On the night of December 5 2010 over twenty bluegrass, folk and blues bands transformed the Congress Theater into a big ole backyard foot-stomping and knee-slapping hootenanny. It was a real good time. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals rocked hard, soulful and sensual. And Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros made fans cheer, roar and grab uncontrollably with joy, pleasure and ecstasy. This is the story of how it happened.
This account captures Day Two of the three day festival, which started on Friday at Double Door and ended at Lincoln Hall on Sunday.
By far, this was the most unique set up I had ever seen at the Congress Theater. There were three stages; one in the main lobby, one up in the balcony in the main auditorium, and one on the main stage.
Was It Like a Mini-Indoor Rothbury?
The atmosphere had a neo-hippie and free-wheeling jam-band sort of vibe to it. And walking around the venue felt like I was at a cozier or mini indoor Rothbury or Bonnaroo.
I say this because the usual Congress Theater layout was reorganized so you could wander around and scope out the bands on each stage while you cruised through the merch and vendor areas that were filled with artists who were painting on canvases and selling homemade t-shirts and jewelry.
It was certainly a new way to experience a concert at the Congress. The more I walked around the more I liked the set-up because it added a fresh and unexpected sense of adventure to the show.
A Concert The Muppets Would Have Loved
The festival began around 1pm, and as the opening bands warmed up and found their groove, the scattered groups of fans in the Main Stage area began to let loose with a little hip-shaking and head bobbing as the backwoods beats and righteous rhythms got going.
When the Alex Winston Band started playing their blues tunes on the Balcony Stage far above us, it was odd at first and felt like Statler and Waldorf, two old balcony guys from the Muppet Show, were wooing us from afar with their own juke joint concert, minus the heckling, of course.
Like those bands who played in the Balcony stage, and the other artists who played early on, the biggest barrier between the bands and the fans was acoustics of the barely half-full Congress Theater Main Stage.
What Bands Overcame the Biggest Challenge?
Most weren’t successful and cavernous dome ceiling seemed to suck the songs right up making it almost impossible to hear or feel the music.
But a few opening bands did overcome the venue’s sound barriers.
And Van Ghost wasn’t phased at all and knew exactly how to connect with our ears, heart and minds.
The Chicago-based sextet confidently strutted their stuff and slapped groovin’ smiles of pleasure on fans faces. With tracks from their debut album Melodies for Lovers (2009), they kept the good vibes flowing with their deft mixture of alt-country jams, bluesy rock and reggae.
And then later on Chicago bluegrass-rock ensemble The Giving Tree Band plucked their fiddles, and rocked their banjos and geetars real nice, taking us through the timeless and harmonious jamboree of their latest album The Joke, The Threat and The Obvious. And somewhere Shel Silverstein was listening satisfied with a big happy smile.
Playing in the cramped and unusual confines of the Balcony Stage, the energetic bluegrass and neo-folk duo Paleface channeled parts of Johnny Cash’s rhythm section and the spunk of indie-rock darlings Matt & Kim.
The sum of it all was a crafty display of showmanship and style that climaxed when they led fans in an entertaining call-and-response to chant back and forth “put down that Styrofoam.”
As odd and quirky as the song might have been, it was still irresistibly catchy and I had no choice but to join in and shout back that peculiar chorus with fans around me.
Do Grace Potter and the Nocturnals Still Rock Live?
The festival rolled on into the night and when Grace Potter and The Nocturnals took the stage it was time to see how they evolved since we last some them in 2007.
Right from the start, it was clear that Potter and company have added more muscle, grit and energy to an already strong and impressive live show.
And like Potter has always done so well, she let her raw and sensual soul diva croon cut through to our hearts and minds.
As they burned through the bluesy and pop-rock tracks “You and Tequila,” and “Paris (Ooh La La)” from this year’s self-titled and third studio album, one thing became clear.
Potter’s voice has only gotten better. Like she did three years ago, she rocked her Hammond B3 organ furiously.
But this time she showed off her vocal chops with a stunning note-for-note volley with her guitarist during an extended rock jam.
Potter mixed in a few slow-burning love ballad and a few more new pop tunes. But when it comes to her live show, she’s at her best when she’s reinventing her soul and rock influences like James Brown and Grace Slick. And fans followed Potter right into her sonic wonderland during the sensuous, steamy and psychedelic cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”
That Magnetic Epiphany I Promised You, A Fan Who Couldn’t Control Herself
The final headlining band of the night was Edward Sharp and The Magnetic Zeros. By the time they took the stage the place was packed and buzzing.
And the minute the music began a massive wave of palpable and emotive energy shot like liquid lighting through the crowd.
Fans swayed and cheered filling up the Congress Theater with their instant roars of pleasure and ecstasy.
One fan, who I didn’t even know, looked at me and smiled and then grabbed my hand as if she wanted to start dancing or something.
And when she did it I wondered what would’ve happened if this occurred at Grinderman.
I politely moved away from this female fan as, one by one, the band traversed through a beautiful blend of folk, indie-rock and delicate power-pop ballads from Up From Below (2009).
A unique sense of euphoria that wasn’t present before began to grow stronger in the crowd. I looked around and saw nothing but jubilant faces caught up in the frenzy of the moment.
Dressed in brown slacks and white shroud-like t-shirt that he eventually took off halfway through the set, frontman Alex Ebert danced and jived joyously around the stage.
And then, during the heartfelt and swelling anthem “Home,” Ebert voyaged into the first row to finally become one with his fans.
The End That Kept On Going…
The band of merry and magnetic players continued the celebration into the night with fans in their grip until the very end.
The surreal, enchanting and melodic wonder of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros had won me over without a doubt. And I triumphantly left The Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival with a new favorite band.
If you were at this show, join in and please continue the story in the comments below!
Wait! There’s More!
That’s right, this festival was so much fun that we’ve got even more for you to enjoy. So stay tuned for another exploration in to live concert art, VH1 Foursquare discoveries , the coolest instrument of 2010 and more great stuff from the Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival!
All photos by Colleen Catania