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Playing The Potbelly Circuit

You would think Chicago has enough music venues for every act worth listening to - and you would be right. Even those on the lower end of the acoustic folkie food chain have a variety of welcome stages from which to ply their wares, courtesy of the hometown Potbelly Sandwich Works chain. Anyone who frequents Potbelly for cheap lunches has felt the awkward presence of one of the city's surplus guitar-slingers, often immersed in a lunchtime-inappropriate Three Doors Down cover, or worse. I scouted numerous locations for talent, often having to digest delicious toasted sandwiches under oppressive sonic conditions, and found that not all Potbelly singers suck equally. While one I encountered had a decent feel for her audience, the others either lacked confidence or seemed to think they were performing at a wake, instead of the home of Big Jack's PB & J. Who are these sandwich shop vagabonds playing for next to nothing before indifferent crowds for free milkshakes? And are they any good?

Location: 190 N. State St.
The Scene: An unassuming young man in jeans and a blue polo hunched over in a loft above a roaring lunch crowd. Without a microphone, he's pretty hard to hear over all the chatter.
Song Choices: Third Eye Blind's "Jumper" - he's technically about 10 feet above the floor himself, bringing a stunning realism to what used to be a cheesy anti-suicide message tune; Weezer's "Island In The Sun," complete with a timid "hep-hep" between verses.
Stage Presence: Between songs, he taps nervously on his guitar body while deciding what to play next. While he plays, he seems to get immersed in the songs, gently wagging his head or raising his eyes to the ceiling.
Musicianship: Guitar-wise, a competent beginner. He doesn't sing very loudly, but manages to carry the tunes without becoming too melodramatic.
Reactions: He isn't irritating, but he also doesn't add much to the atmosphere. Frankly, nobody seems to notice him, and he doesn't really try to get anyone's attention. It's like watching a guy practicing alone in his room.
Prospects/Predictions: Wooing loose women with intimate top-40 serenades.

Location: 1625 N. Damen Ave.
The Scene: A young woman wearing camouflage pants and a tank top who actually seems to have a good feel for the acoustics of the place.
Song Choices: Madonna's "Open Your Heart"; David Grey's "Babylon"; Sarah McLachlan's "Building A Mystery."
Stage Presence: Confident and a little detached, which in this case is appropriate. An emotional barrage is the last thing customers want when they're trying to enjoy those toasty, affordable sandwiches. "I definitely try to blend in as much as possible," she says.
Musicianship: She combines a slight vocal twang with gentle strums and arpeggios. She doesn't plonk away on the lower strings, so the sound is mostly pleasant and unobtrusive.
Reactions: The workers behind the sandwich counter clap for her - voluntarily! If people must play at Potbelly, they might as well do it like this. She sounds almost like a live version of a good pop station - familiar but with some taste.
Prospects/Predictions: Short-term, she'll at least rise to the top of the local sandwich-shop circuit.

Location: 55 E. Jackson Blvd.
The Scene: A skinny pale boy noodling at his cream-colored Telecaster, which is apparently plugged into the world's quietest amp, because it's harder to hear than most acoustic guitars. Maybe he's nervous, or maybe he's just in need of a delicious cream soda from Potbelly, because his baritone voice is stuck in his throat. Later, a second nice young man joins him, taking over on lead guitar while No. 1 strums an acoustic, also inaudibly.
Song Choices: A bunch of songs that are unidentifiable because they're too damn quiet; a minute-long cover of Mariah Carey's "Fantasy." Let's just say you've got to have a Mariah Carey figure to get away with playing Mariah Carey songs.
Stage Presence: No. 2 looks relaxed, even bored. No. 1 bobs awkwardly up and down on the weird antique couch he's sitting on.
Musicianship: Listening closely, one can make out a competent, if slightly bland, blend of funk, jazz and blues. No. 2 squeezes off a decent solo or two, but when he tries to wail on a high note, the weak ampage spoils the effect.
Reactions: Perhaps I was still feeling a little irritated from John Mayer's recent performance of Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago" on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, but if this is a sign, white-people blues is in serious decline. The duo has some skill, but they sound like Jamiroquai getting drunk and having an asthma attack at an open-mic.
Prospects/Predictions: A cynical, burned-out blues-band manager will convince the two to tour state fairs as "Jackson and Wabash" (in memory of the intersection they're playing at now), yet even those audiences will begin to suspect they aren't "real Chicago bluesmen."

Location: 1459 W. Taylor St.
The Scene: A skinny black-haired girl in a Doors T-shirt crooning sadly on a stage in the rear corner of the restaurant. She's hooked into the restaurant's speaker system, making customers vaguely uncomfortable in both the dining room and the bathroom.
Song Choices: Many shapeless love dirges with plodding strum patterns; The Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Dosed"; and, in a burst of painful appropriateness, a cover of The Cure's "Love Song," reduced to an un-catchy, grating version of its former self.
Stage Presence: She has to crane her neck down a little to get to the microphone, and the position looks uncomfortable. She seems to be glaring at her audience when she's not staring at the ground.
Musicianship: Meh. She enunciates her vocals and has mastered the basics of tragic she-balladry singing: moaning, vibrato and brief falsetto gasps in place of hooks.
Reactions: The only thing to lift me from this pit of despair is a delicious Potbelly oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookie. The lady needs one too, preferably laced with a powerful dose of Xanax.
Prospects/Predictions: Frequent appearances on the as-yet-uninvented cable-access show "Shoegazin' Sam's Bittersweet Heartbreak Dungeon Hour."

Beachwood contributor Scott Gordon originally published this story in the local print-only version of The Onion A.V. Club, which graciously gave us permission to post it here, though we refused to kick in a few dollars for Scott's meatball sandwiches. We ponied up some Xanax instead.



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Posted on June 16, 2006


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