The Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival is quite the unique musical production. This year, it’s third annual incarnation, was held over the weekend of December 3,4,5 in Chicago. You read that correctly; there is a music festival in Chicago in the dead of winter – of course there is a roof over your head the whole time. This was the first year that the festival branched out from an all-day event on a December Saturday, to including shows on Friday and Sunday – albeit those days are more traditional fares held in smaller venues. Saturday remains the main event, which is 12+ hours of music on multiple stages – and OurVinyl had the honor of being asked to attend and document the experience. The festival is held in Chicago’s Congress Theater, an expansive art-deco styled theater that has seen many different types of uses in it’s 80+ years of existence. One stage is in the expansive lobby, another on the main stage and a “pop-up” stage is placed on one flank of the balcony – effectively guaranteeing that the main room will never be without tunes.
This years headliners were Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. These two acts absolutely enthralled the 4400 people in attendance, but there was plenty of stellar music that was prior to these festival-veterans. Let’s take a look at some of the stand outs of the day. Playing quite early in the day, on the lobby stage, was Derek Nelson & The Musicians (check out the link for a free EP download). One notices, right out of the gate, that Derek is an earnest and potent musician. As he stares out into the crowd with a thousand-mile stare, sweat drips down his face, he plays his guitar and belts out lyrics as if this was the last show of his life – he immediate commands one’s attention. His music could be described as roots-music, as much of the acts at this festival could be, but that wouldn’t do him justice. Supported by the occasional fiddle and pleasing back-up female vocalist, he can play red-hot or pleasantly dulcet. This band deserves the attention of even those who don’t consider themselves fans of bluegrass or blues – its just flat-out solid americana music. His song Come And Wait was especially affecting.
Later in the afternoon attendees were treated to a band comprised of traditional bluegrass instruments; upright bass, banjo, mandolin, and acoustic guitar. But beyond that, Sexfist, isn’t too traditional (as one might gather from their name). They attack their music, and lyrics, with the energy and attitude of a indie punk band. And while there is nothing novel within the genre of bluegrass by playing fast music, what sets this band apart was that each and every musician seem like a complete lord over their instruments – at times it seemed as if their musical-apparatuses couldn’t keep up with their fingers and mind. It was quite an absorbing set.
Later in the afternoon as the crowd really started to swell, a veteran band of the CBB Festival, The Giving Tree Band took to the main stage and officially brought the energy to “festival-level”. This 8-piece band is comprised of a drums, upright-bass, mandolin, guitars, a slide/lap-guitar, banjo, and fiddle. So needless to say they have the faculty to create quite a racket – but that’s not what you find (aside from a few key moments). Their sound is polished, adroit and balanced – whether they are playing slow burning mellow numbers or their more dynamic and spirited songs. The two words this band brings to mind when seen live is virtuoso, which they each clearly are, and harmony. Their musicianship, when combined with their ability to vocally collaborate, creates for marvelous musical creations that your ears just desire more of. Not sure if you can believe me? Well don’t worry because soon OurVinyl will be posting an impromptu exclusive performance recorded backstage at the Festival.
Not too far after The Giving Tree Band it was time for the headliners. Grace Potter & The Nocturnals play a brand of forceful and bold blues rock, which depending on the song can take lean more into psychedelic, country, funk, soul, or their own sexy-smooth styled songs. Yeah, there is a lot of the 60’s and 70’s in there (including an awesome cover of White Rabbit at this particular show), but there is also plenty of contemporary indie energy as well. Grace, besides being a ravishing diva, plays guitar and piano. Yet no matter what corner of the stage she sang from – she commanded the crowd. One of her best songs of the evening was the groove-rocker, That Phone. Look for Grace and the gang to continue to move up the proverbial ladder at festivals across the country in the summer of 2011.
Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros came on at about 10:30 pm, and the 4 thousand plus crowd was just slightly ready to hear – and be involved in – this California band’s overly engaging show. Opening the show with their crowd pleasing 40 Day Dream, the multitudes began jiving and singing in unison – creating an energy in the main room which was something to be reckoned with. The lead singer, Alex Ebert, would repeatedly make his way slightly into the audience, or sing from within the photo-pit so as to be nearer to his crowd of admirers – creating for a very communal and positive vibe. Yeah, it’s what they are known for and it was no surprise, but when one knows what’s coming and it still blows you away – well that’s true talent. Edward and the crew obviously placated the crowd with their other favorites Janglin, and the beguilingly epic Home, in addition to playing a few new tracks (which are basically unknown to the crowd, seeing as they have only released 1 album). It was a truly appropriate crescendo to the distinctive and singular experience that the Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival has become. But don’t worry if you missed it, because OurVinyl filmed and taped Edward’s performance, so stay tuned for that to be posted soon!
While it is probably not possible to in any way recreate the atmosphere and experience of an outdoor music festival, there is no harm in trying, and this is what one comes away with after the CBB Fest. And for those of us in the midwest and northeast, who have to go through winter in more than just a calendar-sense, it is events like this that can help bridge the gap until the days get longer and the mercury rises yet again. To the Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival, thank you for having us, and we will see you in 2011!
To see the entire schedule of all the acts involved with the CBB Festival; click here!
Written by Sean Brna
Photos by Natalie Kontur (To see more of her work click here. Thank you Natalie, you rock!)