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Chicago Tribune (US)
September 18, 1998


By Monica Eng, Tribune Staff Writer

It was a lot like any Saturday night at Lounge Ax. The bodies were hot and close. The beer was cold and wet. And the music was loud.

But a look at the light beams and a sniff in the air revealed something remarkably different.

No smoke.

That's because the evening's featured performer was Jimmie Dale Gilmore -- Texan, singer, songwriter and guy who just cares about his voice.

In the world of pop, folk and alt-country there are few more distinctive warbles than Gilmore's and he'd like to keep it that way.

"My entire life, I never did smoke," Gilmore said during a recent chat in Birmingham, Ala., where he was performing at an outdoor festival. "I just didn't like the smell of it to begin with. . . . Then when I started singing professionally, you know really night after night, it hurt my voice and . . . caused me to lose my voice if I sang too many hours."

So, slowly, the Grammy-winning performer, who plays a circuit of normally smoky facilities, began to make a special request.

"I don't demand it," explained the singer, who will play a smoke-free show at FitzGerald's Oct. 24. "But I request it. And most of the time -- like 99 percent of the time -- the way things are these days, there's a lot of sympathy. In fact, most of the clubs are very happy about it. Because they can say, 'At the artists request . . .' and I'm very sincere about it. I would prefer that people don't smoke."

Gilmore isn't alone. In the past decade -- even as music clubs and bars have become the smoker's last refuge -- more and more artists have been making this request.

These performers include big-name draws like Elvis Costello and Tori Amos, alt-country heroes Gilmore and Iris Dement, rocker Robert Fripp, alterna- folkie Patty Larkin and, most surprising, Gen-X nymph Fiona Apple.

While Apple, who has imposed this rule at her past two shows at the Riviera Nightclub, did not want to comment on this choice, one fan who attended the show did.

"It was really annoying," said the attendee, who requested anonymity. "If I had known, I wouldn't have gone."

Still, many others seemed to appreciate the breatheable air. Jazz Showcase owner Joe Segal said he saw an increase in customers when his club went no- smoking almost 10 years ago.

Jam Productions booker and former smoker Nick Miller said there are certain artists who request the no-smoking policy less as an anti-smoke statement than as part of creating a certain atmosphere.

"Fiona is the biggest one that I can think of offhand, and (the Riviera) is a pretty big room to ask people not to smoke. But she did, and people obliged her for the most part," he said. "We get it at the Park West a lot, like at shows we did for Tori Amos and Robert Fripp recently. But for certain artists it is more of a courtesy to their audience in general. I know that Tori Amos likes to have things a certain way in the room, whether it be not serving alcohol during the show or not clinking bottles, she just has an environment that she likes to create and there is no smoking in there."

While Amos also chose not to comment on her no-smoking requests, Larkin was very vocal about her reasons for including it in her contract.

"I think for a vocalist it's like going for a run and smoking a cigarette at the same time," says Larkin, who has had a no-smoking stipulation in her performance contracts for at least four years. "I've become so accustomed to concert settings and cabaret settings where there is no smoking, when I occasionally go to a place where there is some smoking going on, it makes a big difference. It gets in the throat and coats the throat. You can really tell the difference."

While Larkin makes the request to protect her voice, Fripp and plenty of instrumentalists at the Showcase appreciate it too.

"Robert always requests no smoking every time he does a show," Miller said. "Since he doesn't sing, I am assuming that he just doesn't want it too smoky in there. He just wants to breathe."

To some smokers, demanding a smoke-free environment for a few hours of performing time may seem like an artist's caprice, but Miller looks at it from the performers side. "These people are on the road . . . and in that environment nearly every night of their life," he said.

Still, some artists whose lungs have paid the price for years in smoky bars don't feel they can make this kind of demand on their smoking fans. In an almost surreal episode last January at FitzGerald's, fans puffed away as they watched asthmatic singer Johnny Paycheck try to sing while he coughed, gasped and sucked on his inhaler on stage just feet away.

While Miller has noticed that some fans will grumble about the policy, he never has had a major protest. Nor has FitzGerald's (formerly Schubas) booker Anastasia Davies.

"Even the smokers that would come out (into the bar to smoke) would say that this is a great idea," said Davies. "They were very positive about it." But even where cigarettes are permitted, another type of smoking has become a very unwelcome guest.

"I think the influx of cigars and their popularity now may be one of the reasons people are requesting no smoking," says Jam talent buyer Dave Rockland, whose job requires him to attend several shows a month. "I'm a smoker, but cigars drive me nuts."

Lounge Ax owners have combated this new trend and others with a catch-all sign that warns patrons of the proprietor's pet peeves.

"We have one sign that says no cigars and another that says no cigars, pipes or those dumb little clove cigarettes," says Julia Adams of Lounge Ax. "It's bad enough with the cigarette smoke. But we do have three air cleaners in here, and they don't seem to do a thing on cigars. And so we just figured its a small enough room and we just have those two signs up and we ask them in a very nice way and point to the signs.

"I've had maybe a couple of guys be (jerks) about it and say, 'You let people smoke cigarettes.' So I say 'Well, this is my bar and I just don't like it,' and then they are really nice about it."

But smokers shouldn't fear that their days of listening to music while drinking and smoking are over. The trend is still new.

"In my opinion it is still a very minor thing," Miller observed. "I don't even know if I would call it a trend yet because it has happened so infrequently."

Still, it doesn't stop Miller from hoping for a day when going out to a show will not mean coming home smelling like "one big cigarette."

"I would like to see it happen as a big trend," he said. "I would love to see people just insist on non-smoking shows."

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