Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival

Words by: Herschel Concepcion | Images by: Norman Sands

Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival :: 11.22.08 :: The Congress Theater :: Chicago, IL

Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival
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.

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.

The Avett Brothers :: Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival
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.

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.

David Grisman :: Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival
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.

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."

Continue reading for more pics of the Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival...

David Grisman
David Grisman
David Grisman Quintet
David Grisman Quintet
Matt Eakle - David Grisman Quintet
Seth Avett - The Avett Brothers
Scott Avett - The Avett Brothers
Scott Avett - The Avett Brothers
Joe Kwon - The Avett Brothers
Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials
Ha Ha Tonka
Donnie Biggins
Billy Childers
Cobalt & The Hired Guns
Dollar Store
The Giving Tree Band
The Giving Tree Band
Lindsey O'Brien & Friends
Majors Junction
Wavy Dave Burlingame (Cornmeal)

David Grisman Quintet @ The Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival

The Avett Brothers @ The Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival

The Giving Tree Band @ The Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival

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Comments

WidespreadMule3 Mon 1/5/2009 08:11PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

WidespreadMule3

lil ed, david grisman, cornmeal, and the avett brothers! looks like a super good time!

DubSaw star Mon 1/5/2009 09:16PM
Show -4 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!
schofizzl Mon 1/5/2009 11:37PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

schofizzl

haha that pic of wavy dave is killin' me... cornmeal owns.

AZ~*Droo* Tue 1/6/2009 06:30AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

AZ~*Droo*

^^^thats what im saying! thats a killer pic of dave!

ratdog5150 starstarstarstarstar Tue 1/6/2009 11:39AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

ratdog5150

Thanks for reading the review and looking at my photos!

funkvibes Tue 1/6/2009 01:20PM
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Grisman is the shit and someone should tell him to play the fests everywhere

rchasei Tue 1/6/2009 01:42PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

rchasei

This festival WAS a "super good time". I drove up from Arkansas for this due entirely to the fact that The Avetts were there, and David Grisman Quintet was a great bonus. Those two were the best shows of the whole day (I was there for over 7hours), with an honorable mention for Ha Ha Tonka. There are two phrases in this reveiw that jumped out at me that I felt the desire to comment on.

#1: 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.

I'm sure this was a great move for those 3-4 hour shows that I've noticed play at the Congress througout the year, but for a festival, it was a little disappointing. The place had NO chairs at all, and if you're there for a full day, standing becomes quite laborious.

#2: "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."

The love is reciprocal, but it's the "smoked a joint" part that got my attention. The undercovers that were swarming around inside this place would virtually tackle you if you weren't super-sly about your usage. That proved to be quite a challenge.

Overall I had a great time. It was my first time to Chicago and I'm glad I made it. Loved the indoor smoking area at the show(not mentioned), and the fact that the music never stopped. I also enjoyed the GREAT BEER. 312 on draft!? what a great idea. I'd never had it before and ended up buying a case to bring home : )

caserok starstarstarstarstar Tue 1/6/2009 02:44PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

The Giving Tree Band is the best string band you have never heard of. Those dudes are super conscious and really bring it.

DubSaw Tue 1/6/2009 04:17PM
-1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

DubSaw

did i seriously get negative thumbs down three times for mentioning bisco????

super weak !

this does look like a pretty cool festival but it happened nearly two months ago !!!

MadonMDR Tue 1/6/2009 09:50PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

MadonMDR

I support your disco biscuits comment... I"m a big fan and our next project (the few of us that put on the festival) is a Bisco show here in Chicago with RJD2 and Prefuse 73. And yes, the security got too harsh and we'll be working with a different (more understanding) security team. However, there were only about 7-9 of them working that day, and those of us they weren't on to had a nice bit of freedom

rchasei Wed 1/7/2009 09:08AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

rchasei

MadonMDR - That's good to hear. It's also nice to know that the voices of the little people can be heard by the festival purveyors on this fine site. a big thank you to you and to Jambase.

shonuff Wed 1/7/2009 04:12PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

312. A 6 piece marching band playing during the sets. A Blues Legend. A Bluegrass Legend. Great local and up and coming acts. Chicago.What else more could you want? Oh, how about free tickets (which is what I got)!

Umphreak2289 Thu 1/8/2009 11:07AM
-1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Umphreak2289

what is chicago bluegrass festival without COrnmeal? weak. This "festival" was a good time, could have been better tho 7 out of 10

MadonMDR Thu 1/8/2009 02:48PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

MadonMDR

I apologize if this sounds annoyed, but we've responded to the cornmeal situation numerous times. WHen I originally planned the show, it wasn't even a festival, but a Grisman, Cornmeal, and Majors Junction show. But Cornmeal regrettably had the Vic show already in the books and this was a conflict (only a week apart). WE are continuing to actively find a way to get them involved this year, somehow some way despite the same date conflict. Ask them yourselves. I agree, they are a must for this show.