There’s a reason people stand outside in line during Chicago’s brutal winter months, teeth chattering, waiting to descend the staircase into Smart Bar’s steamy, 400-person capacity dancefloor: the club’s line-ups are unparalleled. And Marea Stamper, aka The Black Madonna, is the woman booking the bill. When your venue’s music director also happens to be one of the most lauded underground DJs in America – nay, the world – you can pretty much assume that it will climb to the top of any “Best Of” poll. Tucked into an unassuming edifice on North Clark Street, just two blocks from Wrigley Field, the historic no-frills club has been going strong since 1982 – long before half of the people reading this were even a zygotic glimmer in their parents’ eyes.
Known for cultivating and elevating local Chicago talent (lest any young’uns forget, the 312 is the birthplace of your beloved house music) alongside established dance music legends, Smart Bar is as beloved by locals as by visiting talent and out-of-town clubbers. Case in point: The New Yorker writing this review swore, after just a single visit this year, that Smart Bar boasts the most impressive vibe of any club, in any city in the US. It’s just fun; open, wild and free of pretense, which is exactly what dance music should be.
True to dance music’s roots, Smart Bar’s musical partnerships span the cultural spectrum, with plenty of queer-friendly nights, celebration of female DJs with its month-long Daphne series, and showcase of Detroit techno with Interdimensional Transmissions. With an eclectic mix of resident talent like Chicago legend Derrick Carter, DJ Heather, Jeff Derringer, Chrissy, Jason Kendig (of Honey Soundsystem) and of course, The Black Madonna herself, Smart Bar has enough groove to suit anyone’s mood. Suffice to say, the spirit of Frankie Knuckles, the undisputed Godfather Of House and longtime resident of Smart Bar, remains alive and well within its walls.
The other nominees:
The Grasshopper Underground (Detroit, MI)
The Old Miami (Detroit, MI)
The Mid (Chicago, IL)
Primary (Chicago, IL)