It was one of those nights for the books. After catching a great show Saturday by the Redwalls at the Sheffield Garden Walk, I headed over to Metro’s 25th anniversary party, held at the venue and at its downstairs sibling, Smart Bar. The invite-only party was thrown for Metro friends and alumni-people like Peter Katsis, one of the spot’s first bookers who now manages artists including Korn and Chris Cornell, and George Oberzut, Metro’s first-and still the primary-manager. When Metro owner Joe Shanahan first sent out a save-the-date notice for the party, he immediately received 250 RSVPs from former employees. “That number quickly jumped to 600,” he said on Saturday.
Jody Margolis, 43, a former employee, flew in from L.A. for the bash. “I was underage when I started working here-18 years old,” she told me. “I ran the elevator.” Today there are stairs, but when Metro opened in 1982, an elevator ferried guests between Metro and Smart Bar. Back then, Margolis had blue-green hair and hung out with the musicians after the shows. Now a real estate broker, she says she misses her Metro days: “There was-and still is-nothing like this place.”
Metro began 25 years ago, when R.E.M., the first band the venue booked, performed for an audience of 500-not even a sold-out show, Shanahan told me. “I placed my first advertisement in the Chicago Reader, handed out flyers, and hoped someone would show up,” he wrote in Saturday’s program. The crowds didn’t stay away for long. Metro quickly became a launching pad for then-emerging artists like The Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and INXS. “We’ve always been the place for bands to play before they hit it big,” Shanahan said. “Bands feel like this is the place to play because of the other bands that have played here before them.” (In addition to R.E.M.’s gig in 1982, a young Nirvana played the venue in 1989.)
“I’ve been going to see shows at Metro since the early 1990s,” said Ari Bendersky, editor in chief of the entertainment and lifestyle magazine UR Chicago. “Seeing some of the bands that have passed through this hall-Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Nirvana, Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam-makes you realize just how important Metro is.”
I asked Shanahan what the biggest change has been since the venue celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 1992. “Change is a double-edged sword,” he said. “As corporate America discovered alternative rock, more underground bands became mainstream.” While that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the music industry, it has changed the face of alternative rock. After all, there was a time when Nirvana wasn’t considered mainstream.
Although Metro has managed to stay on the cutting edge of the music scene, Shanahan is about as down to earth as they come-despite a roster of friends that could fill a tabloid. The night after a sold-out Coldplay show at the Metro a few years back, I remember seeing Shanahan and his wife mingle with Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow in the green room at a U2 concert as if they were old friends.
But on Saturday, Shanahan was focused more on the people who have helped make Metro successful. Around midnight, he took the stage to thank everyone who’s been a part of the venue’s history. “Past, present and future-it’s music first,” he said before introducing the night’s headlining DJ, Peter Hook of New Order and Joy Division.If other party goers felt like I did, it was a night when we weren’t just part of Metro’s history, but also its future-and it’ll be a long one.