Pounding drums. Flashing lights. A line around the block filled with hopeful patrons. A stern looking person standing at the door holding a list. A dancefloor full of people dressed to impress. If this is what you imagine when you think of electronic music, you're not completely wrong.
While it's true that this kind of scene dominates many clubs around Chicago, it doesn't define electronic or dance music in a general sense. Just like rock, hip hop and virtually every other kind of music, there's an antithesis to the mainstream. Sometimes called leftfield or outsider dance, the range of sounds at the edge of Chicago's club culture are some of the most fascinating musical experiences happening in the city.
One of the most frequent locations to hear what the tinkerers and experimenters in electronic music are doing right now is The Burlington. Located in Logan Square, this small hole in the wall bar may not seem like much when you first walk in. Looking like any garden variety neighborhood watering hole, you might be tempted to pull up a stool and ignore the door at the back of the room. But on the other side of that door are many of the most interesting and challenging sounds in Chicago's electronic scene. Whether it's the all hardware lineup of live PAs from Chicago Rhythm council, with a dozen or more synthesizers and drum machines splayed across the stage and onto the floor, or an hour of droning keyboards running through endless pedals, you'll almost always find someone doing something fascinating at The Burlington.
Another neighborhood bar that dips into the darker side of dance is Danny's Tavern. Danny's is the home of Hot On The Heels, a synth celebrating event that spans a wide array of exciting electronic sounds. Past the quality of the music, the environment itself really transforms the experience. Feeling more like a house party than a club, you can hear everything there from obscure German disco to live performances with synthesizers and drum machines in this weirdly homey spot.
But don't think that every traditional danceclub eschews music from the margins. Smart Bar's monthly Hugo Ball proclaims that "the sanitized techno party is dead" on every poster. One step inside the transformed basement of Smart Bar and you will know just what they mean. Black plastic and collages using the imagery of Dadaism, acid house, punk and more cover every surface in the venue. Damaged TV's blink on speaker stacks. It's no surprise that you'll often find the heroes of so called "outsider house" from the L.I.E.S. label here. The aesthetic is a perfect match for their gritty sound.
While these are all great places to start your adventure with leftfield dance and electronic music, you'll find much more to love around the city. Explore show listings at your neighborhood art galleries and creative spaces and you'll sure find a lot to love at the margins in addition to these suggestions.
Written By Marea Stamper, Dance / Electronic Editor, ChicagoMusic.org.