Cornmeal | 12.26 & 12.27 | Chicago

Words by: Herschel Concepcion | Images by: Norman Sands

Cornmeal :: 12.26.08 & 12.27.08 :: Martyrs' :: Chicago, IL

Cornmeal :: 12.26 :: Chicago
The Windy City's finest jamgrass band celebrated the holidays this year by offering a very special treat for its fans: a two night run at Martyrs' in Chicago's North Side. In keeping with tradition, Cornmeal played an all acoustic show the day after Christmas, followed by an electric set the following evening. Thankfully, this writer was there both nights to witness the genre-defying music of a band that continues to break the mold while staying humble to its bluegrass roots.

Friday, December 26, 2008

This year's Cornmeal Acoustic Christmas proved to be a fine lesson in unplugged instrumentalism. The guys and gal were all smiles as they took the stage, wasting no time getting the hoedown off the ground with a lively "Nine Pound Hammer." After a nice lead-in by Wavy Dave Burlingame (banjo, vocals) and a verse by Kris Nowak (guitar, vocals) the charming Allie Kral (fiddle, vocals) took the first solo and let that fiddle sing high and fine. One verse later and it was time for Nowak and Wavy to start trading licks, unleashing the flatpicking fury and twangy banjo rolls that have proved integral to the aggressive, powerful sound of this phenomenal band.

When Chris Gangi (standup bass) began plucking the intro to "Friend of the Devil" it became clear that Cornmeal was intent on giving their fans the gift of good music. The fans, in turn, would give the band all that they could ask for in return: smiles, cheers and glasses raised high in honor of this time of giving and gratefulness. And what better way to show appreciation for music than a big Grateful Dead sing-a-long?

Cornmeal :: 12.26 :: Chicago
Taking a longer step backwards, the band blasted out an inspired rendition of Bill Monroe's "Southern Flavor," where J.P. Nowak (drums) kept the beat with his steady brushwork. But apparently the song's typical four minutes was not enough for Cornmeal as they stretched it out to over twice that length with fierce pickin'. Yep, definitely not your typical bluegrass band.

After a rollicking "Little Maggie," the band decided to get back into the Christmas spirit by ending the first set with a touching take on "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer." The second set started in similar fashion, with a festive "Jingle Bell Rock" before the band launched into the epic "River Gap," a Cornmeal original that showcases their ability to craft extended jams that build up slowly to an inevitable peak before exploding, which to the listener is like having your head sucked into a cannon and shot high into the stratosphere, where it lingers for a bit before drifting back down to earth, completely spent, having achieved release. Sort of like a musical orgasm.

Fellow bluegrass musician Nate Sitzman (from opening act Sexfist) stepped onstage to provide a little mandolin and vocals for an extra rowdy "Blue Moon of Kentucky," giving all present a taste of what Chicago fast-grass is all about. Two songs later, Cornmeal brought a couple more of Sitzman's bandmates up for a version of Bill Monroe's "Blue Night" that had the whole place movin' and shakin'. With Ben Benedict's guitar and Ben Wright's banjo sharing the stage an exciting new dynamic was in the air, which fueled the action all the way through to a raucous "White Freightliner Blues" that saw Kral on lead vocals. An encore of "Blue Christmas" brought the first night's festivities to a close, leaving fans with a desperate craving for more. Little did I know just how much more we would be getting as Saturday rolled around.

Cornmeal :: 12.26.08 :: Martyrs' :: Chicago, IL
Set I: Nine Pound Hammer, Friend Of The Devil, Southern Flavor, Shake A Leg, Old Home Place, Little Maggie, *Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer
Set II: Jingle Bell Rock, River Gap, **Blue Moon Of Kentucky, **Second Set, ***Blue Night, ****Paradise, ***White Freightliner Blues
Encore: *Blue Christmas

*first time played
**with guest Nate Sitzman on mandolin and vocals
***with guests Nate Sitzman on mandolin, Ben Benedict on guitar and vocals, and Ben Wright on banjo and vocals
****first time played, and with guests Nate Sitzman, Ben Benedict and Ben Wright

Cornmeal Acoustic Christmas – "Friend of the Devil" – 12/26/08

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Allie Kral - Cornmeal :: 12.27
Although Friday had been a delight, I knew Saturday's electric set would take it to the next level. J.P. was back on drums, solidifying the band's potent rhythm section and adding some powerful punch to their sound. Like a whiskey-fueled locomotive barreling down the tracks, Cornmeal exploded the moment they hit the stage, jumping right into a hard-driving "Johnny Put Down Your Gun" followed by "Trimmin' the Fat," an original instrumental that featured some power pickin' by Wavy Dave and Nowak.

The highlight of the first set came when the band did a damn good cover of the Dead's "Cumberland Blues" followed by "Onward," an instrumental tour de force that got funky as hell, augmented by a psychedelic aura that intensified everything that was pouring from the stage. With Wavy's fingers flying, Kral's feet stomping, Nowak's bass thumping and J.P.'s drums a-pounding, it was time for Nowak to shatter all reservations with a beer bottle slide solo that confirmed everything I already knew about this band – namely, that they are SERIOUS musicians with a creative drive and passion rivaled by few in today's jam scene.

The second set was a full-blown, all-out assault on the senses as the band blasted an epic "Midnight" to get things heated up. But, it was during a cover of traditional folk tune "Mole in the Ground" that the walls were shaking as the band got into a heavy "Carwash" funk jam, which turned the whole of Martyrs' into a disco dance party. After ten straight minutes of uninhibited funk it was time to bring it all back home as the band pulled off a smooth segue back into "Mole in the Ground," leaving the audience aghast at the kinds of sounds this "bluegrass" band is capable of.

It was a madhouse inside Martyrs' at this point. There are few sights more beautiful than seeing a bar full of hippies in the midst of a music frenzy, filled with nothing but love and admiration for the folks onstage who have dedicated themselves to bringing others along with them on a journey to find some special place.

The night was drawing to a close but Cornmeal made sure to get the most out of every minute they had left by playing the best "Rain Your Light" I've ever heard, an uplifting tune that, paired with Kral's elegant phrasing and the purity of Nowak's vocal work, has the power to move mountains. After "Rain Your Light" was a spot-on cover of the Talking Heads' "This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)" followed by Cornmeal classic "Hillbilly Ride." After that it was finally time for Cornmeal to make their exit, but not before leaving their adoring fans with a final gift, a beautiful rendition of "The Weight."

When all was said and done I have to admit I was a little sad to see them go. But then I remembered that they would be returning to Martyrs' in two weeks for Cornmeal Reunion Wednesdays, another Cornmeal tradition that has the band playing at Martyrs' every Wednesday from the first week of January through the end of February. Thank you, Santa.

Cornmeal :: 12.27 :: Chicago
Cornmeal :: 12.27.08 :: Martyrs' :: Chicago, IL
Set I: Johnny Put Down Your Gun, Trimmin' The Fat, The Fox > Walking In Your Footsteps > The Fox, Pocket Full Of Time, On My Own, Feet On The Ground, Cumberland Blues, Onward
Set II: Midnight, Always in Trouble, That's That, Mole in the Ground, Dirty Rag, Rain Your Light, This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody), Hillbilly Ride
Encore: The Weight

Cornmeal Christmas - "Rain Your Light" - 12/27/08

Continue reading for more pics of the Cornmeal Holiday Run...

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