Mike Notaro of Arlington Heights never thought his penchant for staying up late and playing guitar would lead to anything.
But looking back, it was the catalyst for what has turned out to be a career.
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He and his band, Mike & Joe, were one of the headliners at Friday night's Mane Event in Arlington Heights. When they took the stage, Arlington Heights police estimated the crowd to be nearly 10,000 people, or the band's biggest audience this summer.
And that's saying something, since they are one of the busiest groups in the Chicago area. This summer alone, they played festivals in Palatine, Mount Prospect, Gurnee, Vernon Hills, Crystal Lake and Algonquin.
Later this month, they will play Summer Days in Grayslake and the Taste of Highland Park, as well as Buffalo Grove Days on Sept. 3 and at St. Viator High School's Septemberfest on Sept. 7. And that doesn't count all the city gigs, from Navy Pier to clubs and street festivals.
"I'm so lucky to be able to come home like this and play for my hometown," Notaro said. "It's fantastic."
For more than 20 years, Mike & Joe have developed a following at Midwest college campuses, but increasingly they are crossing over into mainstream audiences.
Notaro and Joe Valentino met as undergraduates at Indiana University, both living in the Theta Chi fraternity house.
"We were those guys who stayed up late and played music," Notaro says. "And then one of our fraternity brothers signed us up for an open mic night -- unbeknown to us -- and the ship took off from there."
Ironically, growing up in Mount Prospect, where he and his five older siblings attended St. Emily's School in Des Plaines, Notaro never took music lessons. He taught himself to play piano before his older brothers taught him to play guitar -- both by ear.
"My paternal grandfather played a whole bunch of instruments, and he played them all by ear," Notaro says.
He dabbled with guitar, playing in a makeshift garage band with his football teammates at St. Viator High School, he says, but it wasn't until he became immersed in music at Indiana University that he played more.
"The music scene at IU -- especially when Joe and I were there -- was just booming," he says. "There were all these great bands, with a lot of alternative rock going on."
MTV Unplugged debuted during Notaro's college years and it heightened the art form both he and Valentino favored: acoustic guitar.
"We both enjoy breaking down music into an acoustic format," Notaro says.
The pair backpacked around Europe the summer after graduation, busking on street corners in places like London, Vienna and Florence. When they returned, they pledged to make music their career.
They haven't looked back.
Their band now includes drummer Aaron Streich and bass player Cory Flynn, both of Chicago. As the band has evolved, Valentino has become its business manager while Notaro handles the music production.
"We've really worked hard to keep a finger on the pulse of newer music," Notaro says, "and keep the set list fresh."
Ironically, the newer music on their play list these days includes Mumford & Sons, Fun and Imagine Dragons, but also U-2, Pearl Jam, and REM, which they played when they started.
"It's more folk rock and straight ahead rock 'n' roll," Notaro says. "It's the stuff we've played for years, but we still believe it's good music."