By Christian Schaeffer
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The waist-high stage and hardwood floors of Illegal Tone Recordings have seen their fair share of stomping feet. The thick walls have absorbed countless screams of enthusiastic showgoers. ITR has been a consistent and singular pillar of grass-roots music in Belleville, Illinois, since 2007. The management has provided an inclusive environment for local artists by keeping every show all-ages and alcohol-free. But on January 31, the doors will shut permanently, leaving behind a deep footprint in the history of local music.
In 2006, Erik Wolfe operated a small recording studio out of his second-story loft. A reference in name to Wolfe's former band Evil Illegal, ITR was first conjured as a modest recording space that catered to local artists. Wolfe quickly brought his ambitions to a larger building at 6 South Church Street right off of Belleville's main drag, a central location between the city of St. Louis and the greater rural areas of Illinois.
"Originally the space was made up of two big rooms separated by a wall with a ten-foot-by-ten-foot pass-through," says Wolfe. "One side would be the studio, and the other side, where the venue is now, was going to be a kitchen, family room and full bathroom so I could live there."
8 S. Church St.
Belleville, IL 62220
Category: Bars and Clubs
Region: Belleville/ Fairview Heights
But the space was destined for different things. "In July 2007 my band was planning a tour and thought it would be a good idea to play in Belleville," he says. "I had a big empty room with a small bathroom in the corner and lots of PA equipment, so it made sense to have the show there."
ITR opened at a vital time when other spots in Belleville stopped having concerts. The first show happened out of necessity, but the newly opened space was a perfect fit for a missing niche in the city's music scene.
"All these great people had extraordinary amounts of energy and just needed a place to let it explode. ITR was perfect for that. You have four walls, a small stage and a wide open room. I thought, 'What harm could come from it?'"
On September 7, 2007, a volunteer staff of Wolfe's friends and local artists ushered in an excited crowd to the new space. "The concept for the venue from the day it opened was to never have young people, whether they be in a band or not, feel like they were being judged. I wanted to give all bands a chance," says Wolfe. "There are a lot of kids and not a lot of places they can go and just be themselves without being judged."
Wolfe and his volunteer staff had a productive inaugural season, while new renovations occurred in the building every few weeks. Less than two months after launch, ITR hosted a Halloween celebration with more than 100 kids in attendance — a full house for the cozy show space. ITR was a communal effort from day one, as Wolfe's close friends worked security and kept an eye out for everyone's safety.
"I loved hosting the shows because all my friends would come out, and all of their friends would come out. I would manage the shows, but the lineup was up to whoever booked the show," Wolfe says. "For the most part everyone was on the same page and didn't want to fight or ruin anyone's evening, so there were few times one of us had to step in and actually be security."
A conventional venue with a bar tends to pay the bills with the sale of liquor and cover charges, but an art space such as ITR must rely on donations. When a venue's goals include attracting local acts as well as touring bands, money can become an issue.
"I made it known upfront that I can only afford to pay [the bands] a portion of what we get at the door. If the door does poorly, they don't get paid as much. ITR was a DIY space but had to be treated as a regular business at the same time," Wolfe says.
ITR had many contributors and volunteers, but none so dedicated as Josh Jenkins. Known for his exuberance as the frontman for Egg Chef and most recently Trauma Harness, Jenkins has spent the last five years booking and promoting concerts in and around the Belleville area.
"I pretty much was around ITR from the get-go. After school I'd drop by and just hang out as they were putting drywall up or repairing something, or just hear a goofy rap that Erik had recorded and laugh about it...hear him recollect stuff," Jenkins says.
ITR enjoyed half a year of gaining momentum until its success caught the attention of Belleville City Hall. In late March 2008 Wolfe was ordered to halt operations. The city of Belleville claimed that ITR was not in compliance with the teen center safety ordinance. The closure only sparked local interest and enthusiasm.
Pat Cadaver led a protest with several supporters through Belleville's Main Street, capturing the attention of local media. ITR volunteers and attendees showed a heavy presence at the city council meeting that followed. Cadaver represented the music community with a prepared speech, and Wolfe worked with the city, agreeing to a compromise. The once-shut doors of ITR were pried open again.