Segal's 2013 EP, "Donnie Trumpet"
Segal's 2013 EP, "Donnie Trumpet"
Segal’s 2013 EP, “Donnie Trumpet”

Only open since Thanksgiving 2013, Riff seems a fitting place for a gathering of some of Chicago’s most up-and-coming young musicians. Owner Danny Bonilla is enthusiastic about the club’s future, and the place holds the same undercurrent of rampant young success that accompanies many of the young artists performing here. Situated on Michigan Avenue, twenty blocks south of the Loop, Riff still has that fresh new performance space/bar/recording studio smell—a mix of expensive furnishings, ambition, and a three dollar coat check. 

Riff is on the rise, and has attracted national acts like Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, and Maroon 5. This past Friday, though, the club demonstrated its local roots. Past and present members of the Chicago-based Save Money hip-hop crew were on the three-act bill. The concert was meant as a farewell to one of their own, Nico Segal, before he heads west to find new opportunities in Los Angeles. Segal’s show, as part of the farewell, brought together many different participants of the Chicago hip-hop, poetry, art, and music scenes, and served as a testament to the interconnected nature of the Chicago music and arts movements.

The venue itself is the latest extension of an existing enterprise, Pressure Point Recording Studios, which has been active in Chicago since the mid-nineties. Riff forms the bottom of a three-story venue, with a converted speakeasy on the top floor and a studio on the second floor where live acts can be recorded as they perform.

That studio is equipped with an SSL K9000 console, one of only seven in the country. While the state-of-the-art equipment has appealed to big name acts like Mariah Carey and Beyoncé, Bonilla said, “We were built for live music first and foremost, and I want to keep it that way.”

“To be honest with you, I’d prefer to have local artists come through here, Chicago based artists,” he explained. “It’s always fun for the staff and everyone to get famous people in here, it raises the profile of the studio, but at the end of the day I’d prefer to have a local artist come in here, and jam out.”

The night’s headliner was the soon-departing Nico Segal, a.k.a. Donnie Trumpet, a utility player from many Save Money projects now embarking on his own career. His final show was also the first in which he performed his own songs. The tone of departure was pervasive: all the acts were friends of Segal’s, and Segal’s departure was tinged with sadness for many of them.

Malcolm London, MC of the event, talked about how “this event is like one of those extreme bittersweet moments.” Lane Beckstrom, bassist from the opening act who played with now defunct Chicago group Kids These Days, summed it up as “a double edged sword, because he’s leaving, but he’s also going to a place where there’s gonna be a lot of opportunity for him and it’s gonna be awesome. So we’re gonna miss him, but he’s going somewhere to do a lot of cool stuff.”

Beckstrom and Macie Stewart, also formerly of Kids These Days, were the first musical performers of the night, and stayed true to the genre-bending nature of their shared musical background. Melding soul with funky walking bass lines and comped piano jazz riffs, layered with close vocal harmonies and Stewart’s soaring voice, they wove twee pop, a jazz combo, and the crooning of St. Vincent and Norah Jones into a soothing sonic garment.

Next came Chicago female rapper Noname Gypsy, who was featured on Chance the Rapper’s “Lost.” Armed with the signature Save Money surrealistic drone, biting lyrics and commentary, and a magnetic stage presence, Noname comes from the same mold as fellow South Side artists Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa. Despite a few flubbed lyrics, her magnetism put the entire audience on her side.

Segal capped off the show.

“It’s the culmination of a long process from going from a lot of different projects and things to really centralizing and becoming my own thing, and my own form of music,” he said.

Segal was a multifaceted dynamo. Part bandleader, part multi-instrumentalist, Segal directed his tight five-piece backing band with professional aplomb as he alternatively spat out ringing accents on his trumpet and padded the bottom of his arrangements with close keyboard rhythms. He shared solos with fellow keyboardist Peter Cottontail who loomed over his synth console wearing two floppy rabbit ears, as well as his marimba player, Thaddeus Tukes, whose mallets became a blur as he hammered out cascading runs on the keys. Segal’s ragged yet soulful croon, sometimes lifting into falsetto, lay over the top of everything.

Kevin Coval, creator of the Louder Than a Bomb poetry festival, introduced Segal with a poem that worked both as praise for Segal and a send-off to California. Segal himself brought on Jamila Woods and Owen Hill, both from the Chicago alt-soul/pop outfit Milo and Otis, to provide backing vocals and bass. Liam Cunningham, guitarist and vocalist for Kids These Days, as well as a new project with Mazie Stewart and Lane Beckstrom, wailed on a cover of “Something (In The Way She Moves)” by The Beatles. Maceo Haymes, from indie funk/soul group the O’Mys, turned the Riff into a Havana nightclub with his gritty Spanish guest vocals, and trombonist J.P. Floyd, who played with both Kids These Days and Frank Ocean, ended the show with a languid snippet of Chance the Rapper’s “Good Ass Intro.” The theme of the evening was collaboration even in the midst of departure. Together the musicians and artists created a joyful shared stage.

Caught by his merch table after the show, Segal expressed his loyalty to Chicago. “Save Money, to me,” he said, “is my friends, a group of all my friends. I’m putting Chicago on my back wherever I go.”

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