The Evanston RoundTable recently sat down with Jake Samuels, 38, who books talent for Evanston SPACE, the live music venue at 1245 Chicago Ave.
SPACE shares a front door and ownership with Union Pizzeria. The venue is accessible through a long, brick-walled corridor leading to the rear of the building. Open the thick, sound-absorbing doors and you enter what the Chicago Tribune once called “a serious listening room.”
The room rates highly on Yelp as well. “I want to be real quiet about this place,” wrote one reviewer. “But I also want to shout from a mountaintop – this place is AMA+A+A+A+ZING!”
Music at SPACE is an eclectic mix of jazz, folk and rock. Performers include legends who continue to play to appreciative audiences, interesting up-and-comers and local talents.
Richard Thompson, The English Beat, Milk Carton Kids, Poi Dog Pondering, Jason Narducy and Nora O’Connor of Iron and Wine are a few artists who have returned to SPACE multiple times.
Strictly speaking, Samuels is Director of Music for 16” on Center, parent company of a group of independent venues in Evanston and Chicago. They include Evanston SPACE, the Empty Bottle, Thalia Hall, The Promontory and a new venue visible from the Kennedy Expressway, The Salt Shed.
This interview, edited and condensed for publication, took place in a windowless room crammed with equipment, a reminder of how SPACE was first conceived: a high-end conceptual recording studio. The financial crisis of 2008 changed many plans, and the studio business never quite took off. But the live acts – booked by Samuels – resonated.
These days SPACE puts on 350 shows a year plus outdoor shows in Evanston known as Out of SPACE.
Q: Do you live in Evanston?
A: I do. My family’s from Evanston. I went to ETHS. I moved back to Chicago after college and eventually to Evanston.
Q: What’s your education?
A: I went to Indiana University, studied public policy and management.
Q: How did you start in your role?
A: Got a job out of college. Didn’t love it. Kept in touch with a couple of people from ETHS and some mentors I had during a senior studies program I did there. And eventually they connected me with Craig Golden, who opened this place.
I showed up to an interview with a mix tape. I was like, “Listen, I’m obsessed with music. I know this is what I want to do. You have this space and you don’t quite know what it’s going to be, but I would jump at the chance to be a part of that.”
Craig started SPACE in 2008 and joined forces around 2014, when we opened Thalia Hall with his now-partner, Bruce Finkelman, from the Empty Bottle, which is a club that’s been around 30 years. We look at ourselves as a conglomerate of independent venues, all with the same goals – to be cultural community resources in their respective neighborhoods. So that’s how I spend my days – looking at all of the music venues within that group.
But I started in 2008 as really the only employee of SPACE working the door, working the bar and cleaning up. And then I started booking shows.
At the time in 2008, there was a strong singer-songwriter scene and those acts were gravitating toward venues that allowed people to pay better attention to their show. Everything didn’t have to be a big loud rock show and I think that’s what [Golden] saw for this space as well. He appreciates the craft and we both saw an opportunity to showcase that.
Q: Do you play, sing?
A: No musical prowess, and maybe that’s what’s so intriguing about it. Every night is kind of watching someone do a high-wire act. It’s still thrilling to me. I also have a deep interest in the business side of it, which dovetails nicely because most artists have very little interest in that side of their work.
Q: How do you find interesting artists to play at a place like SPACE? It’s not like you can just turn on the radio.
A: I do listen to the radio, and Spotify and digital streaming services have done an awesome job of platforming musicians. But the biggest way I find musicians is through other musicians. One good show tends to steamroll into many good shows.
Q: What kind of feedback do you get from artists who’d never been here before?
A: We still hear that the place is too nice. I think for a lot of acts, the model was always grinding out, playing clubs. So if you’re playing a 200-capacity club somewhere, chances are it’s pretty dingy. It’s always been a famously difficult existence, right? You show up, you get paid poorly. You get a couple of drink tickets, but you do it because you love playing.
Q: Why not just do a dingy club like everyone else?
A: Craig is a wonderful creator of spaces. It’s design-forward. It’s comfortable. It’s lived in. It feels like Evanston. It’s not too glossy, not too shiny. It’s an extension of the town.
The hope is, a band pulls up at midnight and parks their bus. In a perfect world, they stumble off the next day and they go to Blind Faith and have breakfast. They find a coffee. They look for the record shop. They find the beach. They pick up a bike and explore the lakefront. The hope is to have artists experience Evanston through that lens.
Then at SPACE, to have a beautiful green room where you can relax and we’ll feed you well from a restaurant. And then it ends with an incredible show that is well-attended and people are respectful and appreciative of the music, buying merch, all of the good things that artists remember. It’s odd how remarkable that could be. It seems like very basic hospitality.
Q: Do you get comments from musicians on the sound?
A: We’re lucky to have world-class engineers mixing our shows and we upgraded the sound system considerably during COVID. Couple that with some incredible performers and it’s a pretty magical experience. No matter how perfect you think it sounds, though, there will always be one person saying it’s too loud and one person saying it’s too quiet.
Q: How would you characterize the audiences who come to SPACE?
A: There’s a great history of clubs in Chicago and around Chicago that have fostered real music fans. I mean, Lounge Ax back in the day, to Hideout to Old Town School of Folk Music to FitzGerald’s. All of these clubs have contributed to the DNA of SPACE and helped create music fans who go to shows. Conveniently, a lot of those folks tend to gravitate towards Evanston – whether that is Evanston or Skokie or Rogers Park or Wilmette. So geographically we find ourselves in pretty friendly territory.
Q: How did SPACE survive the pandemic?
A: We did what everyone else did – pivoted a million times then pivoted some more. We sold vinyl records paired with craft to-go cocktails. We sold every T-shirt and bit of merch we could find. We set up a big tent and did outdoor shows through the summer and fall of 2020, and we brought over 100 tiny SPACE shows to people’s front or back yards so neighbors could get together and enjoy music outdoors during that first summer when everything was still very tenuous.
Most importantly, we rallied our friends and neighbors and worked with other independent promoters throughout the country to lobby our representatives in Congress to pass the Save Our Stages legislation as part of the American Rescue Plan. That funding saved SPACE and venues like ours all over the country, so that the entire touring music ecosystem did not disappear.
Q: What was the hardest part?
A: The hardest part was losing so much of our longtime staff – people who had been with the club for many years, because there were no shows for over a year. Beyond that, the constant cancelation and rescheduling of shows, communicating those changes to ticket holders, and navigating the politically charged discourse around COVID was pretty challenging.
Q: Was there a silver lining?
A: Connecting on a deep level with other independent promoters through organizations like CIVL [Chicago Independent Venue League] and NIVA [National Independent Venue Association] as we all fought to stay alive was extremely rewarding. Seeing people return to live music since we reopened has been extremely gratifying. The pivots we made during COVID were memorable and exemplified the “show must go on” mentality of our business in a very real way.
Q: Any lasting impacts?
A: We’ll have some COVID regulations for the foreseeable future. We’ve required proof of vaccine since last summer and continue to do so. We still strongly encourage masks. Touring music is such a fragile thing. One sick band member could take down an entire nationwide tour. A lot of artists and venues are putting everything on the line to make these shows happen and the best thing we can do as fans is try to keep them safe.
Q: How is business looking now?
A: We are still seeing different segments of our audience come back to shows at different paces. Overall there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the return of concerts.
Q: Early on, was there a time when you’re like, “Holy cow, we got so-and-so here!”?
A: We had a pretty amazing run of like some legendary people – Leon Russell, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John. Unfortunately, it ended up being the last or among the last tours for a lot of those folks. But to see those legends walk through here, that was a real turning point.
At the same time we were seeing acts have their first shows ever, or their first shows in Chicago, here and then catch on like wildfire. So around the same time we were also doing shows with The Lumineers, Alabama Shakes, Gary Clark Jr., Lake Street Dive, St. Paul and The Broken Bones. Now any one of those could easily play at a Chicago theater or an arena ballroom type show. We’ve got both ends of the spectrum and it’s pretty exciting.
Q: Were there any special shows that stand out?
A: To see the Alabama Shakes or St. Paul and The Broken Bones play their first shows in Chicago – there’s something special about being in the room for that. They still had day jobs at that time. The Black Pumas, same kind of thing. We brought them up to play a late night show after a street festival and those were probably one of their first shows outside of Texas.
Q: How did Out of SPACE start?
A: It started as a 10th anniversary celebration for ourselves, in 2018, to mark this milestone and try something different, outside the four walls of the club. This room is fantastic, but capacity is always its limitation.
The idea is like wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to paint with a little bit bigger brush in terms of what we can book and what we can do?
We brought Mavis Staples, Indigo Girls, Dinosaur Jr., Shovels and Rope, Lone Bellow, and the New Pornographers. It was really a fun summer and then we did a free block party by the club on Dempster, where we had Guided by Voices and Old 97’s. …
The response was overwhelming. And it created some meaningful partnerships. We’ve known the Temperance folks since they opened, but to be able to do something with them and align the businesses felt special. And Canal Shores – I think that’s where we realized a bit of a dream. They had reached out to us a few years prior and the more time we spent there, the more we fell in love with it and the idea. Who knew like right under our nose Evanston had a perfect site to do live music? We were kind of blown away by it.
Q: It feels a little like Ravinia – that feeling of being outside and in a beautiful environment. Except you can actually see the artists.
A: Yeah, to have an incredible green space that’s easily accessible – that you can bike to from all over, two train lines, a hospital and fire station across the street. The infrastructure is notable.
One unlikely outcome is how younger artists respond to playing with older artists. Out of SPACE this summer a great example of that. We have Waxahatchee, who’s like the darling of the indie country Americana, if you want to call it that. You know she’s on fire. She [Waxahatchee creator Katie Crutchfield] put out an incredible album called Saint Cloud. She sold out two Thalia Halls this winter, like a pretty hot artist on the younger side of the songwriting. We booked her and set out to try to find an act to pair with her. In talking through it and some acts that were important to SPACE and we stumbled upon a commonality which was Lucinda Williams is her all-time favorite artist. She’s written volumes about Lucinda’s records and what they do to her. This will be the first time they’ve ever played a show together.
Q: There have been pockets of adverse reactions on noise, and the City Council’s looking at the issue. What’s your take on that?
A: We’re sensitive to it. We’re cognizant that there are neighbors here and that we’re part of a community and so we try to make the most of the time that’s given to us and book pretty special things. And we ask for some understanding from some neighbors who are impacted by it. I hope they can understand the other side of that coin and the amount of gratitude and love and sense of community that pours out of those events.
We want to make sure those people most immediately affected by the disruption feel that they are a part of the event and can join their community for this special thing. We understand it’s not for everyone, but we really want to remove any “us vs. them” mentality because we do view this as a community event above all else.
Q: How about City Hall?
A: I’m hopeful that the city is seeing the benefits of that and what it brings to our town both monetarily but also in the cultural fabric of the city and driving visitors and people to experience all the things we love about this town.
It’s a labor of love, and we think it’s important to the community that we live in. We’re grateful for the opportunity to do that.
This story has been update to correct Jake Samuels’ age and more precisely describe the entrance to SPACE.