A Night at the Orphanage

I thought it would be spooky. I thought it would be scary. Most of all, as I crossed the tire-shaped craters of fallen leaves along 31st Street, I thought I knew what to expect from Chicago DIY venue The Orphanage.

On the Facebook event page for Ghouls Night Out, the collective’s annual Halloween concert and costume party, eight groups were listed. All were mysterious local acts; all were scheduled for short sets in rapid succession. As the purple clouds over Bridgeport edged deeper into darkness, never once did I imagine that I would spend so many minutes waiting for bands to arrive. Then again, the free potluck was an abiding comfort. I also had time to take notes.

18:00-My friends and I wander into the concert space, located on the second floor of the First Lutheran Church of the Trinity’s community center, and I know the music will still take some time to start. That’s when I notice the dolls. In every cobweb and disused candelabrum, there’s a head, torso, or contorted body to be found. It’s much less stressful to lock eyes with the painting of Medusa behind the stage.

18:17-A man in a kidney-bean-colored monk’s cowl walks to the microphone and interrupts the P.A. broadcast of Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing”: “We’ve learned that DJ Ken–excuse me, just Ken–has dropped out.” I had wondered about Ken. He was the only performer on the event page with no website listed. Does he even exist?

18:25-I chat with the man in the cowl, who turns out to be Monk of Sadness and event organizer Byron Medina. He and fellow organizer Diana Durkin fill me in on the purpose of The Orphanage. Concerts, classes, and art openings in the space are “designed to be open to all types of people,” says Durkin. I can see this for myself. On the velour couches that line the wall opposite the stage, women and men with shoulder-length gray hair mingle with teenagers. Every so often, a little girl clad in a red, white, and blue jumper emblazoned with the word “USA” darts across the dance floor.

18:55-Ben X, guitarist for Immovable Types, recruits my friends and me to move most of a drum kit in from a pickup truck idling outside. “I didn’t realize it was so late,” Ben explains as we rush back upstairs.

19:17-Immovable Types’ sound check ends with a raucous grunge rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues.” Over their thirty to forty minute set, the crowd gradually increases. One of my friends, recruited by Ben X to film Immovable Types on a handheld camera, keeps dodging the periodic bursts of pungent fake smoke.

20:17-The Hannah Frank trio takes the stage. I realize retrospectively that a couple of hours ago the Hannah Frank Trio had comprised about a quarter of the crowd.

20:35-The Trio is strongest when guitarist Frank, bassist John Peters, and keyboardist Ben E. Miller unite in a simple groove. Hannah Frank herself, whose voice and Gibson Flying V seem to have ben imported from the early seventies, likes to view and review images. In one song, she keeps returning to a bottle of red wine. Another song is a meditation on a pile of fallen leaves.

20:53-As the night has progressed, the darting girl in the “USA” jumper has morphed from an innocent patriot to a crypto-Lynchian motif highlighting the strangeness of my surroundings. Maybe I’ve had too many plastic tumblers of the potlucks’ AA-grade coffee. While I was drinking some, Dracula complimented on me on my Stone Cold Steve Austin shirt and told me he will be writing in Jesse Ventura for president.

21:04-The Cookie Monster has taken the stage.

21:13-This isn’t anarchy. It turns out that The Cookie Monster is just the bassist for folk/blues/rock band Overman. The two guitarists, the drummer, and the Muppet-man string together an energetic, ferociously tight set of original tunes and flattering covers (none so obscure that I can’t recognize them, none so famous that I feel like a tool). On their mid-tempo version of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” it’s hard to avoid singing along.

22:00-Under the sickly green sodium lamp outside, the members of Overman reminisce about all the drunks who have come on stage to sing along with their cover songs. “Remember the guy who started playing his harp?” says the Cookie Monster.

22:07-I’d like to stay through Diode Milliampere’s electronic set, but neither my friends nor I can summon the energy. The Lynchian girl has long since gone to bed. We should, too, or at least find out way to the Red Line stop. Do we dare depart this universe? Medusa, unblinking, seems to grant us leave.