Wednesday night at Petrillo Bandshell, Delta Spirit and Fun. kicked off the 2013 Taste of Chicago concerts in front of a sold out crowd and a massive throng of people out in the lawn section (the likes of which I haven't seen at a Taste concert in years)...
In 2011, I caught excellent but poorly attended concerts at the Taste of Chicago by artists like The Lemonheads, Soul Asylum and Loretta Lynn, shows whose attendance I feared could be used to render the festival's musical offerings largely irrelevant at best.
But Mayor Emanuel is a well documented music fan and in 2012, under a revamped city plan that began charging for the seated area nearest the stage for Taste concerts for the first time, slightly larger names (Death Cab for Cutie, The Jayhawks, etc.) were brought into the fold (though there were still shows last year that didn't sell out the seated area and the free seats in the lawn were largely empty at times too).
With roots in a festival that really celebrated Chicago music and culture in ChicagoFest and infamous Taste music moments later (like the breakup of The Replacements live on the Petrillo stage in 1991), it was a pretty sad state of affairs over the past few years.
So it was interesting to see the city take one more stab at quality Taste of Chicago concert bookings. With a nod toward contemporary pop (Fun., Estelle, Neon Trees and more) and a little bit of timing and luck (the recent viral explosion of Robin Thicke), Taste concerts generated more local interest than any in a number of years and most seats sold out quickly.
Wednesday afternoon when I arrived at Petrillo Bandshell, I couldn't believe the size of the sheer mass of humanity spread out behind the seated area in the (still free!) lawn section. It was absolutely immense and I honestly can't remember the last time I saw a crowd of that size gather for a Taste concert (maybe Stevie Wonder in 2008?).
Delta Spirit took to the stage first for a spirited forty-five minute set celebrating their unique brand of driving, intense indie rock.
"If you've never heard of our band, we're called Delta Spirit!" said the band early in recognition of a somewhat odd pairing alongside one of the year's biggest pop-rock acts in front of an immense, young crowd that Delta Spirit was wise to notice they may not ordinarily show up on the radar of.
A relatively passive crowd early on, the band finally got them on their feet with the sing-a-long chorus and fast pace of "Money Saves."
"Otherside," was a good example of the passion with which the band performs live. Not a track I was particularly impressed by on their self-titled 2012 album, live it sparkled with a relevance that set it apart.
But, not surprisingly, the band's finest Taste moment (following a pause to recognize the birthday of vocalist/guitarist Matt Vasquez) was one of the more undeniable rock tracks to see release in the past year: "California." The standout on last year's album, it was even better live as the quintet performed it with a tightness, precision and intensity garnered only from performing together an awful lot. As a whole, the songs performed live Wednesday afternoon captured a passion from the band the studio couldn't.
Though it was Fun. that the crowd (Mayor Rahm Emanuel amongst them) was waiting to see.
Starting their seventy-five minute set with the straight forward, pop-rock ear candy of "One Foot," the band took off on an energetic set that the crowd ate up from beginning to end. While I wasn't necessarily a fan of the song Wednesday afternoon, I have to admit, the melody remains firmly stuck in my head twenty-four hours later.
"It's Wednesday, some time in the afternoon... Let's just dance, what do you say?" mused frontman, Nate Ruess.
One of the faster, more guitar driven tracks of the night for Fun. followed that request in the form of "Walking the Dog."
The intriguing lyrics of "Barlights" came too... though working the words "Taste of Chicago" into the lyrics proved too much for Ruess who had to comically start the track over despite his best improv efforts. Mother nature, on the other hand, proved an important lesson to the roadies: always check the wind before firing off a confetti cannon (wind gusted southwest and immediately blew almost all of the confetti straight onto the bandshell stage instead of into the crowd).
But it can't be understated just how much the audience was enjoying Fun. On their feet for the duration of the performance, dancing, throwing homemade signs in the air and singing along with every word, the crowd was ultimately most animated for the band's biggest hits, especially "Some Nights" and "We are Young" during the encore. Preceding the hits, youngsters in the crowd got an unexpected rock history lesson as the band gave their take on a classic, offering up a surprisingly good version (flugelhorn and all) of the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
When all was said and done though another important lesson was learned Wednesday afternoon: be careful what you give away to fans (especially if it can be easily turned into a projectile). As fans littered the stage with the free seat cushions that had been handed out earlier (winging them with reckless abandon and shockingly impressive distance, speed and accuracy), Ruess swore for the first time during his band's otherwise tight, family friendly set: "You're gonna hurt someone! Why would you f----n' do that?!" he asked incredulously.
Finally the fans calmed enough for the band to continue as Fun. closed their 2013 festival opening Taste set with a slowed down, poignant live rendition of "All Alright."
- Jim Ryan
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