The bitterness of Chicago in the winter is one of the most dreaded times for a resident here, yet as the beginning of December rolled around the summer festival feeling was brought the the city with the Chicago Bluegrass and Blues festival. As those with cabin fever broke away from their electric blankets and bundled up in their whiskey sweaters, the Congress Theater was filled with anxious attendees ready to dance the whole day away. A great balance of music and an open, family environment was the perfect kick off to the holiday season. As the festival began you could sense the tight knit crowd was in it for the long hall as a spectacular display of music began which lasted all day into the night. On a cold, windy day in Chicago what else is better than to warm up your spirits with a little yee-haw and two-step. One day filled with 25 great bands, 3 stages and all in one great venue; nothing could top this in the cold months of winter in this bright, snow dusted city!
The day started as a mystery wondering how this concert of 25 Bands would be displayed throughout the day. I walked into the extravagant Congress Theater in Chicago, immediately there was music to warm your heart from the outside December chill! The first stage being in the Foyer of the Congress walking into the music of Chicago Farmer, a Chicago source of great folk music, the music was entrancing with great lyrics and songwriting. He creates the sound of love, confusion and great mystery of what is the world. One man, his guitar and harmonica making lyrically moving music which is extracted from the stage! It was truly a great band to stumble upon and to begin the festival experience for the afternoon!
Walking into the Main Stage area, men gathered around me in neon green spandex suits with bunny ears, some suits red, white and other colors, but the neon green spandex "drummer bunny" caught my eye and as I walked away from this entrapment of weirdness and chaos, I realized that they were holding drums, brass instruments and flutes. The parade of the "Environmental Encroachment" had begun a band that creates a live interactive musical performance. Creating music and doing live acrobatics to attract a crowd, their show is something else to see, attractive, amusing and fun!
For most people enjoying bluegrass music being able to catch a great string and plucking band is a treat, the band Sexfist, which won a spot in the performance line-up by online voting via the Chicago Bluegrass and Blues website. A band that rightfully deserves the performance spot as much as any other band, they have made their staple in Chicago by playing shows consistently every Tuesday at the Red Line Tap in Chicago for FREE! A band that clearly plays bluegrass for the love of the pleasing others its truly an amazing thing to witness.
The next band focused on was a bluegrass band on the larger side named " The Giving Tree Band" which is a seven piece band with Illinois boy's. A band focused on sharing their story and also producing a green musical environment by quote per the Chicago Bluegrass and Blues website, "using instruments built from naturally fallen trees and reclaimed woods, producing music with renewable energy, and packaging everything with recycled materials." Their latest CD "Great Possessions," was engineered exclusively with solar energy and dubbed by the Chicago Sun-Times as the "greenest of albums." If music is the wine that fills the cup of silence, then The Giving Tree Band is young but mature, robust yet smooth, accessible but rare, and most importantly, organically grown. " . The performance and stage presence given by The Giving Tree Band is something to be admired, with each performer putting forth their greatest effort and contribution towards the overall sound of the band and even towards the back of theater in the designated "Vendor Area", they gave away free CD's and also sold recyclable goods. As The Giving Tree Band broke sounds into the halls of The Congress Theater giant panda's, koala's and even a polar bear stumbled into the theater to greet and dance with the kids, which was great to see that they put forth a great family musical environment.
As "The Giving Tree Band" ended it's performance on the main stage, the right balcony was transformed into a stage which populated the band Tangleweed. Overlooking the anxious blue's and bluegrass concert goers, their music began to fill the gap between main stage performances, allowing the flow of music to never stop. The Chicago based band which has played on the radio in over twenty-two countries, have gained the respect of listeners worldwide, representing the sound of the future, past and present of string music.
Next to take the stage would be one of the greatest blues performances of the night " Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater! Eddie Clearwater, a man that knows the way of the stage and performance personally, performing on its gracious platforms since the 1950's and especially creating his footmarks onto the Chicago blues circuit his reputation truly proceeds him. Coming out in is fashionable and colorful headdress, he lead the crowd into a heavenly gospel influenced tune, churning up the crowd and starting a moving force in making you want to move your feet. Being in the business for over 50 years, Eddie Clearwater showed his going force on stage going from side to side exchanging solo's with his fellow band mates and leaning over the crowd for satisfaction! Eddie "The Chief" Clearwater, was easily one of the most exciting sets all night!
The next band to see hit the stage was the Emmit Nershi Band, with bluegrass heroes Drew Emmit (former Leftover Salmon) and Emmit Nershi (former guitarist of The String Cheese Incident). The Band immediately drew a crowd as more and more people gathered into the main stage area to see some legends perform some fantastic music, with tunes, "Born on the Wrong Planet"¡¡ and as well as some musical covers of The String Cheese Incident like a fantastic string version of, "Texas" and afterwords broke into a faster pickin tune with Drew Emmitt on vocals to the tune of, "Down in the Hollow" which turned out to be one of my favorite tunes. Emmit Nershi Band seems to be more of a traditional bluegrass band but more on the jamgrass side of course, relying on only strings and no drumset which puts more pressure on the entire group for being on point as if one of them falls behind they all fall behind. The Emmitt Nershi Band is a great band to see with two highly skilled jamgrass lengends pushing towards the roots of the music and their own sound.
Next to take the stage would be Bela Fleck and The Flecktones, a highly skilled group of musicians pushing forth musical boundaries never seen before infusing jazz and bluegrass with some insane instruments and instrumentals, getting the crowd into the spirit of the season with Christmas tunes from their new album, "Jingle All the Way" as well as some of their own musical classics like, "Big Country". A curious and unique experience was created by bringing along and a close friend and fiddler Casey Driessen, a close friend and fiddler from Chicago and Alash, a Tuvan throat singing ensemble; having them sit in for the Christmas tune or two , also showing the festy goers how truly amazing throat singing is, which basically creating several tones, at any one time, with the larynx. A highlight of the night, Bela Fleck and The Flecktones performing an amazing rendition of "12 Days of Christmas" in 12 different key and time signatures was pure genius. Trading off verses of the tune with each of the band mates and their instruments, something truly amazing to be in front of. It was organized chaos filled of beauty gazing at each solo performance whether it be Future Man on his crazy drum machine, Jeff Coffin and his amazing ability to play two different saxes and the same time, Victor Wooten as he ravishingly pushes out an amazing bass tap solo and of course there is Bela Fleck with amazing speed, agility and musical composure and timing! They all seemed to click so well as a band, this maybe why they have received 6 Grammys as a band and B¨¦la Fleck, the amazing musician he is, has been nominated in more categories than any other musician in Grammy history! Not only did they play a beautiful rendition of "12 Days of Christmas", but they also played a beautiful version of "Christmas Time" with Bela easily plucking the harmonic base notes to the song opening it in a very beautiful way and a "Linus and Lucy" which brought the thoughts of Charlie Browns Christmas Cartoon projecting in the mind. It had been a long time since my last experience with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and it was a show that was thoroughly enjoyed as these musicians are legends of our modern time.
Exiting the main stage area walking into the filled foyer of all those watching the eclectic and passionate singer, songwriter and solo folks music man Jaik Willis, ending his performance with Led Zeppelin's "Going to California" strumming on his harp and belting out the last tunes of his performance to a crowd obviously awestruck with Jaik's ability to multi-task with numerous instruments and to play versions of songs, although abstract , very strong willed and filled with purpose.
To end out the day's mischief, whiskey filled patrons where hearing the random plucking and echoing of violins which filled the air. Dr. Dog from the great west Philadelphia area proved to be a very enthusiastic and energetic band to conclude the day. Although early on in the performance, during their first song there where sound difficulties with the bass amplifier other bands scrambled to help their downed fellow musicians, which is always great to see how close nit the festival and bluegrass family really is.¡¡Unfortunately it was a 13 hour day inside and clearly many people¡¡just had wanted to stay for Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and the crowd died down significantly, which is sad because Dr. Dog puts on a great performance, both with stage essence, individual style¡¡and musicianship that surpasses many.
The Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival really created a great scene and festival type feel for the people of Chicago in the winter time, creating a GREAT reason for you to get off the couch, put on the dancing shoes and get out into the cold weather. Between all the vendors, multiple stages, 25 bands, family friendly environment and even a mid-day visit from Santa, it was a very busy day and even though it was one venue, I did feel like I was in a wide open space, running from one stage to the other to catch the next of many great acts.