Bartenders Shape the Sound of The Violet Hour in Chicago - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Bartenders Shape the Sound of The Violet Hour in Chicago

When The Violet Hour opened in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood in 2007, every element of its design—from the non-descript entrance to the Alice in Wonderland-esque chairs, velvet drapes, opulent chandeliers, and votive lighting—was meant to spark the senses, creating what partner and head mixologist Toby Maloney calls an organoleptic experience. Music has been integral to that experience, and the house soundtrack has always featured a custom mix of tracks that helps make each night feel unique and memorable. “The idea was that we wanted to invite people to a really cool party—to show off what we’re excited about with the drinks and hospitality, and music has always been an extension of that,” says general manager Abe Vucekovich. “Some places put on the same playlist every night, but here the bartenders are the DJs.”

Sometimes those DJs will choose one of the original playlists created by Violet Hour alumni Patrick Smith and Laura Mondae from WXRT, while other nights it could be a showcase of a favorite record, or something recently discovered by the current staff. “Most of our pre-Covid team were musicians and artists who were in tune with the local scene, so the music was never just top Pitchfork albums or songs that are popular.”

With creative liberty resting in the hands of bartenders, each night sounds different, depending on who’s working. “It’s an eclectic mix in terms of genres, usually driven by the tone and flow of the night,” adds Vucekovich. “Even if someone chooses a preset playlist, there’s usually a backup iPhone on deck so we can interject a track or album when needed. It happens very organically in that way, so it always seems to feel right when it happens.”

“Overall, it’s really an extension of the staff and their personalities. You’re gonna get to know who is working that night based on what’s playing,” Vucekovich says.

While this scenario could turn into a jukebox free-for-all in other scenarios, Vucekovich says every bartender tends to stay mindful of the vibe, choosing music that fits the day of the week and time of night. “It almost always starts a little delicate and chill, maybe even music without words or something ethereal for the first couple hours of service,” Vucekovich says. “From about 8 p.m. to midnight things crescendo in tempo, the volume might go up a little bit, but still with music that doesn’t distract from the experience.”

Special attention is also paid to the guests in the bar and how they’re reacting to the music. “If it’s a bunch of first dates, we’ll alter the music,” Vucekovich says. “If it’s a bunch of regulars we’ll adjust the music. We’re careful to never play something like Joshua Tree if the band members from U2 are sitting at the table in the corner (which happened once, by the way), because that would be weird.”

Here, Patrick Smith shares a playlist of the bar’s “greatest hits,” a collection that at times sounds low-key and ethereal, at others upbeat and jazzy. With artists like Billie Holiday sharing space with contemporary artists like Andrew Bird and Radiohead, a timeless and transportive vibe unfolds over time, evoking a sentiment similar to that of the bar’s namesake poem by Bernard DeVoto: “This is the violet hour, the hour of hush and wonder, when the affections glow and valor is reborn, when the shadows deepen along the edge of the forest and we believe that, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see the unicorn.”

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