Heartland Cafe Takes Back Long-Running ‘Open Mic’ Night

Luke Hyland"In One Ear" is back at Heartland Cafe after its previous location space was bought by the cafe.
Red Line TapSince the shift to the Red Line Tap, “In One Ear” has gained an even larger audience. Red Line Tap

A more than 30-year-old open mic tradition recently found a new scene after several location changes in Rogers Park.

“In One Ear” is the third-longest running open mic in Chicago and has hosted artists every Wednesday since 1987. The open mic originated at the No Exit Cafe in Rogers Park, but moved to The Heartland Cafe in 1999 when the former location closed down.

The weekly event moved again this spring from The Heartland Cafe (7000 N. Glenwood Ave) to the nearby location of the former Red Line Tap (7006 N. Glenwood Ave). The Heartland purchased the Red Line Tap and moved “In One Ear” to the space at the end of May. While the change may seem small, the location shift has created an opportunity for “In One Ear” to draw in a new crowd. The aesthetic changed from a family setting to a much more mature and edgy setting.

The open mic was previously in the dining room of the Heartland Cafe and, while it was a steady setup, the new venue is a more ideal spot for performances, including a small stage. Bigger shows can now be held without getting noise complaints from the neighbors. The Heartland Cafe, made up of a market, “Buffalo Bar” and dining room, is trying to change its scene into a more “proper” restaurant and is moving its Buffalo Bar to the space of the former Red Line Tap down the street.

The Phoenix spoke with Pete “Wolf” Winninger, owner of the open mic, about the recent change.

“What we gained by going to the Buffalo Bar is we’ve got a full studio, professional setup,” Winninger said.

Winninger said the atmosphere of the show has changed since the move, especially with the addition of the stage.

“[It] feels a little more grand,” he said. “It’s like putting on a fancier coat.”

The venue — a dark, sultry bar that is sparsely decorated with edgy, bison skulls and decor of the like — finds itself packed with patrons each Wednesday for the open mic. It has the aesthetic of an artsy dive bar and comes fully equipped with a stage and ample seating. It’s pretty small, between two other local businesses, but still big enough to host a large crowd. The menu offers bar food and drinks to those ages 21 and over.

Only steps from its former location, regulars of the open mic still attend the event, and Winninger said Heartland employees have started coming to the show after their shifts to be a part of the tradition. The open mic now takes up the entire space, as opposed to before when it was held in one of three rooms at the cafe.

Winninger said he loves the work done to completely rid the space of its Red Line Tap appearance.

“[It is set up so] we can do big shows and keep that intimate feel,” he said.

Winninger expressed his gratitude toward the Heartland for being so accommodating to his show. The Heartland does not charge performers for the weekly special event because “In One Ear” brings in customers who pay for their own equipment.

“There’s not a better venue for us,” Winninger said.

“In One Ear” has survived more than thirty years as a weekly open mic for two reasons. One, they have a weekly featured performer. Typically, each artist gets about five minutes of stage time to do whatever it is he or she pleases, granted the show remains peaceful and civil. The feature then performs an entire set. He or she promotes the show, bringing in a unique crowd. The second reason “In One Ear” is successful is because they charge a cover fee at the door.

The $3 fee accounts for equipment upkeep, supplies, the featured act and pocket change for the staff of the show, according to Winninger. It has been able to keep the show afloat.

Winninger joked, “[It] doesn’t make enough money to pay for my bar tab.”

The staff of “In One Ear” includes hosts Gregory Curry and Billy Tuggle, cover collector and bouncer Sara King and owner and organizer Winninger, who are all currently working on getting new gear. By saving up from the cover charge each week, they hope to eventually purchase a Sony A9 mirrorless camera, according to Winninger. This way, they can film shows and improve their online presence. Winninger said social media and the internet — along with the mic’s former static dining room setup — were causing a decline in artists and poets coming to a live open mic.

However, at the new Heartland stage, audience numbers are rising once again. Winninger wants a 20-person minimum each week, minus staff, and said that this year they are averaging in the 30s. In the past few years they averaged 15-20 people.

Winninger is still looking to expand the scope of “In One Ear,” with a goal of doing more than just a weekly event. He said he would love to eventually be able to put on “In One Ear” spotlight shows at various locations.

A new venue means new promise for an event like “In One Ear.” Open mic nights, especially predominantly spoken word open mic nights, are becoming more of a rarity, offering people a chance to gather and express their art in a safe space. “In One Ear” is held every Wednesday at 10 p.m. Signup begins at 9 p.m. and is open to all ages, but performers younger than 18 years old must be accompanied by a guardian.  The Heartland stage at the new Buffalo Bar welcomes all students, poets, musicians and observers.

Winninger hopes to see more people performing, and he would love to see more of a presence of Loyola students in particular.

“I want people to be inspired to do their own stuff. That’s what I want the show to be every week,” he said.

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