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Review of the successful and unique Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival

Béla Fleck is seen here

On Saturday, December 12th, the second incarnation of the Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival invaded the historic Congress Theater in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. In case you were unaware of this festival’s existence, it really is planned and executed in a unique and singular way. The whole idea is to provide the atmosphere and mentality inherent within an outdoor summer music festival and to, as best one can, translate that into an indoor venue smack in the middle of the bleak Chicago winter. On top of that it is a festival with the philosophy of celebrating the American roots music of bluegrass and blues, and all the influence they have had upon the contemporary music realm.

The festival’s ambiance was successfully created by a variety of methods. One was through having a variety of artwork, exhibits, and tables from the presence of the likes of green peace and other charities. However, the primary method was through having music firing at the attendees from every direction. There was one stage within the massive art-deco lobby of the Congress, adorned with holiday lights, that not only provided the music for those first entering the venue but had acts all day in case you wanted something different than what was playing in the main room. What was playing in the main room was constant music from two separate stages. There was both the theater’s main stage, and another “Pavilion Stage” from the right side of the elevated balcony (replete with its own flying PA system). This allowed for music to be played through changeovers, never allowing for more than a few minuets silence for the crowd down below.

But what actually altered the character of the indoor festival more so than continuous music from the 3 stages were the sounds that were not coming from an official podium of any kind. Because people were allowed to bring in instruments at their leisure, at times there were just people playing just simply playing instruments and hanging around. This included one talented group that would hang on the lobby stairs and jam or sing sing-a-long type tunes so as to draw in and include all those around them.

And on top of that, adding to the flavor of the festival was the Enviornmental Encroachment’s Magic Circus Band (which was basically a small marching band all dressed up in mascot-like costumes). They were one of the highlights of the day in general, being walking personifications of fun & mischief. These guys would perform in the main room, just walking around on the floor with the crowd. They would present altered versions of bluegrass numbers, marching band tunes, and contemporary popular songs. They were supplied with girls who could do gymnastic acts and at one point there was a girl hula-hooping while she stood on the shoulders of a man who was also hula-hooping. That moment, one would have to say, was the pinnacle of the festival for every little one in attendance; which there were many, as kids under 12 were permitted in free of charge. Yet their pinnacle was probably the performance in the Lobby in the afternoon. They took to the stage playing a fantastic version of the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and even moved on to play a brass-heavy rendition of the Radiohead song “National Anthem”. But the most merrymaking moment of their set was when certain members of band went out into the crowd and did an ever-loudening, call and response type-song, with the other members remaining on the stage. The crowd was left dancing and laughing in-between the intense sounds of the talking-horns, and it created a moment of musical ecstasy for all who were watching within the cavernous lobby.

Okay, okay, but who all exactly played the darn festival you ask? Yeah, it must have been a good time if I am just getting to whom exactly the main musicians of the day were. In total the CBB Festival had 26 bands play. This year’s headliners were Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, Dr. Dog, The Emmit-Nershi Band, and Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater. It turned out to be a well thought out mix of headlining musicians for the attending crowd.

Béla was the big name on the bill and definitely brought the most people to the event in general; and with good reason as there are not many musicians who have been nominated for 26 Grammy awards. He had the crowd of probably 3,500 people in his hands entirely. He played a good amount of Christmas songs that were fantastically reworked. The two highlights for myself were when Victor Wooten played a funky yet graceful, bass-solo rendition of Silent Night; and when Alash (a group comprised of 4 Mongolian musicians who are not only throat singers but play their culture’s traditional instruments) took the stage with Béla and the Flecktones for a soul-stirring renditon of “What Child is this?” It was at once dark and yet a cheerful holiday song, a juxtaposition of emotions that was delivered with skill and class. It truly was an inspiring piece of music that earned that loudest clamor of appreciation of the evening from everyone in attendance.

The Emmit-Nershi band was a group I was unfamiliar with prior to the festival. I was intrigued to learn that it is comprised of Drew Emmit from Leftover Salmon and Bill Nershi of the String Cheese incident (two of the most respected jam-bands in existence). They played a set heavy with traditional-bluegrass, within which they would have extended jams. I am sure this was a highlight for many of the jam-band loving people who were in attendance.

Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater provided the good ole’ fashioned Chicago blues. Eddy has been playing the blues for many generations; in fact his name Clearwater was created as a jest at fellow blues great Muddy Waters. He played a fantastic set of mostly instrumental blues, which made many Chicagoans in attendance break out in dance. It was a great display of the art of infusing raw emotion into what otherwise would seem like simple electric guitar playing.

Dr. Dog was the final act of the evening, playing after Béla Fleck; they provided the contemporary, indie-roots-rock aspect to the festival. This was a necessary addition to this festival in general, for if the 3 other headliners played what is considered traditional roots music then Dr.Dog showed us exactly what they are the roots of. As they are a modern and up and coming indie band, which exemplifies how Americana-roots music is indeed instilled within the tunes of the current generation. They also provided the desired bang at the end of the festival, as they came on at 10:30pm, and one could sense that the crowd was in the mood for something with a little bit of overdrive and grit.

The majority of the remainder of the acts, too numerous to go over specifically, were local Chicago musicians. So while the headliners were aimed at gathering attention and providing top-notch musical entertainment, in the end it still was very much a Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival. It gave many bands a deserved, yet rare, platform to showcase theirs creations to a larger crowd.

One local band that took advantage of the crowd very well goes by the name of Sexfist, and actually won a contest to be involved at all. They played a rousing version of super-talented bluegrass, which may be comprised of the traditional way of playing, but takes on subject matters and an energy which is young and raw and resonates well with the contemporary generation which may not be accustomed to genre. I expect they may be asked to return to the festival.

Another Chicago band that deserves attention, and played an amazing set at (with their song “Moonlight Lady” being one of the evening’s best) was The Giving Tree Band. This band is also an embodiment of the positive-musical-message the festival wants to propagate. They are a 100% “Green” band, and not just in name. Listen to what I learned about how they make their albums: The band recorded in the Aldo Leopold Center in Baraboo, Wisconsin; camping each night and biking 10 miles daily to the facility, which is recognized for being completely carbon neutral. In addition, they used energy generated by the Leopold Center to power any instruments and electronics needed for mixing, their CD's were produced using renewable wind power, their packaging was created using 100% biodegradable materials, and even the guitars they played on were made from naturally fallen or reclaimed woods.

So I guess the point is that there is always a way to rethink and reshape our musical world; whether it’s changing the way you create and sell albums, or through challenging and changing the very concept behind what a music-festival is and can be. And while after the Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival was over it was still a frigid and gray December, for all in attendance, for 13 hours, it was a warm and summer-like musical escape unlike any other in the mid-western metropolis of Chicago. 

To see photos of the festival just click here