A young trio’s intimate River North venue is making major waves in the city’s music scene.
“Abby is one of the most connected people in the house music scene, not only in Chicago, but across the country,” Conner says of his co-founder.
“I can always tell when it’s someone’s first time coming into The Listening Room,” shares 29-year-old Drew Conner. “The first person in the group will walk through the door, then turn around, look at their friends, and go, ‘Holy…’” As Conner describes this experience as one of his favorite parts of his job, I recall my first time walking into TLR, which is discreetly nestled below Yours Truly, Oyster Bar in River North. I was tipped to check the place out by an in-the-know friend shortly after it opened about a year ago, but as someone who doesn’t listen to house music, I was hesitant to walk into the unmarked venue on Wells Street. “There was a gap in the market in Chicago as a lot of the places playing house music were uninviting, a little damp and cold, and, overall, not very approachable,” he says. “So, we wanted to live in between the underground rave scene and any other bar in Chicago. We want people to meet in the middle and come as they are.”
Chicago-based DJ and producer Side Project is a House Calls resident artist.
Conner, a former Chicago Fire player from Cary, Ill., found himself at a crossroads in life when his professional soccer career came to an end. For fun—and for free—he started programming house music events under the company name House Calls at Fulton Market barbershop/cocktail lounge Blind Barber with his friends, co-founders Abby Lagunov and executive partner Cody Kirby. As the demand for these sets grew, so did their desire to open their own boutique space, and, soon enough, the location was secured.
“We want to create a space where artists want to come and play,” says Conner.
Inside, the dimly lit space, holding less than 200 people, transports guests to a sexy, retro era—when doctors still offered house calls—via dazzling disco balls, groovy green walls, chic cream-hued ceiling lamps dripping with tassels, and rugs that make the room feel cozy. This 1920s-informed aesthetic also lives on House Calls’ TikTok and Instagram profile, which gained nearly 12,000 followers in just over a year, and Conner credits much of the brand’s growth to smart social media marketing.
Drew Conner, Cody Kirby and Abby Lagunov
“I’ve always been inspired by boutique spaces, like Blind Barber and [West Loop cocktail club] Money Gun, that juxtaposed a really impressive interior design and dim lighting with music that bumps.” He also credits his grandmother Karen Conner (former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne’s first director of special events) as a major inspiration, given her work in helping launch iconic activations like Taste of Chicago and the Chicago Jazz Festival.
On-the-rise artist Side Project creates an electric atmosphere at TLR.
As house music sees a resurgence since pioneers such as Ron Hardy and Phuture paved the way at clubs like Music Box in the ’80s, the timing couldn’t be better for House Calls to take off. “When DJs who have played massive festivals across the world (like Israeli-born DJ Shahar Shetrit and Spanish artist Miane—both of which made their Chicago debut at TLR) come to our little listening room in Chicago, they get a nostalgic feeling that takes them back to when they first started playing. It’s becoming a major destination for some of the best house DJs in the world,” says Conner. As a guest, I, too, feel a wave of nostalgia for a bygone time whenever I step into that small venue with a big sound—and it's an incredible experience the up-and-coming House Calls team is bringing to Chicago’s music scene. 613 N. Wells St., @_housecalls_
Conner shares that by opening TLR, House Calls has been able to collaborate with artists across subgenres within the house scene and bring in audiences of all ages.
Photography by: PHOTOS BY OLIVIA WOLF