Great Divide and Paper Thick Walls - A Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival Concert Preview (Saturday, 1/28 at Congress Theater)

Great Divide and Paper Thick Walls - A Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival Concert Preview (Saturday, 1/28 at Congress Theater)

As the 2012 Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Fest draws to a close, fans have one more night of music to look forward to when 17 bands (including Great Divide, Paper Thick Walls, Joe Pug, Dawes, The Drive-By Truckers and more) perform on three stages Saturday night at the Congress Theater.  

A unique concept for a winter music festival, the Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Fest basically takes the outdoor festival model and moves it inside.  Following a similar concept last week at the Auditorium Theatre (a show that featured acts like Joe Purdy, Jonas Friddle, the Del McCoury Band as well as members of String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain on two stages), Saturday's show actually ups the ante with three stages inside perhaps the city's largest, non-arena venue (yes, the Congress is bigger than even the Aragon).

The Congress Theater (built in 1926 and unique amongst local theater venues for it's massive, sprawling lobby and balcony) is really the perfect indoor venue to hold an event like this with actual room for multiple stages.  It's the perfect compromise when it comes to holding a concert whose music demands relative intimacy (despite multiple stages) without having it in an arena (though make no mistake, the poor sound quality from the main stage at the Congress Theater will make you feel like you're in an arena at times).  So I have to admit, I am curious to see how the audience moves about a venue that isn't used to hosting three stages and I'm also curious to see how big of an issue sound bleed is with three stages in relatively close proximity to one another.  Regardless, it's at least a cool idea.

It's a thing of beauty when local bands play a large role in the success of a Chicago festival, complimenting the national headliners.  To that end, the lobby stage (which gets the day rolling at 5PM with a set from Michele McGuire ) and the balcony stage accomplish this nicely.

Two local bands that I'm excited to see Saturday are Great Divide and Paper Thick Walls.

Paper Thick Walls is a local quintet consisting of Eric Michaels (vocals, guitar and motif), Kate Schell (vocals, piano and trumpet), Roger Sherman (upright bass), Andrew Sabo (drums) and Jacques René (fiddle, mandolin, guitar).  On their facebook page, they reference artists like Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens.  Those are both accurate, though I would also add Freelance Whales to that list (but with more of a focus on the strong songwriting of Arcade Fire as opposed to the diverse instrumentation just for the sake of diverse instrumentation that can at times summarize Freelance Whales).

"A Thousand Novels" places the focus squarely on the great harmonies of Eric Michaels and Kate Schell along with violin and piano until the full band kicks in just after the midway point where an especially scorching guitar solo really builds a sense of urgency.  The song ultimately closes with a guitar lick reminiscent of that at the beginning of R.E.M.'s "Leave" over piano that wouldn't sound out of place supporting Radiohead's "Let Down."

"Old Weathered Dock" on the other hand features more gorgeous vocals from Schell (her voice reminds me of that of The Joy Formidable's Ritzy Bryan) but with a driving drumbeat that pairs nicely with fiddle for a rewarding song not unlike something from Matt Pond PA.

Great Divide is actually making it's third appearance at the festival, having won the "Last Banjo Standing" contest in 2009 before opening for Cory Chisel in 2010.  This year, the band takes yet another step as they headline the lobby stage at 11PM shortly before Drive-By Truckers get started on the main stage.

Great Divide

Another quintet, when you hear Great Divide, it's clear quick they've got a lot of influences:  rock, soul, blues, funk... It's all there. And what's more, they've got the instrumentation to pull it off.

"Waiting" is a joyful rocker built upon organ courtesy of Jeff Leibovich and bluesy guitar (think Freddy Jones Band... but with a horn section) while "Spare Any Change" slows things down for a more soulful affair built upon the funky basslines of Josh Kahle along with organ and horns (and oh that horn section).

"Fleetwood" stretches out a bit and finds the band about as close to pop as they get. Teddy Grossman's vocals (equal parts Darius Rucker and Chris Robinson with a dash of Harry Connick, Jr.'s southern charm) carry the track with lyrics like "Baby I love the way / you flew in like a hurricane / Blew me away."

Closing out the evening's festivities on the main stage will be the throwback rock of Dawes and the heart-on-sleeve, triple guitar, pedal steel infused, southern rock assault of the Drive-By Truckers.


Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Fest

Saturday, January 28, 2012 

17 acts on 3 stages

Congress Theater

Doors open at 4PM, Show starts at 5PM

Tickets: $35-100

All Ages

Click HERE for tickets


Paper Thick Walls (6PM on the Lobby Stage)

Great Divide (11PM on the Lobby Stage)

Joe Pug


Drive-By Truckers

... and many, many more


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