Finding the Hideout bar on Chicago’s north side is easy — but only after the first time you visit. It’s in a brown wood-frame late-19th century house, an anomaly on a short, homely stretch of anonymous industrial buildings and municipal parking lots on West Wabansia Avenue. A block or so to the east is the North Branch of the Chicago River; to the west, the mammoth John F. Kennedy Expressway cuts off the area from the popular Wicker Park and Bucktown neighborhoods. There are no other bars nearby, or any fancy restaurants or fashionable shops (although some upscale grocery stores recently emerged a short drive away). But the Hideout’s relative isolation is actually a big part of the reason why hundreds flock there every week: The place isn’t in any visible community, so it built one of its own.
And the Hideout must be doing something right: The place is a beloved Chicago institution, named one of “Chicago’s 50 Best Bars” (Chicago magazine), while the Chicago Tribune once proclaimed, “if there’s anywhere that feels like drinking in your family living room, it’s this legendary music lounge neighborhood tavern.” CNN’s bon vivant Anthony Bourdain pronounced it a “perfect bar!” and “an eclectic refuge of a cross-section of local Chicagoans blissfully free of ironic goatees or haberdashery.”
It’s a cozy place. Capacity is between 100 and 150, although co-owner Tim Tuten says that number shrinks to 75 when the Waco Brothers play in winter because their audience is “all big men in big jackets.” Walk through the door and you’re already pretty much bellying up to the bar. It undoubtedly looks like it has for decades, since it became a watering hole for nearby city workers who still frequent the place. The wood-paneled backroom, where just about all the music and performances happen, has a black-and-red checkered linoleum floor that’s been there for decades, but the soundboard is completely modern.
Multifaceted singer’s singer Kelly Hogan, who’s now with a bunch of top-notch Chicago players called the Flat Five, moved to Chicago from Atlanta in 1997 and wound up working at the Hideout as a performer and, for eight years, bar manager in its front room (where she introduced one of the bar’s signature cocktails, the Wooden Leg.) The former Prohibition-era speakeasy’s comforting feeling, despite the seemingly harsh landscape, became necessary when she started living through such Midwestern situations as winter.
“We were just in the middle of nowhere and it had a good feel to it,” Hogan said. “A very bosomy place, like when you lay your head on your mom’s shoulder. These were my northern Southerners, like my crazy cousins. And it was really inclusive. We only ever fired one person and that was because he wasn’t friendly enough. He was standoffish, like in those hipster bars.”
With its low ceiling and Christmas tree lights dangling from the exposed wood beams, the dark and woody backroom of the Hideout resembles a Wisconsin fishing lodge more than a Chicago music club. The beer of choice is local favorite Old Style; a can will set you back four bucks. The lack of artifice reflects more than just charm: It creates a space that rejects any kind of identifier with idiom, genre or targeted demographic. Country and punk groups perform there – and bands like the Waco Brothers that combine those threads – but so do comedians, jazz ensembles and historically conscious R&B DJs.
The Hideout has hosted the White Stripes, Andrew Bird, Neko Case, Wilco and countless other big names, but the musician who’s most closely affiliated with the Hideout is probably singer-songwriter and blazingly excellent guitarist Robbie Fulks, whose 2016 album Upland Stories (Bloodshot) was nominated for two Grammys. Fulks is a mainstay of the Chicago musical community who taught for many years at Chicago’s venerable Old Town School of Folk Music and has recorded 11 albums, many of them on the great Chicago roots-rock label Bloodshot and one on major label Geffen back in the ’90s. Most of them were recorded by his old friend, Chicago independent music icon Steve Albini.
Fulks is very tall and slender, with a face that looks younger than his mid-50s years — or his newfound status as grandfather. “Folksy charm” is a shopworn phrase, but if anyone ever fit that mold, well, it would be Robbie Fulks. He’s one of those rare people whose caustic wit — usually with himself as the target — is undercut by his genuine curiosity about people, a quality that always comes out in his songs.
He’s also well-read, and talks avidly about writers such as James Agee and Saul Bellow without being highfalutin about it. The New York Times once proclaimed, “his lyrics are literature,” but Fulks quietly identifies himself as a hillbilly singer, explaining that he tries “not to sound too pompous and it’s the least pompous of all musical terms.” Fulks’ music fits easily in the Americana section, but he was eager to embrace Chicago’s inherent musical diversity, and his weekly Hideout gigs were a chance for him to play whatever he wanted for a low cover charge. The overall sound of Upland Stories developed through the varied connections he created in the wood-paneled back room on Wabansia during his recently completed seven-year Monday night residency at the Hideout.
Sometimes Fulks collaborated with longtime colleagues, such as Hogan and Chicago-based Welsh musician Jon Langford, leader of the Waco Brothers and beloved post-punk mainstays Mekons. All three musicians share a knowing, if wry, take on musical history. Other nights, Fulks told long, rambling stories and tried out unfamiliar instruments like fiddle, mandolin and clawhammer banjo, or devoted entire evenings to all kinds of artists: Hank Williams, the Velvet Underground and Cheap Trick among many others. He’d do mash-ups, such as Leonard Cohen and Lynyrd Skynyrd, or Jerry Reed and Lou Reed. His countrified version of “Walk on the Wild Side” is up on YouTube, as are a good number of his other residency performances.
Reveling in iconoclasm, Fulks also dedicated a night to Thelonious Monk and the Monkees, with the legendary composer’s hopscotch intervals shoehorned into tunes like the ’60s boy-band’s “I’m a Believer.” Calling from Greenwich Village before a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with jazz violinist Jenny Scheinman, Fulks says such offbeat blends were “ingrained in the idea of jazz to begin with: the most experimental-friendly big categorization of music. If you’re not changing it to suit your personality, then you’re not doing your job in jazz.”
Fulks also mixed up his guitar lines with the unconventional jazz vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, answering his counterpart’s frenzied percussive attack with his own sharp delivery that sometimes echoed his time on the ’90s bluegrass circuit. By contrast, much of Fulks’ playing with Jenny Scheinman emphasized a sense of openness; hesitations and silent moments received the same weight as notes. Fulks feels that Chicago provides more opportunity for such combinations than, say, New York City.
“Chicago is a little looser and the neighborhoods are more integrated musically,” Fulks says. “I don’t know why, but I think they are. I think it’s easier to talk over the fences in a place like Chicago because there’s not a commercial motivation that’s keeping people in little blocks.”
A lot of Fulks’ recent work depicts people trying to find a community in a broader sense. His family moved around frequently when he was growing up, including stints in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia before he moved to New York, then Chicago in 1983. Dislocation runs throughout Upland Stories, especially on the stark “Alabama at Night”: “The old men at the roadhouse/Weren’t too polite to stare/Where we’d come from wasn’t home,” Fulks croons over delicate acoustic guitar and ethereal pedal steel.
On the banjo-fiddle duet “America Is a Hard Religion,” he tries to find words that connect the so-called red and blue states. “Is there a way that both sides could look at America that was simple, brutal, honest — and summed up in a hooky phrase?” Fulks asks. “America as a religion seemed true. Even though it’s a creed that you come here, take the citizenship test, and anybody can come here, it is more like a religion. You have to take a leap of faith to be an American and you have to stand by it as its government does atrocious things and you have to live in some squalor and ugliness that rivals some of the most squalid and hideous places in the world and love it and partake in the sort of positive booster spirit of America at the same time.”
Tim and Katie Tuten, the married couple who have co-owned the Hideout with brothers Jim and Mike Hinchsliff since 1996, also do a lot of thinking about the American condition. Tim, a former high school teacher, served in the Obama administration’s Department of Education as director of special projects, partnerships and events; Katie is a social worker. The Tutens host many progressive political organizations at their space. Tim is legendary for delivering lengthy impassioned polemics to occasionally bewildered crowds who are just waiting for their favorite band to start playing, and the harangues can easily turn political. Friends and acclaimed chefs provide the soup for Soup & Bread, a free winter community meal program that author and former Hideout bartender Martha Bayne has run at the Hideout since January 2009. The Tutens are well aware of the city’s more entrenched racial divisions, and while Tim Tuten knows that presenting diverse music and musicians in and of itself won’t change this situation, he feels it’s a step in the right direction.
But while Fulks surely believes in that more perfect union, he just won’t let the excitable Tuten hype his role in forming it. “When I tell him that he’s like Thomas Jefferson and Langford is like Thomas Paine, he thinks that’s annoying as shit,” Tim Tuten says. “I think it annoys him. He hates hyperbole, and I try to connect little pieces with a larger thing.”
Regardless, construction on such metaphorical bridges has already started on Wabansia Avenue. Hogan encouraged singer and civil rights-era hero Mavis Staples to record 2008’s Live: Hope at the Hideout (Anti-) at the Hideout, and she also brought the politically outspoken jazz songwriter Oscar Brown Jr. to perform there shortly before his death in 2005. Singer Bethany Thomas’ monthlong residency at the Hideout began in April 2016, not long after Fulks’ ended, and she held the release party for her debut EP First there earlier this year. Langford, Fulks and Thomas all performed a Stephen Sondheim tribute together at the Hideout this past January.
Thomas also has a very strong background in theater, and the Hideout has supported her interest in turning her performances into bigger multimedia events. She also recognizes how the Tutens are eager to continue mixing their clientele.
“Tim was so sweet to us,” Thomas says. “I told him that my sister was going to sing with me and he said, ‘We’re so blessed to have you here. Pass the torch, fill the place full of sisters.’ I think he was also alluding to the fact that I am a black woman. They’re interested in new blood flowing through there and cultivating new art. That’s their mission — if it wasn’t always, it is now.”
It seems like it’s become Robbie Fulks’ mission, too. He had always admired the music of Michael Jackson, and in September 2008, when the Hideout commandeered the surrounding parking lots for its annual block party and costumed zombies in the audience danced to “Thriller,” rapper-social activist Che “Rhymefest” Smith spat topical lines alongside Fulks’ band. Later, Fulks released the acclaimed 2010 Michael Jackson tribute disc Happy on his own Boondoggle Records. Small steps, perhaps, but the singer wants to make these kinds of cross-cultural connections run deeper in his upcoming work.
“The idea I keep coming to in my next record is incorporating black influences and the sound of the black church because that’s so accessible in Chicago,” Fulks says. “There are so many great singers in that area in Chicago. I’ve been working with three of them on this digital project. I love the way they sing and it’s very inspiring. As boring and obvious as that idea sounds — white and black together — there is something stimulating about doing it at this moment in American history.”
And maybe such cultural exchanges can ease the isolation not only of a music club stuck between in a no-man’s land between a river and a highway, but of us all.