A guy in a Cubs hat is rarely worth talking about in this city. It's an even odder topic of discussion when, sitting not 15 feet away, is another guy with a foot-tall Mohawk and detached sideburns. So why, with the bevy of people-watching options at the California Clipper
last Friday night, did my friend Scott point out the random Cubbie-loving dude sitting alone at the table next to us?
"That's the mark of a good bar," he said. "If you can sit alone and no one judges you." You can forgive Scott for his apparent social anxiety; the last bar we'd been to together was the Gramercy. Besides, he's been a bit more aware of how people interact ever since he started his Ph.D. program last fall. In any case, the Clipper is most certainly a good bar; to me, it's almost better if you can't pinpoint the reason why.
We were welcomed into the long room by a pervasive dim, red glow (by the end of our visit, I began to have a hankering for some Kenny Rogers Roasters). Several tables were scattered throughout the middle of the room leading up to the elevated stage in the back corner, where delta blues guitarist Josh Kalmus and his band held court. A long row of red diner-style booths with mirrors lined one wall; the bar and what looked like a built-in gift shop took over most of the other.
We ordered a couple pints from the selection of Guinness-family beers on tap and settled in, not a difficult thing to do in a place where everyone seems very comfortable. The crowd swelled from about 30 people around 10 p.m. to much more than that by midnight, but the general makeup was much the same. That's not to say it's homogenous; unlike many self-consciously retro spots, it's hard to identify what kind of person comes to the Clipper beyond a rough age range (20s-30s). There's the obligatory smattering of hipsters, many of whom surely live in low-rent flats in the surrounding Humboldt Park neighborhood. But you don't get the dominating 'too-cool-for-school' vibe as can happen in these parts. On the contrary, everyone just seems happy to be here, without thinking about it too much, from the girl pointing her large camera at everything that moved to the guy carefully swilling Chimay at the bar.
You could say that what holds it all together, at least on the weekends, is the music (an even mix of country, rockabilly and blues). In our experience, it didn't take over the night any more than anyone wanted it to—you wouldn't assume, for example, that this was Mohawk-man's most preferred genre, but you didn't see him shying away from it, either.
I'd call the music neutral, but that wouldn't be giving enough credit to Kalmus and his band, whose Delta blues are as authentic and gritty as you're likely to find this far north. The bandleader has an impressive finger-picking style, and his harmonica player had Scott once again pining for lessons. The band makes a difficult thing seem easy, in much the same way that the Clipper effortlessly radiates cool.
Since he's played here regularly, Kalmus surely has a sense of the bar's diverse clientele, and directed his between-song patter accordingly. "If you like what you hear," he said, "we've got a CD for sale, for $5, or a shot of whiskey." Almost as an afterthought, he added, "Go Bears!"
I didn't catch it in time, but I'm almost certain the dude in the Cubs hat raised a fist in celebration. And it wasn't only because his friends were on the way.
The California Clipper (1002 N. California Ave.) hosts free live music every Friday and Saturday night beginning at 10 p.m.
Ben Rubenstein jumps under the covers every other week in an ongoing search for freebie music that rocks. If you know of a no-cover night he should check out, email him.