"A summer festival brought indoors for the Chicago winter." That's what was listed on the poster for Saturday's event and it served as kind of a lofty mission statement in a way. Well... as seventeen acts (including the Drive-By Truckers, Dawes, Joe Pug, Paper Thick Walls and more) took to the stage Saturday night at the Congress Theater, I'd say the event was an overwhelming success.
As I noted earlier in the week, the Congress Theater is unique amongst local theaters for the size of both it's sprawling lobby and balcony which made it just about the only non-arena venue capable of hosting an indoor concert that required three stages.
While the Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Fest has gone on for several years, this was my first time attending. For that matter, it wasn't even the first festival event of 2012 as twelve acts performed on two stages the Saturday prior at the Auditorium Theatre (not to mention the fact that String Cheese Incident performed three shows at the Aragon Ballroom in December as part of the festival).
But Saturday night at the Congress Theater, the CBB Fest featured nearly nine hours of live music on three stages upping the ante considerably. I was curious to see just how festival organizers would set up the other two stages: the lobby stage and the balcony stage.
The lobby stage was set up literally just inside the venue's front doors against the lobby's east wall (perpendicular to Milwaukee Ave. just outside). While acoustics were understandably not great (the lobby has incredibly high ceilings), I nevertheless enjoyed the stage immensely. Michele McGuire was scheduled to get things rolling on the lobby stage at 5PM. There was a loose vibe in the venue lobby all night as people sat down on the stairs, relaxed and enjoyed great local bands.
If you were standing on the Congress floor looking directly at the stage, you'd find the balcony stage upstairs on the venue's right side running basically from the stage to the seated rear of the balcony. The Big Hit were scheduled to begin the balcony stage's afternoon at 6:30PM.
My main concern heading into Saturday's event was just how well concertgoers would be able to move about the venue (especially as attendance built as the afternoon progressed toward the headlining acts). But any fears I had were completely unfounded as the event was well-organized and executed and people moved about quite freely all night.
Bathroom lines were never an issue, food and beverage prices weren't overly exorbitant for a concert and while I wouldn't necessarily say that a lot of the bands performing at the Bluegrass and Blues Festival could be classified as either bluegrass or blues, I certainly wouldn't say that they could be classified as bad either. My favorite aspect of the festival was the fact that I was exposed to so much good, new music (especially local artists).
So onto that music...
Paper Thick Walls (Lobby Stage) - My third favorite set of the day. I wasn't familiar with them until last week when I started checking into bands performing at the festival. The poor acoustics didn't exactly help the band so I'd like to see them again. But nevertheless, I came away from Saturday's performance (my first time seeing them) impressed. I'm pretty sure I saw Jacques René play pizzicato violin with his nose or teeth (either that or he had an itch). Kate Schell jumped in on trumpet and keyboards (in addition to vocals) and both "A Thousand Novels" and "Old Weathered Wooden Dock" help up nicely live.
Bailiff (Main Stage) - Performing as a four piece, the band combined a pulsing, Muse-like bass and two drummers for a sound that was absolutely HUGE (especially on "Everyday Fire"). My personal favorite in their set though was "Curtains" which, with it's searing guitar, funky bass and pounding drums, reminded quite a bit of Them Crooked Vultures.
Band Called Catch (Lobby Stage) - I'm not sure how they fit seven people on the lobby stage... but they did! I believe the six band members were joined by Michele McGuire as well. Upbeat pop songs augmented by sax and trumpet, it's a bit too easy to compare the band's music to that of O.A.R. I only caught about fifteen minutes but enjoyed what I heard.
Joe Pug (Main Stage) - Definitely the closest artist of the day to fitting one of the two genres supposedly represented by the festival (bluegrass), Pug performed on guitar and harmonica in a trio augmented by stand-up bass and more guitar. How did I not know that Pug (originally from Maryland) now resides in Chicago? I couldn't get enough of this set. "Speak Plainly, Diana" was absolutely gorgeous. While I didn't take notes (now I wish I had), I believe it was "Nation of Heat" on which Pug channeled Dylan playing harmonica and guitar for my favorite moment of the set. I really, really need to get better acquainted with Pug's work. My second favorite artist of the evening.
Dawes (Main Stage) - Best in show as far as I'm concerned. A blistering set from a band who seemed genuinely excited about being in Chicago and part of an indoor winter festival (they acknowledged early on that the festival was a cool idea). I like what I've heard from Dawes on record... but they just soar live. Opening with "Fire Away," their set was off and running in energetic fashion. "When My Time Comes" is the radio hit and the crowd responded accordingly turning it into a sing-a-long. But it was "If I Wanted Someone" that absolutely shined. The best Neil Young song that Neil didn't write, the solos were scorching and radiant and one of my recent favorites has never sounded better. "Time Spent in Los Angeles" was solid as well.
Great Divide (Lobby Stage) - I swear at one point they were about to cover The Beatles' "I've Got a Feeling"... but I was wrong. It was a song that just really, really sounded like it. Anyways, the brass sounded great as did "Fleetwood." I only caught about half of their set and they're yet another local band I saw Saturday that I'd like to see again.
The Shams Band (Balcony Stage) - The only band I saw on the balcony stage who thought to hang a banner. Well done, gentleman. Unfortunately, much of their set was drowned out by the Drive-By Truckers' soundcheck but what I heard I liked. Especially dug the banjo. I realize it's probably getting old by this point but with songs like "Des Plaines River," go ahead and throw them on the list of bands I need to see again.
The Drive-By Truckers (Main Stage) - This was the third time I've seen the Truckers (Lollapalooza 2005 and last summer at the Dave Matthews Caravan) but the first in which I saw them do a full show. This was a no frills set that saw the band plow through about two hours of country infused, pedal steel fueled southern rock. There wasn't much interaction with the crowd or one another but boy are they a band that is nevertheless firing on all cylinders right now. These songs sounded flawless.
I didn't realize that bassist Shonna Tucker left the band at the end of 2011. I believe it was David Barbe who filled in (Barbe produced the Go-Go Boots album amongst others).
My favorite parts of a Truckers show are those that feature their more rocking fare and several of those moments came from 2004's The Dirty South. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley split lead vocal duties on opener "Lookout Mountain" and "Where the Devil Don't Stay" respectively.
"Hell No, I ain't Happy" finished the main set in a pretty thrashing fashion while Hood's impassioned vocals on "Let There be Rock" closed out the evening just before 2AM.