BRADLEY — The current COVID-19 restrictions in Illinois and across the country have brought live music to an almost complete standstill.
As Nick Huffman stood in the backyard of the bar he co-owns in Bradley, The Looney Bin, that hindrance is not lost on the once vibrant live music venue.
“I was reading an article just yesterday, and I saw that 90 percent of Chicago venues are expected to not come back,” said Huffman. “The Metro is already gone, the Troubadour [in West Hollywood, Calif.] is gone. I can’t wrap my head around that.”
According to Blockclub.org, many Chicago venues might not reopen. The Metro’s website said it’s temporarily closed, and the iconic Hollywood rock venue’s web pages indicate the same.
Huffman said the Bin is “barely” hanging on through the pandemic, but not even a recent fire in a storage room could sideline his plans to finish an outdoor stage behind his bar at 201 S. Schuyler Ave. He’s had to get creative to stay afloat.
“They’ve forced us into this situation where you’ve got to be innovative,” Huffman said.
Current restrictions limit bars to a 50% capacity, which Huffman said would cause the venue to lose money on music shows. He’s now putting the finishing touches on his outdoor stage.
Huffman credits Bradley Mayor Pro Tem Mike Watson for the idea of the outdoor stage.
“The mayor and I were talking, and he suggested it,” Huffman said. “I looked at him like he was crazy. I’ve been trying to do this for the last nine years, and they [previous administration] had fought me tooth and nail. He said, ‘Well, times are different now, and we need to adapt so let’s do right by you.'
“He put the idea in my head because I wouldn’t have tried again, considering all the times I’ve been told no. … He’s had our back big time through this whole thing.”
The village is also helping Huffman obtain a grant that will help pay for some of the utilities and rent. Watson sent someone from the village office to the Looney Bin with the paperwork.
“Now what kind of mayor proactively does that? … We’d have never known about it otherwise,” Huffman said. “He’s been a huge help for us.”
The rudimentary stage is being build out of some donated wood crates and lumber that was already on site. Huffman has received help from friends Betsy Kuypers and Brittany Huckabee.
“He’s just one of my best friends,” said Kuypers, who lives in Peotone and operates a petting zoo. “I have a little farm, and I get all these crates for free so I thought I would just drop them off here.”
Huffman painted the bar’s logo on the adjoining wall that’s the backdrop for the outdoor stage, and Noble Tattooing in Bradley is going to add a mural on the wall.
“The idea is to make it look like an apartment building,” he said.
They’re going to repurpose some iron-framed windows from the original building, which was the old home of the North Kankakee Electric Rail and Light Co., with possibly rock ‘n’ roll scenes painted on them.
“We’re going to do some things like that, and we’re going to try to make something unique,” Huffman said.
There will also be a 24-foot by 12-foot screen hung behind the stage that will allow for a video display. Huffman said he’s going to mimic what he and Scott Lucas, vocalist for Chicago’s Local H, collaborated on for drive-in theater music concerts in June in Gibson City.
“They could play old theater clips,” he said. “They could play band videos or put their logo up there. ... It’s kind of a mini version of the [drive-in shows].”
Huffman is also looking into putting another video screen opposite the band on an nearby billboard. He’s also working on the sound set-up.
“There’s actually a lot of simple Bluetooth stuff that puts out a lot of sound,” he said. “I’m just not sold on the idea because I’m old school in my head, but it might make more sense. We’re going to look into it, something that’s weather-proof.”
The Bin is supposed to host a small music show on Saturday by local band Bad Influence inside, but Huffman said he hasn’t got the OK yet due to the smoke damage from the fire.
“Now it’s kind of up and the air,” Huffman said. “I’m not sure. Are we able to audible back here? I don’t know. I’ll try.”
Having shows outdoors allows for more people to attend the concert.
“Back here, even with the social distance restrictions, we should be able to have a decent show anyway as opposed to inside, where it’s just impossible,” Huffman said.