Fall Preview | Michael Dorf

The City Winery owner tells us what to expect from one of fall’s most buzzed-about music venues.
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Photograph: Nick Murway Michael Dorf
By Kim Bellware |
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If anyone knows the secret to a successful live show, it’s Michael Dorf. The entrepreneur-impresario behind New York City’s famed Knitting Factory and all-star tribute concerts at Carnegie Hall piloted a music venue–meets–winery concept with New York’s City Winery in 2008. This month, Dorf established the venue’s second outpost in a 100-year-old building on Randolph Street where, in one intimate setting, guests can drink in rock, jazz and gospel favorites, and a great pinot.

How does the Chicago City Winery compare to New York’s?
The music room is very comparable to New York; in both spaces we only sell 300 tickets. It’s big enough to where we can achieve some scale as far as payments to artists, yet the audience still feels like it’s an intimate show.

Given the ticket limit, how do you think City Winery stacks up against other venues in the city that are courting the same acts?
How we [opened with Lewis Black] is a perfect example of the way we’re achieving this unique position. He normally plays the Chicago Theatre. [City Winery] is one-tenth the size, but over seven shows in a row, we can actually pay him what he would be making [at Chicago Theatre]. For an artist like Lewis, he also has a lot of friends in the Midwest. I had this conversation with him about how Chicago is so great and he wishes he could spend more time here. Playing with us, he gets to.

You’re known for putting together tribute shows with veteran performers, but will you feature newer acts, too?
I hate saying the word veteran because it makes it sound old. We’re not going to focus on veterans, but we have the reality of seats to fill. I certainly would [say] “artists that have recognition.” Opening acts are a great way to get in an artist who would normally only draw 40 people and get them in a room of 300. That’s a good way to curate a fresh experience.

How does the wine-country vibe manifest itself in the venue space?
[One] thing we won’t do is two shows in a night; we’re really about letting an artist have their time. And we don’t want the audience to feel like [we’re saying] “Okay, you guys are done? Lights up! Get out of here! Next group come on in!” That’s not how we like to operate. We like a relaxed atmosphere.

City Winery is open now.

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