Playin’ The Heartland Cafe

The Heartland Cafe celebrated it’s 35th anniversary this summer, and Dorothy and I were glad to play at the celebration (though it wasn’t our finest set). We love the Heartland Cafe and love playing there. I wrote about a couple of our shows there this year for my fanzine, Dumbfounding Stories, thought I’d reprint ’em here.

DOROTHY AND I PLAYED A SHOW SATURDAY, MARCH 5 AT THE HEARTLAND CAFÉ. After SIU, I spent seven years working as a musician in clubs around the Midwest and upper south. Dorothy is a musician, too, classically trained, with a Masters degree in Music Ed, who teaches music in the Chicago Public Schools. So we like to come out and play now and then—about as often as the seasons change—just to keep our chops up.  In the summer we play some street fests (, but the rest of the year, we generally play the Heartland Café, a legendary venue on Chicago’s North side ( I love the Heartland, and not just because its doors are like a time warp back to the sixties, with the negativity removed. A mellow and bohemian establishment, it’s surprisingly well-organized considering. You enter through the general store, and the first thing that greets you is a newsstand filled with literary magazines, counter cultural journals, and news weeklies. To your left, stand shelves filled with candles, organic soaps, books, t-shirts, and posters, and a pleasant aroma suffuses the room. From there, you pass through The Buffalo Bar, which features about a zillion beers from Midwestern micro-breweries (my favorite is Burning River beer). You then pass through double doors into a mid-sized room with tables and booths spaced comfortably, new excellent artwork on the walls every month, and a stage with good lighting and sound system, a picture window behind the stage, the Red Line el visible in it. If you want to eat, the food is really good, but for shows, a lot people pretty much stick to a liquid diet. Anyway, when we wanna play out, we’re always able to set up a date with them, and feel glad, because a lot of people want to play the venue. 

That night, I wasn’t sure, how the gig would go. It’s always good to have a full room. It just generates a certain excitement, and besides, if the room is empty, it’s like you gave a party, and no one came. Of course, management likes it when you bring a crowd, too. In fact, that’s really the bottom line to them, I suspect. I was a little apprehensive cause the weatherman was forecasting the coldest night in a couple weeks, along with snow and freezing rain. Plus, our son Paul, who generally comes and brings his friends, told me the day before he wasn’t gonna make it. So, I got worried about whether anyone would show up.

Before the show

Then there were the other musicians involved.  Barbara Hollek, a close friend of ours, was the opening act. She’s an


excellent songwriter and guitarist, and blessed with a gorgeous voice.  She lost her longtime love to illness a couple years back, though, and her lingering grief has seemed to hurt her performances since, causing her to over-emote and pour her grief—often very loudly–into every song, whether the lyrics call for it or not. I understood, but the effect was disconcerting and worked to mask the beauty of her singing. I hadn’t heard her in over a year, and hoped she was back on her game.


Alpha Stewart was our drummer for the gig. I’d met him ten years earlier, when we both played a recording session, but had lost touch with him, until recently when I met a mutual friend and got Alpha’s number from him. I asked him to dothe gig, and he was up for it, but didn’t want to rehearse. He said to just send him recordings of the songs we were going to do, and he’d get the arrangements from them. Sending him the recordings was no problem; in theory I could see how he could get the arrangements from them; I knew he was an excellent drummer, but without ever having played any of the set with him, I wasn’t sure how it’d go.

 Finally, we had Rudy Negrete coming to sit in with us for the last six songs of the set, kind of a grand finale.  Rudy, I actually wasn’t worried about. I’ve seen him perform, and he’s a fine singer and guitarist.  Playing with him was really special for me though, and I wanted the set to go great. I was Rudy’s fifth grade teacher twenty years back and enjoyed having him in class. We stayed in touch now and then even after he went to high school, until I changed schools. Anyway he saw a comment I left on Stevie Ray Vaughn’s website a few years ago and emailed me. Turned out he was a hot guitarist and singer. I’d been to see his bands a few times, and we’d gotten together to jam, but this was the first time we ever played out together. I thought it’d go fine, but you never know.


      So anyway, we headed over to the gig Saturday night about an hour and a half before the show, and man, the roads were slick. We were slipping and sliding all over the place. We got there, and I carried in our stuff. Alpha’s drums were on stage, and Barbara, who was there already, said he’d gone to look for parking, the finding of which, by the way, is a major accomplishment in that part of Rogers Park. Dorothy came in and joined Barbara, while I went to look for a parking place, which I was able to do in a mere twenty minutes, although it was three blocks from the club. I got back about forty-five minutes before show time, and we finished setting up about fifteen minutes before Barbara was supposed to go on. I looked around, and it seemed my fears were coming true: the room wasn’t empty, but almost. I had the idea that the people there were Barbara’s friends. Three people we knew were there.

I guess what was happening was that people were having as much trouble as I did finding  parking, more even. By the time, Barbara started her set, a few more of our friends had rolled in, and several more of hers. Her set was amazing, excellent from start to finish, and halfway through, Alpha just went up and started adding some fine percussion. By the time she finished, the place was packed. A few less of our friends might’ve been there than usual, but this was more than made up for by people from the neighborhood stopping by, deciding to pay the cover and stay. We took the stage, and I’m thinking, “OK, moment of truth.” It turned out to be the most fun set I’d played in years. Not only did Alpha play flawlessly, he had so much fun doing it that it seemed to infect the whole room. I know for sure that Dorothy and I had great fun. She played and sang really well, and I didn’t embarrass myself too much. Then we got Rudy up there to end the set. By then the place was jammed, and he just blew the roof off.  We got done playing about eleven-thirty, and I couldn’t even think about sleepingtill three that morning, I was so wired from the music. I love nights like that.

Dorothy & Kent


We played The Heartland Café ( again on Saturday, July 27. Alpha Stewart was playing percussion with us again, and my friend and former fifth-grade student, Rudy Negrete, also sat in again on several songs. It turned out to be a really fun night. This in spite of the fact that my effects pedals were acting up and the sound man set the stage monitors too low. We recorded the evening, and the vocals were plenty loud out front, but on stage I couldn’t hear myself. Which I hate, because I tend to compensate by singing louder and my vocal tone suffers. It helped that the place was packed, though, and that the people with whom I was playing are great fun to be around. The music didn’t sound that bad either, when I watched the recording. Well, the sound was straight from the camera, and it sounded kinda flat and tinny on our lab top. It sounded better on our desktop computer, and through headphones it didn’t sound too bad at all.

I’m gonna insert a video here of us jamming on “Stagger Lee” that evening.


About kentmcdanielwrites

Writer and musician.

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