The Bug Jar Is the Place To Be

Photography by Matias Ardila
Photography by Matias Ardila
Photography by Matias Ardila
Photography by Matias Ardila

Gigantic flies continuously circling the bar, psychedelic art, furniture drilled into the ceiling? You must be at the Bug Jar! The Bug Jar is a fan-favorite concert venue and dive bar that brings in all sorts of people who cram into the concert space to see their favorite artists perform — acting like bugs in a jar.

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Previous owner Bob Duke is the mind behind this creative concept. The large windows on the walls resemble glass jars and emulate Duke's childhood memories of catching bugs. The current owner, Bobby T, has been thoroughly involved almost since the start, having been a DJ at the venue since 1991. 

The establishment has quite the history. When discussing its biggest moments, Bobby T mentioned how the Bug Jar briefly lost its entertainment license but rebounded by using the basement as a dance floor with DJs. 

“It was all DJ stuff back then," Bobby T said. "When [the Bug Jar] got their entertainment license back in around ‘93 or ‘94, they started doing live music.”

In the early 2000s, the venue would host a free music festival outside Highland Park called Bug Jar Fest, featuring a wide variety of aspiring local and national artists including John Spencer, the Sadies and the White Stripes. These festivals drew in eager audiences and helped bands on their journey to make it big.

“The story is, the day the White Stripes played Bug Fest, the New York Times published a big article about the band, highlighting their upcoming free show, ” Bobby T stated. “They blew up after that.”

Small Band Starter Kit

It is not uncommon for the Bug Jar to showcase artists and bands before they make it big. Doug Kelley, who has organized music events and booked bands for the venue for many years, discussed what the managing process is like behind the scenes.

He highlighted the fact that they seem to catch bands and artists right before they become well-known and start selling out stadiums. A prime example of this is when Lizzo sang backup for Har Mar Superstar in 2013. More recently, the Bug Jar was able to book the Velveteers on a free night during their tour.

“I saw that they were going to be touring with The Black Keys and Greta Van Fleet ... I emailed their agent and it worked out,” joked Kelley. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get them again. You just get lucky sometimes, catching a band before they get too big for the space.”

Bobby T mentioned how fresh bands will sometimes reach out to them as they are entering the music scene.

“Us being a smaller venue, we get a lot of bands that are just starting off ... we’re kind of like the starter kit for touring bands and local bands,” he said. “A lot of local bands sink their teeth into live music by starting off here.”

The Bug Jar Experience

Catering to an alternative crowd, the Bug Jar mostly highlights genres such as rock, punk, indie rock, jam bands, prog rock and metal, though they host the occasional folk artist as well. For a while, the venue tried to hold events such as trivia nights and DJ sets every night of the week.

Because of the amount of work that went into planning those events and the low turnout, however, the Bug Jar now opens its doors only when there is a music event, which makes attending even more special. They still hold the occasional theme night — including a recurring Emo Night, where a live band comes in and plays their classics from the mid-to-late 2000s.

With the wide variety of music performed, the Bug Jar attracts everyone from hippies to parents and from passersby to local bands supporting their friends. The venue is dedicated to supporting stellar artists while fostering the love that locals have for live music.

The small space creates an intimate and lively experience for everyone who is there. The energy is contagious and radiates through the floor and through the low ceilings adorned with upside-down furniture and a disco ball.