Cornmeal | 11.28 | Chicago

Words by: Herschel Concepcion | Images by: Norman Sands

Cornmeal :: 11.28.09 :: Vic Theatre :: Chicago, IL

Allie Kral - Cornmeal :: 11.28
If there's one thing to be said about Cornmeal it's that they are consistent. They give their all every time they play, which, when combined with their equally tenacious approach to the art of creating live music, continues to make them an act to watch out for. If the Jammy Award they won last year (for New Groove of the Year) is any indication, then this is a group that is just starting to heat up.

In the midst of a cross-country tour that's taken them everywhere from New York to Colorado, the guys and gal of Cornmeal returned home to Chicago for their annual Thanksgiving show at The Vic Theatre. The night was cool and calm, but inside The Vic – a 1,400-person venue in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood – the vibe was a mixture of anticipation and excitement, a wave of youthful energy that hovered over the dense crowd. The beer, flowing freely, worked its magic on the motley horde that filled the theatre. Drunken shouts and wild laughter rang out over the pre-show chaos. A glance around the room revealed a sea of bright faces wearing genuine smiles. It was a warm welcome for Cornmeal, who are known for having some of the most dedicated and passionate fans around.

Trampled by Turtles opened up the show, and the boys from Duluth, Minnesota wasted no time in getting the throng of people moving and dancing to their high-energy brand of bluegrass. I've seen the group only a handful of times and the more I watch them, the more I find myself getting hooked. Their vocal harmonies are good and their instrumental work is top-notch and precise - these cats know how to pick their instruments. They played a fiery set that was well-received by the lively Chicago crowd.

After TBT there was a short break before Cornmeal took the stage. The intermission, however, did little to settle the wild hippies that had filled The Vic. Momentum had been established, and even in that long moment between bands it continued to build. People were laughing, slapping each other on the back, and drinking whiskey. It was quite a scene, and when Cornmeal finally appeared there was an eruption of hoots and hollers from the crowd.

Dave Simonett of TBT (middle) with Cornmeal :: 11.28
The band launched into "Long Hard Road," an appropriate opening tune for these seasoned road warriors. "Oh, pack my bags, I'm coming home," sang lead guitarist Kris Nowak, "leavin' tomorrow at the crack of dawn." Taking the first solo of the evening, banjoist Wavy Dave Burlingame stepped up and ripped into his instrument, plucking up a storm of notes in rapid-fire fashion. One verse later Kris was tearing into his six-string – as only someone with his flatpicking prowess could – before handing the spotlight over to Allie Kral, whose singing fiddle quickly lit up The Vic.

The great thing about Cornmeal is their versatility as a band. Although bluegrass-based, the quintet is keen on using the form as a springboard for forays into a number of styles ranging from rock and roll, funk and dance to folk and psychedelia. It's a gutsy blend designed to do whatever it takes to create something new that people can dance to.

The set proved to be a nice balance of original, traditional, and covered material. "Feather," a song about riding the winds of destiny, was, in its execution, as uplifting as ever and a fine counterpoint to the hard-driving bluegrass that had preceded it. "Dirty Black Nag" featured skillful instrumentation from the band before they jumped into the classic "Old Crow." The night would also bring some interesting covers. The audience was treated to a rendition of the traditional "Shenandoah" before Cornmeal did up their version of Bob Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You."

Cornmeal :: 11.28 :: Chicago
Other highlights from set two include the tasteful little diddy "Dirty Rag," which was followed by two heavy hitters from the band's catalogue, "Shelter" and "Not At Home Anymore," the latter of which showcased some furious precision drum work from J.P. Nowak. "When the Music's Over" was a psychedelic rocker, a great tribute to Jim Morrison and The Doors. Chris Gangi laid down some heavy bass lines for set two closer "White Freightliner Blues," with Kral on vocals and more quick pickin' from Kris and Wavy Dave. After much applause and foot-stomping, the band returned for an encore of The Grateful Dead's "Ripple" for a Thanksgiving performance that showed the band's understanding of the power of music and the importance of giving thanks for life, with all its ups and downs.

It was a mighty fine time inside The Vic, especially for the Cornmeal hometown crowd, who are finding fewer opportunities to see their favorite local pickers these days. Which, in a sense, is a good thing for the band, whose increased touring schedule corresponds with their rising popularity. And who knows how far it will go? The road is long and paved with uncertainty. For the members of Cornmeal, however, uncertainty is part of the game, and they are certainly well-equipped for wherever that road goes.

11.28.09 :: Vic Theatre :: Chicago, IL
Set I: Long Hard Road, Feather, Dirty Black Nag, Old Crow, Oh Leah Lee, Time Wasting Time, Jenny In The Middle
Set II: When The World's Got You Down, Better Off This Way, Shenandoah, Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You, Dirty Rag, Shelter, Not At Home Anymore, I'll Be Looking At You, When The Music's Over, White Freightliner Blues
E: Ripple

Cornmeal tour dates available here.

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