I’m walking west on Fullerton before deciding that the rain isn’t worth it and hail a cab. It’s January in Chicago–the rain should be a welcome surprise–but I’m tired and a bit late and still a little hungover from the night before. I step into the cab and say “Fullerton and Western, please.”
The cabby takes a look back at me, his brown middle eastern face furrowed into a sort of dad-knows-best smile, and says “You’re going to Quenchers?”
He laughs. He clearly knows something I don’t but I’m slowly figuring it out. He saw my leather jacket and immediately knew I was going to X hipster rat-hole in Bucktown (that’s Quenchers Saloon), where of which I’ve never been but it already feels like I’m being treated like a regular before even walking in. I’m in this cab because I’m on my way to a gathering/festival called Art Against Hate (it is January 20th), at Quenchers, within which 4 bands/artists have convened to, well, I’m not exactly sure. I mean I have an idea, given the title of the show and the nature of the events over the past 12 months that might potentially render my friendly cabby a second class citizen. The purpose of this journey is to uncover the motives and goals of the event from its creator, Neil Bhandari, of Swearwords (the headlining act).
I exit the cab and enter Quenchers Saloon, where a surlier-than-his-age-should-allow bouncer scans my ID. He let’s me pass, and I enter the building. It’s about 8:15 PM in Chicago in January, and despite the lighting fixtures, it feels like it is darker inside the bar than out. The walls are green, dim, and wooden–the floors the same except they are the color of spilt bourbon. As I approach the bar, I am greeted by a couple of old friends–the gang from Beauty School, a feature on one of our earlier episodes this past Fall. They are participating in the festival as well, and Max, the guitarist, leads me into the stage room to introduce me to Neil. I grab a drink (they have Pabst bottles here for $2.50), we grab a seat stage right, and below is an annotated/paraphrased version of our conversation.
Dylan (ASPFSP): So, Neil, we both know why we are here and what this event is in response to. When did the planning begin?
Neil (Swearwords): The night of November 8th. Literally less than an hour after the results were clear.
ASPFSP: Tell me about that.
Neil: We just knew we had to do something, anything. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing, and we weren’t expecting this or prepared to digest this. We were hurting for our friends, who were women, who were minorities, people who look like me who should feel safe in this country. We’re allocating all proceeds to Black Lives Matter Chicago as well as the ACLU.
ASPFSP: How did you decide who would play?
Neil: I mean, the sets here are way more diverse than a typical indie show. We wanted to focus on a diversifying the kinds of artists, because that’s the kind of spirit we are trying to maintain. That’s the purpose of this whole thing. We’ve got Beauty School, you know them, who have the kind of traditional indie guitar vibe we do, but then we have Bryan Douglas, a Spanish guitarist, and Lamar Jordan, a spoken word MC. That’s not typical.
ASPFSP: Is this a protest, or a celebration?
Neil: I’m not sure. I think it’s something in between. We are psised off, but we are here together to make sure people know we won’t just go away. We are protesting but at the same time celebrating who we are through something we all love–art, music.
Neil had to run, the show was already 20 or so minutes behind, but here are a few gems from the stage that night:
“Everything is political.”
“I’m angry, you’re angry, so let’s all be angry together.”
Bryan Douglas takes the stage for his first song (his set was sensational). “This song has no words, but is, perhaps appropriately, entitled ‘Watership Down.’”
Lamar Jordan (River Jordan): “I just came here to share my music and not talk that much, is that alright?”
“You gotta make eggs to break an omelette.” I don’t know exactly what this means but I really liked it and wrote it down.
What I experienced tonight reinforced my perception of the power of art. Here we all were, upset, many fresh from the Women’s March but still on their feet, still dancing, and still smiling, enjoying perhaps humankind’s most powerful vehicle together, art. Maybe I’m being overly hopeful, but perhaps this new era in America will bring us our own version of The Smiths. Great art comes from unboring, struggling societies, and one thing the next four years promise to be is un-boring.