Great bars have great bar staff. In the heyday of the old Cicero's, for example, there was an unforgettable series of sirens behind the spigots: Heather, Jennifer, Eve, and so on. These women all displayed various admixtures of gut-splitting sexiness and seen-it-before hipness that had a way of reminding you that you were at the best gig in town even when, musically speaking, you weren't. (Doorman Mike Blake often seemed to do a similar trick for admirers of the tattooed male form.) Something like this also happens at the Way Out Club, thanks to the folks behind the bar, though hormones are not what primarily work this magic.
Barman Bob Putnam has a cuddly cuteness, and his co-owner/wife, Sherri Lucas-Putnam, has a cuddly cuteness and then some, but sirenlike sex is not really their appeal. For their younger regulars, Bob and Sherri have the iconic power of ideal parents: They are smart, they are hip, they are loving, they let you drink and smoke (encourage you to do so, in fact), and they don't always enforce the curfew -- "last call" deserves scare quotes on a good night at the Way Out. And for all the regulars, including those closer in age to Bob and Sherri and those not looking for a cool mommy or daddy, they simply add to the atmosphere of an ideal hangout.
You can see it in the freaky, fragmented, giggle-a-minute décor, which amounts to a minimuseum of campy pop art, and you can pick it up barside over a shot (which either host will be happy to share with you) or a beer (enjoy the small, quirky selection). This couple watches way-out movies, reads way-out poetry, listens to way-out music and openly adores people who also take a way-out approach to the problems of art and existence. The venue is aptly named, and it's named after their hearts, because their collective personality is the Way Out Club, and it rocks, totally. (There is even something rock & roll about the couple's being biracial, given the biracial roots of the music itself.)
If all this sounds a bit too cliquish for you, you wouldn't be the first to cop that vibe, but it's a premature judgment. There may be regulars who like to monopolize Bob's time, feel cool and crowd out newcomers, but fuck 'em. Like all genuinely way-out people, Bob and Sherri don't have any litmus test for hipness. They are open to all comers (and their business, of course), and Bob especially is always hungry for a fresh point of view to chew over. Wait for that dogmatically way-out dude hogging the handsome wooden bartop to take a leak, then swoop in on the bartender. Talk to him or her about life, poems, films, catastrophes. You'll be glad you did.
But what about the music? It's happening in the other room; go check it out. It might be the smoldering guitars of the Tripdaddys or the sweet-but-edgy pop of Nadine; it might be something far less inspiring. On a bad night, just hope it's not so loud that Bob goes hoarse before set break, when you'll want to be jawing with him. On a good night, you'll find a classy venue in which to experience rock music. As Adam Reichmann of Nadine says, "The new music room is like a high-ceilinged saloon. The higher stage is a little less informal compared to the old location, but it makes the band more of an event -- something that goes well with the Way Out's sense of drama." The sightlines are good; the sound usually doesn't suck; there is even space to dance. And the room is actually ventilated better than the music space at the old Way Out, but then again, the same must also be true of the lowest circle of hell.
We should talk about hell a bit if we are talking about a rock club's merits. You don't have to applaud self-destruction to think that a great rock club should be a little scary, maybe a little evil. For all its loving-family atmosphere, the Way Out delivers on this score, and not only when Fred Friction is present and inebriated -- which occurs less and less often now that the South Side Lucifer has taken over the reins of Frederick's Music Lounge on Chippewa. South Jefferson is a mean-ass street, and not all the creepy sadness that you see walking into a place that calls itself "way out" is a put-on, worn for effect to look cool on Saturday night. There is a deep end, way out there. It's stocked with alcohol. You shouldn't drown in it, but it might be nice to take a deep dive when the guitars get loud, the crowd feels restless, Bob looks ready for a shot and you have a pretty good hunch that the "last call" won't be the last call tonight.
-- Chris King