Words by: Herschel Concepcion | Images by: Norman Sands
Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival :: 11.22.08 :: The Congress Theater :: Chicago, IL
Originally conceived as a "passion project" by producer Mike Raspatello, the Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival would prove to be the next great landmark in Chicago music culture. Drawing a crowd of over 3,000 bluegrass and blues loving music fans, the inaugural fest was not simply a celebration of the traditions of bluegrass and blues music but also an opportunity to examine how the forms have evolved since the days of Bill Monroe and Robert Johnson. It had been Raspatello's dream for years - a festival dedicated to honoring the past, present and future of two genres of music that have come to embody the true spirit of the American people. This is music that understands our struggles but also reminds us that there is always sunshine after the rain.
|Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival|
Throwing a festival is no small task. It can be an intimidating venture; festies are high-risk endeavors that demand a serious commitment and willingness to face every one of the unexpected obstacles and challenges that will undoubtedly surface along the way. It's a daunting prospect – one that requires more than just a keen business sense and deep pockets. A true music festival – one of substance and character – fosters a sense of community and brings people together, uniting them through their love of song. And that takes a special kind of motivation. Working together with fellow producer Lucas King, Raspatello's brainchild finally took shape. His aspirations became reality. "I had long wondered why no one had ever tried a winter festival catering to the culture and genres I was into," he said. "It was the most in-over-my-head I've ever been professionally. And that's why I loved it."
The CBGB Fest was held at the illustrious Congress Theater, an 80-year-old Renaissance-style building located in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood. A former movie palace, the Congress was designated as a Chicago landmark in 2002 and now serves as a live music venue. To reflect this change in the building's use, all of the ground-level seats were removed several years ago, increasing the theater's capacity from 2,700 to 4,000.
After walking into the Congress it was obvious that Raspatello had gone out of his way to provide a true festival experience for patrons. In addition to the standard festival fare – food, beer and merch – were a number of artist booths lining the back walls and little stages for hula-hoopers to put on a show for the crowd. Festivalgoers were also encouraged to bring instruments and participate in the pickin' circles, which were open jam sessions that took place in the lobby throughout the day. There was even a booth to check in your instruments so you wouldn't have to lug them around everywhere, a thoughtful and creative idea.
|The Avett Brothers :: Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival|
There were two stages set up to accommodate the twelve hours of music featured on the bill. The balcony next to the main stage had also been prepped for bands to play immediately following sets on the main stage so that there was never more than a moment without music. Starting at noon, festivalgoers were treated to an array of musical acts from around the city. From the bluegrass-influenced Americana of Tangleweed to the gritty, down-home blues of Lil' Ed & The Blues Imperials, there was a wide variety of sounds available to those with an open ear and open mind.
The Giving Tree Band gave one of the finest performances of the night. Playing from the balcony before and after David Grisman's set, these talented young men had everyone on the ground floor looking up in rapt attention. There is something special about this band. Their highly polished vocal harmonies, instrumentation and songwriting possess an almost ethereal quality, perfectly capturing the essence of true Americana straight from the heart of the Midwest. Combining an earthy mix of bluegrass, folk and jazz, The Giving Tree Band is slowly but surely making a name for themselves.
The Avett Brothers, who closed the festival, maintained the sizeable crowd with their unique style of bluegrass-folk-rock played on traditional instruments. Seth and Scott Avett, along with cellist Joe Kwon and stand-up bassist Bob Crawford, put the grit and angst back into the old time songs. Although I'm not too familiar with the brothers' music, I did manage to catch part of their set at Summer Camp and was interested to see them again. While not typically what I would listen to, I admire the tenacity in the approach they've taken with their music. Their stage presence is undeniable and they put on a damn good show that had their passionate fans kicking up a storm.
|David Grisman :: Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival|
The highlight of the fest by far was the high-flying gypsy jazz of legendary mandolin virtuoso David Grisman. Playing with his outfit, the David Grisman Quintet, he showcased his delightful brand of Dawg Music for all to enjoy. Having focused most of my attention on Grisman's work on The Pizza Tapes and with Old & In the Way, it was a true joy to see him with the Quintet. This is where Grisman is really able to shine; out in front, like a lightning rod pulling energy from everyone around him. All expectations were exceeded with this magical ensemble, which featured the fine instrumental work of Grant Gordy (guitar), Matt Eakle (flute), Jim Kerwin (bass) and George March (drums).
Walking out of the Congress, I knew that Mike Raspatello had created something special. Not only had he managed to successfully put together his first festival, he also was able to raise $5,000 by donating a portion of each ticket sold to the Saving Tiny Hearts Society, a charity for babies born with congenital heart defects. Not bad for an inaugural festival. Raspatello plans on making the Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival an annual event.
"Get ready for an even beefier lineup, more freaks, freakiness, and fun," Raspatello told JamBase. "I'm madly in love with everyone that came, everyone that played, everyone that drank a beer or smoked a joint, everyone that danced, and everyone that sang."
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