Argonne Rock City

It’s the third Thursday of the month at Argonne National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy facility in the southwest Chicago suburbs, and that means it’s open mic night. By the time the first band goes on at 5:30, the Exchange Club on the ground floor of Building 617 is filled with the hubbub of conversation, and the parking lot outside is packed. Employees crowd the bar, socialize on couches, and play pool as the Sloppy Joes start off the night with “Roadhouse Blues.” Two out of three of the band members could probably pass for rock stars, particularly long-haired guitarist Mark Clark. As a matter of fact, Clark moonlights in an ’80s heavy metal cover band called Lockdown alongside drummer Eric Zoellner. Both are technicians at Argonne; by day Clark works with radioactive materials, while Zoellner operates an X-ray beam line at the Advanced Photon Source.

Zoellner is also the president of the Argonne Music Club and one of the founders of the open mic night. He believes the monthly event has helped restore a sense of community to the lab, which employs about 2,800 people. More than sixty of them show up most months and Zoellner rarely has trouble filling an hour and a half with performances, many of them featuring Zoellner himself on drums and/or vocals. Aside from musical acts, the open mic night has also played host to everything from tango performances to monologues and poetry recitations. A core of regulars has developed over the year and a half since the event’s inception, but newcomers come too. “We’re all friends here, we don’t care if they mess up,” he says. “This helps a little,” he adds, pointing to his beer. “Loosens people up.” The event even has what Zoellner refers to as an “alumni spirit”; Ron Frass, who plays a spirited rendition of “Mack the Knife” on a French accordion, is retiring this month, but Zoellner expects him to return for future third Thursdays. He can be sure he’ll find an appreciative audience.