Music For the Masses

June 6th, 2008: As seen on Archive (PDF)

When it comes to outdoor summer music festivals, Chicago has become pro. 

There’s a line from a documentary on local rock poet Thax Douglas wherein music venue the Hideout’s co-owner Tim Tuten denounces cities like L. A. and New York: “ When everybody looks to either coast to find some kind of creative person, they’re not going to find it there. They’re going to find it in a place like Chicago … where there’s nothing, where there’s flat land and banal people.”

Whether you agree or disagree, it’s fair to say that Chicago has managed to create a multitude of diversions to keep locals entertained amid the bleak flatlands—especially during the warm, sunny summer months. The best part? Most summer festivals celebrate emerging local talent while extending a warm welcome to international acts, creating a delicate balance and ensuring that, except for Fourth of July weekend, we don’t have to step outside the city limits to enjoy a well-rounded summer of good music, good food and good company.

The three pillars that first brought the music—the Gospel (1984), Blues (1983) and Jazz fests (1978)—are aces at fitting the lollapalooza city into each respective genre’s history. Millennium Park’s Gospel Fest shoots the gun May 30-June 1. “This year, Dexter Walker is on the [bill] with a 95-voice choir—I think that’s called growth,” cites Festival Coordinator Pam Morris. Also chiming in this season are tributes to the Chicago-bred Queen of Gospel, Albertina Walker, and headlining slots from Detroit’s Clark Sisters and L.A.’s Mighty Clouds of Joy.

The Blues Fest will wail away in Grant Park June 5–8 and is a bit more integrated, as Chicago nurtured the modern birth of the blues. Barry Dolins, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, has been programming the lineup since 1985 and keeps the city in central focus while upholding his responsibility to answer how blues is the foundation of all American music. “From the icons to the torchbearers of the next generation, we take the responsibil- ity to heart,” Dolins says. None other than Muddy Waters, the “father of Chicago blues,” will be honored on the fest’s first night. Other standouts during the weekend include New Orleans stalwart accordionist Buckwheat Zydeco, Koko Taylor and the legendary B.B. King, who makes his first appearance to the fest in more than 20 years.

The Chicago Jazz Festival (August 28– 31) follows suit by splicing sets from the creator of free-form jazz, Ornette Coleman, and be-bop pioneer Sonny Rollins with Chicago’s own saxophone king, Edward Wilkerson. Turning a modern slant, the fest also pays respect to the local club circuit that keeps blood warm in the winter. “ You might have an orchestra at the park, but maybe an evening quintet at the [Green] Mill,” says Jazz Festival Coordinator Jennifer Washington. “ We want the clubs to benefit [from Jazz Fest], because they’re [promoting] 365 days a year.”

The ultimate ode to local eats, the Taste of Chicago (June 27–July 6), is really the antithesis of banality, at least in the culinary world. But it also promotes music: Grant Park will welcome all-stars this year like Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder and Joss Stone while giving a nod to emo-hit hometown-wonders the Plain White T ’s.

But you’ll have to not only leave the city but the state come Fourth of July weekend if you want to camp out surrounded by good music. Three hours north of Chicago is Rothbury, small-town Michigan’s offering to the Midwestern fun this summer. Not only are jam bands like Widespread Panic and the Dave Matthews Band headlining, a hodgepodge of other acts spanning alt rock, hip-hop and electronica (311, Snoop Dogg, Thievery Corporation) are sure to appease the masses. And it’ll all be in the interest of green: Think diesel-run power generators, compostable utensils at food vendors, biodegradable trash bags and random prizes for carpooling festivalgoers. Jeremy Stein, Rothbury’s event producer, reveals that a discounted Amtrak fare will be available to further reduce carbon footprints, expanding the draw to Chicago- ans. “A lot of the Chicago events are either city festivals or street fairs or the lakefront festivals,” Stein says. “Of course, summers in Chicago are fantastic. But this is kind of a quick-drive destination outside of Chicago that’s the full camping experience.”

Back in town, the two main events everyone’s gearing up for may as well be camping events, what with all the trekking across parks over multiple days. We are, of course, talking about Pitchfork and Lollapalooza. Pitchfork (July 18–20) uses its hype-generating abilities to stock Union Park with two days of burgeoning creatives like British knob-twiddlers the Fuck Buttons, poor Ivy Leaguers that were so 2007 before 2008, Vampire Weekend, and indie folkie Bon Iver — in addition to stalwarts Public Enemy, Jarvis Cocker and Dinosaur Jr. But bands from Chicago, where Pitchfork is headquartered, also get attention. “ We normally try to do a few local acts for our third stage to try and keep Chicago involved,” assures Pitchfork Associate Publisher Chris Kaskie, who helps oversee the festival. “ We definitely think there’s a thriving music scene here, and we want to make sure that we can go out and program bands that make sense.” And Hunter Husar of local act Mahjongg pledges to “bring [Chicago’s] children out of the grid and into the sphere,” with a “new school of local talent.”

And then there is the beast that is Lollapalooza (August 1–3), which some say is counteracting the trend of local diversions with near-$200 ticket prices and corporate sponsors. “ We do the best job we can to manage the calendar, to put local bands on with the national acts,” says Charles Attal, Lollapalooza co- producer and talent buyer. “Some years there will be more than others. It all depends on what bands are touring or not touring. We always try to support local music. Chicago’s one of the No. 1 music markets in the world. It’s a great city, a great music town, a great park — it all lines up.” A look at the lineup this year reveals international icons like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, but other top spots are given to Chicagoans Kanye West and Wilco, with daytime stagings for local hip-hop newbies the Cool Kids, Kid Sister and DJ Bald Eagle. Of the plethora of other bands, the fest also makes room for a competition called Last Band Standing, where city scrappers can compete with artists around the world for a spot on stage.

And really, even if headliners like Rage Against the Machine have nothing to do with the city, 100,000 fists in the air screaming along to “ Bulls On Parade” certainly doesn’t feed into our bleak stereotypes. Maybe the Hideout’s Tuten was right, after all.