Most of the 200 or so listeners scattered about the 300-seat concert hall at the newly opened City Winery on August 29 were there to hear Asaf Avidan, the mohawked Israeli indie musician with a voice uncannily like Janis Joplin’s — and they were not disappointed. But their tickets gave them a twofer, with transcendent Chicago artist Julia Klee opening for Avidan and wowing the audience with her honeyed tones.
That City Winery programmed two high-caliber performers on one night speaks well of their musical discernment. Whether the venue proves to be ideal for listeners and performers remains to be seen, but the West Loop restaurant/winemaker/performance space is undeniably a lively entrant into Chicago’s entertainment and dining scene.
City Winery Chicago springs from the same grapevine as entrepreneur Michael Dorf’s New York City establishment. Housed in a pleasingly repurposed former food distribution warehouse — vintage brick arches flirt with French oak wine barrels and curvy bottles, the west wall of the building illuminated by a glass curtain wall — City Winery combines the concert hall with a 175-seat restaurant featuring a wine-friendly Mediterranean menu, a 30-seat private dining room and a large wine garden courtyard.
The 30,000-square-foot facility also incorporates a wine-making operation, a rarity in an urban setting. In lieu of a vineyard on West Randolph Street, City Winery trucks in grapes from California, Oregon and Washington and allows customers to peek in on the crush and blend — or even kibitz with winemakers to create their own private label wines. The 18 in-house produced wines are offered to customers “on tap,” straight from the cellar, along with some 300 bottled vintages from around the world.
Given the emphasis on wine and the pleasant end-of-the-summer weather, my friend and I gravitated pre-show to the courtyard and snagged the only open table. The wine list looked tempting, especially an on-tap Malbec Rose, $10 by the glass or $27 for a smallish carafe holding about four pours. But when the server failed to take our order after too long a wait, we decided to go directly to the concert hall, which opens for dining two hours before performances.
Good choice. The server in the concert hall could not have been more attentive or made better recommendations. She greeted us by pouring generous samples of the very wine I wanted to try, which proved to be deliciously light and refreshing. I ordered a glass, and then another — why not with such a low alcohol level? — while my friend chose a heartier, Chilean cabernet sauvignon with smoky undertones.
Although the concert hall offers a full menu that includes Steak Frites (marinated flank steak with fingerling potatoes) for $27, with burgers, pasta and fish entrees priced from $17, we opted for a light snack to complement the wine: a trio of Mediterranean dips — hummus, babaganouj and muhammara (roasted red pepper) — with crispy pita for $12 and a mini-crock of marinated olives for $3, all of it tasty.
Seating in the concert hall is at communal tables, some seating only 4 people, and mixing with strangers appears to be half the fun. Concertgoers choose their seating area when they purchase tickets online. Prices vary depending on the renown of the performers, making up-and-comers a relative bargain with prices starting at $18; tickets for seasoned pros like Suzanne Vega (September 8 and 9) start at $40.
Buoyed by good wine and food and, finally, good service, we welcomed the start of Julia Klee’s set and were charmed from the first note. Klee’s voice is exceptional, and her music a provocative mix of folk, country and indie. She began by accompanying herself on piano, with the talented Randy Mollner adding layers of sound on the fiddle and mandolin. Klee has a growing local following (The Hideout, Shuba’s) and recently toured France and Germany. Check her website for information on her upcoming performances: juliaklee.com.
If Klee is instantly likeable, Asaf Avidan is an acquired taste — that then becomes an addictive one. A true original, an Israeli who writes complex, edgy lyrics in English, Avidan has a voice like no one else’s, except the aforementioned Janis Joplin. Singing in a high, nasal voice — almost a falsetto — Avidan grabs his listeners with his funky, hard-edged sound and masterful guitar playing. He played solo most of the time, joined for a few songs by a woman with a tambourine who mostly detracted from his music. At one point Avidan replicated the resonance of a piece he had just recorded with a five-person ensemble by looping the sound and using the body of his guitar as a percussive instrument. To listen to Avidan’s music, check out his website: asafavidanmusic.com.
Avidan is not only a singer but also a raconteur, telling convoluted, entertaining stories in unaccented English between songs. Just before the end of his set he commented on the venue, saying that he wasn’t sure he liked performing when people were eating. He said he didn’t object to his listeners having a drink but that he found the food service distracting.
Avidan has a point. As lovely as the new City Winery concert hall is, it is a paradoxical hybrid, mixing nightclub with upscale restaurant. Patrons spending money on concert tickets as well as food might feel they have the right to converse as at a restaurant, but before the music began an announcer asked people not to talk during the performances — a tactic that was only partly successful. Respectful listening can and does take place at venues like the Green Mill, even though it would be hard to imagine a space with a worse configuration for performers and audiences. City Winery offers plenty of room and good sightlines, but that doesn’t guarantee a satisfactory experience. A performer like Avidan deserves to be listened to.
1200 W. Randolph St., Chicago
For a list of upcoming shows and events, including a weekly Klezmer brunch, go to citywinery.com/chicago/tickets.html.
Photos of Julia Klee & Randy Mollner and of City Winery by Leanne Star