Robert’s Westside, the new music venue at the former Tap Room space at Madison/Circle, is opening Nov. 20 with a week’s worth of events and plenty of acts coming down the pipeline.
The opening night will feature owner Donnie Biggins’ own band, the Shams. On Nov. 21, they will hold the Soup and Bread fundraiser for local food pantries. And Nov. 22 will feature Second Hand News, a Fleetwood Mac cover band, while Friday night will feature a full-fledged house party with a DJ playing vinyl.
Biggins, an Oak Park native and a long-time Chicago area talent buyer, said that he wanted to book talent that reflects a wide variety of genres, because he wanted everyone to feel welcome at his venue and everyone has different tastes. He said he wants to nurture local talents with Open Jam and Open Mic events, and to host community events. But most importantly, Biggins said, he wanted to create an environment where Chicago area musicians can make long-term connections with an audience who would follow the acts through the years as they grow.
Biggins has a long track record as a talent buyer, working with Fitzgerald’s nightclub in Berwyn and, more recently, Forest Park’s Exit Strategy bar. Until recently, he operated the Golden Dagger music venue in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, but he told the zoning commission that he recently sold it to focus on the Forest Park venue. The name is a nod to Biggins’ father and Healy’s Westside – the bar that was operated by building owner and former village commissioner Mark Hosty before Tap Room.
Biggins said that the Nov. 20 opening is meant to give Forest Parkers and other west suburbanites an introduction to Robert’s Westside and a chance to casually check it out. He thought that having his own band play during the opening night was fitting because the band got their start playing at Madison Street venues, such as the now-closed Molly Malone’s Irish pub.
Robert’s Westside is picking up the Soup and Bread fundraisers that used to be hosted at the Exit Strategy brewery, Biggins’ former employee. He told the Review that they will hold the fundraisers the third Tuesday of every month – which just so happened to be the second day of their operations. Biggins said that he and Exit Strategy co-owner Katherine Valleau are still working on the details of which pantries will benefit from the November fundraiser.
The other event formerly hosted at Exit Strategy, Forest Park Arts Alliance’s Tellers’ Night storytelling event, will be hosted at Robert’s Westside every second Tuesday of the month starting this December.
The Friday event, he said, is meant to be another introduction and more of a house party. Both the Monday and Friday events will be free, going forward, he plans to have some the Wednesday events “free with the RSVP” – the cover charge will be waived for those who RSVP ahead of time.
Biggins said that he wants Robert’s Westside to be “home to all genres of music.”
“I think it’s good to have an eclectic mix of music in a music venue, because I think it will be representative of your community,” he said. “I want everyone who lives in and around Forest Park to come [to Robert’s Westside] and feel like their tastes are being represented on stage.”
Biggins said that he hopes that customers would be open-minded and come to performances that may not necessary be what they’re used to.
The venue has two major acts coming up next month. Country blues singer-songwriter Charlie Parr, who Biggins has worked with on multiple occasions, will perform Dec. 2. Award-winning electric blues vocalist Shemekia Copeland will perform Dec. 30.
Robert’s Westside will also nurture local talent. It will host Open Mic nights on last Tuesdays of the month, and “Open Jams” every first Tuesday. Biggins explained that while open mics spotlight singers and spoken word artists, the open jams put the spotlights on bassists, guitar players and keyboardists.
“The open jam is more of a collaborative community event,” he said. “I love open jams, because it’s a chance for performers and musicians to meet each other, and it always leads to new bands and new friendships.”
Biggins said that both open mics and open jams will be free to the audience and participants.
He said that one advantage of a suburban venue over a city venue is that the customers live in the suburbs for a long time and want to plant roots there. Chicago customer base, in Biggins’ experience, is more transient, with many regulars moving to suburbs or other cities.
“[In the suburbs], you get to, as an artist, build relationships with the community that can be there for you for 20-30 years,” he said. “That’s one of my favorite things about working in the industry – getting to know the artist in the beginning of their careers and maintaining the friendship throughout.”
Biggins said that he plans to make many shows free or free-with-RSVP to help foster those relationships.
He also hopes that Robert’s Westside can become a place where people socialize and connect with each other.
“I’m of the opinion that we need to put our phones away and get back out there and engage in real life and have a community,” Biggins said. “That is the community that I love, sitting at the bar and having conversations with someone I don’t know. I would love to see the community engagement, and I would love to see real conversations, away from the Internet. We’ve just fallen in a horrible habit of [online] conversations that can go the wrong way because you’re not actually in person with each other. I want to be positive about it and encourage people to really come back in real life and enjoy.”