Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Fest | 12.12

Words by: Mike Feldkamp | Images by: Julie Collins

Chicago Blues and Bluegrass Festival :: 12.12.09 :: Congress Theater :: Chicago, IL

Chicago Blues and Bluegrass Festival 2009
The 2nd Annual Chicago Blues and Bluegrass Festival, held at the Chicago landmark Congress Theater, provided some musical warmth on an otherwise bitterly cold Midwestern night. The headliners, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, played an enthusiastic set laden with Christmas carols and teases. Preceding the 'Tones on the main stage was the Emmitt-Nershi Band and prior to them, legendary Chicago bluesman Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater. The night's final act, Philadelphia's Dr. Dog, helped the hippies, hipsters, and even some old Béla fans dance into the midnight hour.

With 26 bands, four of them worthy of headliner status, the Chicago Blues and Bluegrass Festival spanned more than 12 hours across three stages. By using a strategically placed "Balcony Stage," that operated between Main Stage acts, the festival provided non-stop music in the main hall. These uninterrupted hours were complimented by 15 bands performing in the theater's four-story entrance pavilion.

Arriving at the show I first went upstairs to the ambient "skyboxes," renovated projectionist rooms from the theater's heyday as Chicago's premier movie palace of the '20s and '30s. I worked my way through some dark rooms, navigating between furniture, to the far corner where some friends had gathered. Eddy "The Chief" was playing "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" and the relaxed feeling of Otis Redding's most famous song felt perfect for the moment.

Béla Fleck :: Chicago Blues and Bluegrass 2009
I headed down to the main floor to find an open area in front of some people in lawn chairs. It was a familiar sight for an outdoor show, but seeing these lounging fans inside emphasized the size of the Congress Theater. Two hippie chicks were hula-hooping, swooping and swaying suggestively along to "Midnight Groove," an instrumental jam by "The Chief" and his crew. The song was a good one and the best example of blues on this night.

Eddy Clearwater is the perfect bluesman for this festival. He stands an imposing 6-foot, 4-inches, but is even taller onstage thanks to his shoes and hat. His monstrous hands remind me of B.B. King's own papa-bear paws. Eddy was decked out in the color of kings, a purple hat and a stylish shirt to match. His band is strong. Drummer Merle Perkins plays quick and pounding when needed, but just as importantly, steady when backing up extended solos. Rhythm guitarist Shoji Naito is a smooth match to the raw emotion of Eddy's leads. And bassist Rudy Kleiner plays a crisp, articulate backbeat.

Next, I caught the end of Mike Mangione and The Band's set. Their sound is a sort of alternative folk, but the lobby's poor acoustics distorted Mangione's vocals. Regardless of sound, Mangione's band proved why this festival is so special. Although blues and bluegrass music are the only two genres in the title, the festival breathes creativity across dozens of musical influences.

Future Man :: Chicago Blues and Bluegrass 2009
This was most obvious as the Environmental Encroachment Magic Circus Band assembled for their brief set. The group – a motley crew of bunny-ear-wearing bohemian bandsters – fiddled with their instruments amongst the patrons. Then, without warning, they blasted into the opening of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (Phish's "2001" for those less familiar with Strauss) from areas all over the lobby. Eventually congregating near the stage, the drummers and horn players brought the song to its crescendo. The ensuing funk jam brought all 17 or 18 Magic Circus members to the stage for their next song. The pavilion audience was enthralled with the scene. Acoustics don't matter much when you are a hipster marching band.

I left the Circus Band and headed to the balcony area. Taking a seat for some rest, I arrived as Tangleweed was wrapping up. A fierce and fun bluegrass outfit, they finished strong and immediately introduced newgrass heavyweights the Emmitt-Nershi Band.

The bluegrass super-group, led by Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon and Billy Nershi of The String Cheese Incident, played a joyful set anchored by new material off their recent release, New Country Blues. There are blues and country influences in these songs, but the band is undoubtedly bluegrass. Banjo player Andy Thorn and bassist Tyler Grant are not backup musicians. Thorn's playing is both subtle and affecting, and Grant's bass gives the band its punch. Both Emmitt and Nershi were in good spirits and their set sparked some great conversation.

Scott McMicken - Dr. Dog
Chicago Blues and Bluegrass 2009
I never returned to the lobby area, although I heard reports of great sets from The Shams Band and Holy Ghost Tent Revival. I had taken over one of the skyboxes, sitting comfortably in the box's open window for Majors Junction's set. An interesting band, they played a rocking set that included a messy but fun cover of Dylan's "To Be Alone With You."

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones took the stage just after 8 p.m. By this time, the main floor was filled and balcony seats were becoming scarce. Attendance estimates were around 3500-plus. The band opened with "Next," immediately showcasing their collective virtuosity that left my mouth agape most of the set. With three musicians who are mentioned regularly as the best in their niche and one member, Future Man, who actually invented an instrument, the Flecktones are as skilled a group as one could hope to see.

Their set was heavy on the holiday cheer, which may have divided the audience. While all accept that this is the Flecktones' tour in support of 2008's Grammy-Winning Jingle All the Way, many of us yearned for more of their original material. Nonetheless, Béla and the boys were magnificent. It was Future Man explaining how his Synthaxe Drumitar works. It was Victor Wooten jamming along to himself, bounding wistfully through "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." It was definitely Jeff Coffin blowing two saxes at once and Béla picking faster and clearer than I've ever heard. When you are as good as this group, it is hard to argue setlist choices.

There was also little to argue over with Dr. Dog's 90-minute finale to close the evening. Battling a temporarily blown bass amp and the fatigue of a thousand baby-boomer Flecktone fans, Dr. Dog captured new fans, young and old, in front of their largest Chicago crowd to date. They brought a boost of upbeat joy to a crowd thirsty for vocal melodies and sing-alongs. They left if on the stage during hopeful heart-wrenchers like "My Friends" and "The Ark" so the tiring mass wouldn't leave the building. And for the most part, it worked.

2010 should be a great year of growth for the Chicago Blues and Bluegrass Festival. This author hopes the organizers will continue to pursue an eclectic lineup, and focus on the young and curious crowd it serves so well. In addition to more indie and psychedelic folk, several artists should be invited back, including The Right Now, Mike Mangione, and Majors Junction, to name a few. Bluegrass fans, of course, hope the stars will align to bring Cornmeal into the fold. Whatever happens next, this year's festival was confirmation that this great party has the potential to get even better next December.

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[Published on: 1/18/10]

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