Mannequin Men at Cal’s

Cal’s is a strange little venue in Chicago’s South Loop. That in itself is strange. How many places downtown feature live music at all, other than maybe a guy playing piano in a restaurant? Cal’s Liquors is a package liquor store and tiny bar that has become a place for loud, unadulterated rock. There’s no stage, just a spot on the floor where the bands play, right next to the bar. The soundboard is a little piece of equipment sitting on the counter behind the band. There are no lights to speak of, which makes it challenging to photograph musicians at Cal’s. You’ll get a little bit of the street light coming in through the window next to the band, but that’s about it. There’s a wall covered with old set lists.

Cal’s was hosting its annual Cal’s Fest this weekend, and I missed most of it, but I did show up Sunday night (walking from Millennium Park, where I had just seen gospel great Mavis Staples) for a set by Mannequin Men. This Chicago band has a strong record called Fresh Rot coming out Sept. 18 on Flameshovel Records. The opening track, “Private School,” has a chorus that’s catchy in the way old Mission of Burma records were catchy. I’d never seen Mannequin Men live, and they put on a loud, passionate show Sunday night.

(Photographic notes: After shooting in daylight for Mavis Staples, I had to switch to my low-light secret weapon, the 50mm 1.4 f stop lens for this gig. I sort of wish I’d thought to bring my 28mm lens, which would have given me a little wider view of things. I spent the first part of the show sitting on a bar stool three feet from lead singer Kevin Richard’s face. And then I was out in the crowd, trying to get shots from in between audience members. This was strictly an ISO 1600 kind of night.)

Somehow, Cal’s seems to have legal permission for its patrons to stand out on the sidewalk on Van Buren Street and drink beer out there, so I hung out there for a while before heading home. Among other bands I missed later in the night, the Dials were playing. Can’t see everything.

See my photos of Mannequin Men.

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