story by Ariel Sundel
The goal was to create a venue for all kinds of music. In the process, the Underground Wonder Bar at 10 E. Walton has incorporated poetry, international cuisine, charity fundraising, recycling, and “too much fun,” according to bar founder and local musician Lonie Walker. She sat down with Chicago Innerview in the very same downtown bar that she opened 20 years ago to sum up the adventures of the past two decades — and plans to celebrate them with Underground Wonder Bar’s upcoming “20 year tribute in 20 days” from Oct. 27 to Nov. 15.
“We’re kicking it off with Titilizing Tantalizing Toe-Tappin’ Tuesday,” Walker says, offering to spell it. She will begin the celebration with her usual solo set, a fitting way to bring things back. “Twenty years ago I didn’t have a band right away. I eased into the band,” she recalls. “I had a bass player, then I had a drummer, I featured other singers.” Now she is often accompanied by her rock/soul/funk/jazz/blues group, Big Bad Ass Company Band. “We’ll still be playing on our regular nights, and we’ll have the featured singers come in,” she says, while rattling off the names of everyone who helped shape the bar into the place it is today.
Walker goes on to describe how bad the neighborhood was in 1989 when the bar was first forming, including hookers working in the street, a XXX bookstore that was next door for many years, and a slum building on the corner that only got cleaned up three years ago. “We were like the Wild West down here,” she says. “Nobody wanted to come to Rush Street. So we would just invent reasons why people would want to come out here.”
Besides wacky alliterative names and themes, another Lonie Walker invention is her “Tiny Teq’s”: chili-infused Cuervo Gold tequila served at the bar. “I had international new age cuisine from all over the world,” Walker adds. “Everything I wanted under one roof: spring rolls, chicken satay, whole-wheat pita pizzas that I invented.” The food was served for the bar’s “Spoken Word Brunch” on Sundays, an event that Walker started in 2000. “I’m a poet, so we had to have poetry here,” she explains. Performers have included readings from Columbia College students and professors, writers reading snippets of their books, and Walker’s own sons’ band, Taggart Transcontinental, in which all three of her sons are members.
“Everything was organic,” Walker says of the food served at the bar. “I was way ahead of my time in that.” Not just with food, but also with recycling. “My goal 20 years ago was to get famous enough to have enough clout to say ‘wake the fuck up people!’” she says. Even though all the bars around her are throwing everything away, she recycles all of the bar’s paper, glass, and cardboard. And the candles are soy and refilled in the same canisters. “There’s an ordinance that all bars are supposed to recycle,” she says. “They don’t enforce it. I’m too angry, I’m too emotional to be any good.”
Underground Wonder Bar’s 20-year celebration culminates with 12 consecutive hours of live music, with a new act slated to play every 15 minutes. The earlier part of the event is a kids showcase, which Walker began 10 years ago as the Kids Kabaret (which later became the Prefessional Showcase) so her kids and other musicians’ kids could have a stage on which to perform. She remembers thinking, “I wish someone would get a kids showcase together. Oh fine, I have to do it myself.”
After talking about all her accomplishments, Walker remarks: “The ultimate goal anyway was really to do music — and do eclectic music.” And that’s just what the Underground Wonder Bar is still doing 20 years later. Every night for 365 days a year, patrons can be caught listening to the bluesy soulful Lonie Walker herself (solo or accompanied by her band) as well as assorted funk, jazz, reggae, spoken word, folk, or just about anything else. “There are so many people who have made this the loving amazing place that it is,” she concludes. “It really is wondrous.”
Lonie Walker will perform throughout the month of October as part of the Underground Wonder Bar’s 20-Year Anniversary Celebration.