Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen (left) and son Miles Nielsen playing in Ravenswood on Friday night. | Bob Chiarito/For the Sun-Times
During last year’s pandemic shutdown, music lovers John Culver and his wife Kathy Tynus found a way to provide some income to bands while getting their music fix — by hosting small groups for backyard concerts.
Having members of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band show up and play in your back yard is usually the stuff of Hollywood legend, like when Jeff Spicoli hired Van Halen to play his birthday party in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
But Friday night in Ravenswood, Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, along with his son Daxx, who plays drums for the beloved band, surprised a small crowd at a backyard concert — even joining the scheduled band for a couple of songs.
The scene was the home of music lovers John Culver and his wife Kathy Tynus, who during the pandemic found a way to provide some income to bands while providing themselves and their friends a safe way to get their music fix — by hosting small groups at Culver’s home on Warner Avenue.
They asked their guests for voluntary $20 donations to the bands, providing a boost to musicians largely cut off from playing anywhere else.
(Andi Aguilar, a staffer for local Ald. Matt Martin (47th), said because the fee isn’t mandatory, the concerts are on private property and the shows end by 10 p.m., no permit is needed.)
Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts, who played at Culver’s last spring during the shutdown, were playing the yard again Friday. But Miles Nielson had no idea his father and brother Daxx also were in town.
Earlier that evening, Culver’s friend Billy Jacobs, who co-owns the Chicago pizza restaurant Piece with Rick Nielsen, received separate texts, first from Daxx, then from Rick, both telling him they were back from a private gig in Seattle and asking if he wanted to get together.
“I said, ‘Yeah, let’s get some pizza and beer and head up to see Miles and surprise him.’ And that’s exactly what we did,” Jacobs said.
Rick Nielsen walked into the yard carrying the pizza, with Daxx close behind, shocking both the crowd and Miles.
“I had no idea that they were going to show up,” Miles Nielsen said. “I heard my dad’s voice and turned to the right and there he was.”
A few minutes later, both joined Miles and his band and played two Cheap Trick songs — “Voices,” and “I Want You To Want Me.”
Last year, the yard had been limited to about 15 guests — though similar-sized groups also would sit in the yards of both his next-door neighbors — and also kick in donations.
This year, though venues have reopened, Culver and Tynus still host shows, since their friends — and the bands — love them. They also can invite more people, as outdoor COVID-19 restrictions have eased.
“We even had people sitting in folding chairs in the alley who would listen and donate to the bands,” Culver said.
Steve Mendel, a friend of the couple who hasn’t missed a show, said for many bands, even a crowd of 45 could add up to real money — “a lot more than a lot of these bands make playing at a club.”
Welsh rocker Jon Langford, best known for fronting The Mekons, and who also is in the Waco Brothers, played Culver’s yard three times.
“It was a real morale booster. We hadn’t played in a long time and it felt like a proper gig,” Langford said.
During the pandemic, he played quite a few virtual shows — “some that worked and some that felt like I was singing into my phone in my basement” but that was nothing compared to the vibe at Culver’s shows.
“It was pretty punk rock,” Langford said.
Judy Barahal, another friend of Culver’s, attended every backyard show.
“It really was a lifeline for those of us who have our social lives revolving around live music,” Barahal said, adding that “streaming a concert or attending a Zoom party paled in comparison.”
But Friday night was something else again.
“I am still pinching myself,” Barahal said afterward.
Mendel, who before the pandemic would see 150 live acts a year, simply added:
“It was a very special night.”
Unfortunately, because it was a surprise to even Culver, he wasn’t able to alert his wife, who was in bed at her South Loop home after leaving work early because she was sick.
“She was so bummed,” Culver said, adding that she wasn’t mad at him since he didn’t know.
That said, Culver may consider making it up to her at a future backyard show by pulling a real Spicoli. After all, original Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth will have a lot of free time soon, announcing this week that by January he will be retired. And after having half of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band play in his back yard, it might not be wise to think he couldn’t pull it off.