Musicians in ‘L’ stations brighten commutes for passengers

Musicians in ‘L’ stations brighten commutes for passengers
The Redline Lounge performs at the Jackson Red Line stop almost every weekday. The soul band is comprised of six members and normally receive large crowds. (Photo by Mariah Woelfel | The DePaulia)

There are a few things you can count on when you are riding the Red Line to DePaul’s Loop campus: the sound of the conductor’s voice, sometimes apathetic, other times overly enthusiastic, announcing the next stop; the passenger on the phone broadcasting the woes of his or her dysfunctional relationship to the rest of the train car; and perhaps a faint smell of urine, or the opposite, the intrusive smell of an overly perfumed group of tourists.

Arrive at the Jackson Red Line between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. on a weekday, though, and you’ll find something unique, and tasteful. This is when the elongated, arched ceiling subway stop becomes soul group The Redline Lounge’s music venue.

The band — two saxophonists, a drummer, a guitarist, a bassist and a singer — performs every Monday through Friday. Some days you might find all six of them, other days there will be two. But you can count on a crowd of at least 20.

“When people come and they hear us playing and they’re waiting for the trains on their way home from work, they will let two or three trains go by before they actually leave, which is where the lounge part comes in,” drummer Dave Russell said.

On a Wednesday afternoon this happened about four times — people missing trains in both directions to enjoy the music, a fusion of soul, R&B, blues and funk.

“I miss about three trains usually, but if they’re playing all the hits that I know then I’ll stay a lot longer and just listen. Like with this, I’ll stay,” Carly Thornton, a freshman at DePaul, said as “Brick House” played in the background. Thornton, whose dad played in bands her entire childhood, grew up listening to ‘70s and ‘80s classics. She sings along with almost every song The Redline Lounge churns out.

Russell, along with the four to five other members of The Redline Lounge, comes to the station with over 40 years of experience. Starting on the drums at five years old, Russell has participated in the Chicago Blues Festival for over 30 years and, most notably, has recorded with famed American blues guitarist and singer Frank “Son” Seals, who died in 2004. Others in the band can be found at different venues, with different groups throughout the city. One has a degree in music and another a degree in animation from Columbia College.

“It’s a lot of fun being around cats that are just yolked,” Russell said. “It’s like finding your soulmate, or your husband or wife, and y’all just hit it off so well and you’re like ‘Oh yeah, this is for me.’ It’s a bond thing that happens as far as music is concerned. Everyone’s on the same level and that’s exciting.”

This dynamic is evident in their performance. Their sets play without pause and usually start with a single chord from one musician, as the others start nodding their heads, following suit and chiming in shortly after.

“It’s like finding your soulmate, or your husband or wife, and y’all just hit it off so well and you’re like ‘Oh yeah, this is for me.’ It’s a bond thing that happens as far as music is concerned. Everyone’s on the same level and that’s exciting.”

Dave Russell, drummer for Redline Lounge

However meshed they are today, the formation of The Redline Lounge was somewhat happenstance. The drummer, Russell, and bassist, Gerald, knew each other from a recording they did “back in the day” and were both looking for a band when they ran into each other three years later; the saxophonists, Roger and Damien, happened to be walking by, looking for a band to join; same with the lead guitarist, Lawrence, and singer, Norman.

They have been street performing together, in some variation or another, for about a year now.

“Street performing is the ultimate test of skill, because if people don’t like you, they’re not going to drop money,” Damien, the saxophonist with an animation degree from Columbia, said. “You know how good you are because people stop, they’ll listen, they’ll hand you money. It’s just a matter of, well, how much do you like us?”

Abby Johnson, a sophomore at DePaul, dropped $1.25.

“I absolutely love that I can come down here and hear live music. I just think it’s cool. If they make me smile, I feel obligated to give them money,” she said.

The business of street performance is just like any other: when it comes down to it, profit is dictated largely by competition, and, in this market, competition is dictated by access to performance locations.

“Years ago, you could play on any platform. Anywhere. You just had to get a license, but now there’s only three legal stops to play at and there’s like 80 people with licenses,” Malik, a licensed Chicago street performer, said. “It’s not so much about the people, but it’s the politics of playing down here. It’s almost not worth it.”

The CTA charges $10 annually for a license — different from the $100 biennial charge for a City of Chicago performance license — and the three legal performance stations are Jackson Red, Blue and Washington Blue lines. During the summer months, restricted CTA access isn’t as much of a problem, when many performers take advantage of outdoor performance areas. But imagine strumming a guitar in 30 degree weather and you see how crucial CTA locations are from November to March.

For established groups like The Redline Lounge, this isn’t too much of a problem.

“We just stand down here and heckle people until they finish what they’re doing,” Gerald said.

The Jackson Red Line not only offers warmth, but, according to Damien, it makes for good vibrations.

“I love what it does to the horn,” Damien said. “It gives it this natural reverb that you can’t get anywhere else.”

After about an hour of hits from artists like The Commodores, Hall and Oates and Maxwell, Gerald collected $40 and split it evenly between the four members who showed up that day.

Adam Turman, a saxophonist and DePaul School of Music graduate, said it’s insane to think about musicians with college degrees, or even with great talent, making $10 an hour. He  has respect for people who are able to live with that sort of instability, though, acknowledging that, unfortunately, not everyone is afforded equal opportunities.

While some are motivated by survival, others do it for fun. Russell summed up the passion for performance that each member, and perhaps many other musicians, shares:

“Music, it has no prejudice, no racial boundaries. Music, you could speak another language. Say, for example, you were Hispanic or Asian; if we got together to play a piece of music, we’re all speaking the same language,” he said. “Music, everybody’s on the same page. That’s how we like to connect to people down here.”

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