Kadlecik has gone from Hairball Willie to Dark Star Orchestra to playing with Phil Lesh and Bob Weir in Furthur, Glenn Kotche has played with Paul K. and Wilco, Andrew Bird hosted folk shows on Sundays, played with Squirrel Nut Zippers, with Kevin O’Donnell in Bowl of Fire, and on to indie pop stardom. Dana Hall is an internationally respected master of the drums and cymbals. And soon the world will recognize the potent songwriting talent of Jeffery Ham.
Martyrs’ would not be possible without the work and daily commitment of its staff and the support of our neighborhood and city. We are fortunate to be in the world’s greatest music city. Artists in Chicago have developed communities in so many different genres- rock, blues, jazz, classical, hip hop, house, reggae, folk, country & numerous traditional ethnic styles- performed daily at their highest level. We’ve heard them together on this stage. Thanks for checking it out.
Rock hard. Ride free.