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Commonwealth takes a new approach to downtown clubbing

Crimson Lounge’s Commonwealth night provides a haven from downtown club monotony.

Photograph: Chad Payne
commonwealth wednesdays, Crimson Lounge

River North is the epicenter of Chicago nightlife. Clubs offer revelers themes on a grand and global scale. Bathing yourself in the icy blue hues of Tzar is like stepping into the Moscow underground. Heading across the street, you can sip drinks in the Turkish bazaar that is Crescendo. Yet, for all this worldly variety, the dominant soundtrack can be painfully monotonous.

With its deep reds and purples, its vintage boudoir furniture and its neatly partitioned nooks for soaking up bottles of vodka, the Victorian-themed Crimson Lounge in the Sax Hotel could easily get lumped in with its neighbors, but since last September the spacious and sexy club has been making great strides to come out ahead of the pack. The sound system has received an overhaul, and the DJ bookings have ramped up significantly, especially for its weekly Wednesday industry night, Commonwealth.

“The goal was to do something that wasn’t being done—like I would hope everyone would want to do,” explains Sadie Woods, one of the party’s organizers and its versatile resident DJ, during a recent chat at the venue. “You don’t have this type of night going on, so there was a conscious effort to try and bring some culture downtown so that people would have an alternative to what’s going on.”

Noting that the vast majority of downtown nightspots focus too heavily on Top 40 radio hits and a Vegas-like soundtrack, the 33-year-old teamed with Crimson Lounge general manager Arman Razavi—the veteran Chicago promoter behind Music 101—to build a night that focused on underground house, disco, indie dance (à la DFA) and emerging trends, and served as a respite for the ’hood’s bartenders, servers and DJs.

Since June, Commonwealth has offered a midweek haven of sultry underground sounds from international and local talent alike. Its kickoff party boasted Parisian disco maestro Dimitri from Paris, and in August, the jazzy-soulful BBC Radio tastemaker Gilles Peterson made his first Chicago appearance in more than five years there.

“My goal over here was not to force the space to fit the music but to make the music fit the space,” says Razavi, 45, of his nightly programming. “We don’t want to bring some trance or techno DJ that is going to come over here and blow out the windows. We don’t want to be really mellow either. We want to be somewhere in the middle. Gilles is a good example of that.”

On the local front, Woods has booked respected names in Chicago house like Ron Trent and Diz as well as eclectic staples like party-rocker Zebo and dusty groover Tim Zawada (full disclosure, I’ve also deejayed the night). “Originally it was based off of Lono Brazil’s Disco Unusual Social Club,” Woods says. “We wanted to do something in that vein—disco, rare groove and cocktail music that everyone can get into. Then it became more free-form, we didn’t want to limit people.”

Every week may not be overflowing with people, but crowds are taking note, especially the savvy, hip types who used to frequent forward-thinking music destination Sonotheque. “It’s a different group of people, people that are deep into music culture, DJ culture and appreciate it,” says Woods. Sonotheque’s closing in ’09 left a void of intimate places to hear forward-thinking underground dance music. With Commonwealth, Razavi, Woods and Crimson Lounge have filled it.

German DJ Sharam Jey brings his expansive tastes to Crimson Lounge on Wednesday 23.

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