Chicago Bluegrass and Blues DAY 1

Contributing Writer/Photographer:  Thomas Fennell IV

For three cold nights in Chicago, people from all walks were able to come together for the Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival, touted as a summer festival in the winter, and it felt like just that.

For the festival veterans and new adventurers alike, the festival offered all the right ingredients: a variety of venues, vendors, food options and most importantly, people and musical styles.  Bluegrass and blues may have played less of a role this year than in previous billings, but the foundation characteristic of homemade, from-the-heart music, shone brightly throughout the acts presented each night.  Each night had something for everyone, and while Saturday night brought headliners Grace Potter & The Nocturnals as well as Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros to the stage, it was a long weekend of great music that didn’t seem to have only one crescendo.

After three nights, five stages, dozens of performances and thousands of photographs shot, it’s difficult to put together a brief summary of all the music present, but suffice to say:  we had plenty of, well, everything.  There were guys with guitars, gals with tambourines, hip hop and string bands.  Powerful vocals rocked us throughout, from the soul-infused Great Divide and The O’Mys to the emerging favorite Daphne Willis and always-wild Grace Potter.  Great Divide was a band I heard about prior to the fest, but never could imagine just how tight and well-focused this group of talented instrumentalist could be.  We’re talking erupting vocals, horns, a cool man tickling the ivory keys and steady rhythms that kept the crowd moving!  We were even lucky enough to get “Tell Mama,” an Etta James cover.  I could spend more time on this band, but I will let me brief words stand as a testament to the power within the Great Divide.  (Here is their set list, by the way:  Shine, Hear My Train, Ain’t No Roads, Waiting, Tell Mama, Step Back, Freedom Bell, Follow Me Down)

ARTICLE CONTINUES AFTER PHOTOS

Speaking on the truth of bands, instrumentation was paramount–and groups like How Far to Austin, The Giving Tree Band, Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons and Edward Sharpe showed us just how many talented musicians can be crammed onto a stage at once.  Lest we forget the roots of this fine fest, Liberty Bluegrass Band and Sexfist kept the string band crowd amused with energetic, down-home performances.

Short sets and even shorter setbreaks ensured that the music kept going and going.  Friday night at the Double Door was the perfect kickoff to the weekend; a comfortable bar/venue that most in attendance had probably visited before, but tonight it was clear–with music sliding between soul, rock, and a bit of hip hop–the festival spirit was in full swing, and we might not have known what we were in for next, we were in good hands.

Saturday’s action spanned multiple stages within the legendary Congress Theater, with acts simultaneously playing within the main venue and the ornate lobby.  Even between main-stage sets, acts positioned in the balcony kept the crowd entertained and never let that “bored watching the roadies soundcheck the drums” feeling set in.  Sunday night, The Environmental Encroachment Magic Circus Band lived up to their mysterious name and energetically bridging the gaps between main-stage sets with impromptu drum circles, brass jams, parades and dancing–each time garnering a few curious head-tilts from recent arrivals, but coaxing out smiles and toetaps just as quickly.

A great time was certainly had by all in attendance, and it seemed a worthy reminder of the fun that awaits us all as the summer festival season begins to head back our way…