The hub for the Midwest music scene, Chicago, Illinois houses some of the finest music venues in the region. The Vic Theater located in the Central Lakeview area is one of the top contenders in the well-known realm of Chicago venues. Built in 1912 the ostentatious five-story vaudeville house still has most of the original ornate wall sculptures within and accommodates 1400 people. The eclectic neighborhood is home to great restaurants, theater, and shopping. One of the greatest perks of the venue is the Vic’s parking garage directly across the street and the easy access to the train for ease to and from the venue.
The old yellow streetlights that have yet to be replaced with the sharp white metal-halide lights at the cross streets of West Belmont Avenue and North Sheffield Avenue cast a soft golden color across the Vic Theater creating the ambiance of a by gone era. The bulbs under the marquee that announce the New Year’s Eve event for Railroad Earth and Cornmeal greet the soft golden hues with their own hues of warmth and welcome to the excited concert goers against the cold Chicago night.
Attendees adorned in dazzly disco-ball shirts, New Year’s Eve glasses and headwear shuffled into the Vic excited to bring in the New Year with the prodigious Chicago bluegrass band Cornmeal and Americana-based newgrass jam band Railroad Earth from Stillwater, New Jersey. As attendees made their way through the grand foyer into the theater the balcony overhang protruding steeply over a quarter of the floor hid the awe-inspiring historical styled Montgolfier brothers’ balloon, Aerostat Réveillon, recreations until you stepped out onto the dance floor. The hot air balloon’s loomed, two each, on each side of the stage, nestled in between was a giant discoball. The backdrop behind the stage was embellished with paintings of the antique balloons and tucked away on either side of the stage hung two more of the giant recreated balloons.
As Cornmeal took the stage, they were met with a wave of fanfare from the audience. The band celebrating it’s 15 milestone year and also it’s first studio album in 9 years had much to celebrate at the close of 2015 and the response from the audience confirmed the triumph and love for the local bluegrass band. Founders of the band, Chris Gangi (upright bass) and Wavy Dave Burlingame (banjo, vocals) with 2013 appointed band mates, Scott Tipping (acoustic guitar, vocals) and Drew Littell (drums, percussion) also welcomed this past year Phillip Roach (fiddle, vocals) to the band. This final addition solidified the reinvention of the bluegrass band and helped pave the way for a successful year.
A quick walk down the bass line by Gangi led to a warm welcome to the audience from the bass player while his bandmates led their instruments through an instrumental warm up of welcome that echoed Gangi’s greeting. Lilting the intro Roach took the band into “When the World’s Got You Down.” The tightness of the group during the performance showcased the ability and capability of cultivation, the timing and harmony ripe in perfection. Tipping on vocals would interweave his acoustic guitar with Roach’s fiddle building a crescendo that would dip into a soft dreamy meltyness between fiddle and banjo. The song would wind around all instruments for a full ten minutes before one final burst of energy carrying the song to its end.
Gangi’s whoop of ‘come on’ would take the band into, “My Wasted Life,” a tune that was introduced during 2015 tour. Heavy on drums, the backbone of rock from Tipping’s guitar would call out in a straight out jam of low growly intenseness. The seamlessly blends and lightning fast tempos had the dance floor moving while smiles spread across faces. The tune ended with a staple Gangi bass jump.
Gangi would give a shout out to the audience, ‘How you doing Chicago, we’re Cornmeal, thanks for being here and thanks to Railroad for having us on such a special day.’ Wavy Dave Burlingame would take vocals on another tune introduced during 2015 tour, “River Rolls On.” The tune steeped in a dark earthy feel slowed things down as it meandered into sweet banjo rolled solo from Wavy sparkling and flickering into a Grateful Dead’ish solo from Tipping before ripping into a fast paced solo from Roach, dipping and splurging back into Wavy on vocals.
The only break between songs was another shout from Gangi of ‘let’s dance!’ and a quick plunge into a short fast, “Jenny in the Middle.” The song had Wavy on vocals and blasted through super clean notes that hit straight and precise. Littell’s drum stick frayed from the madness of beats. The audience at the end of the song let loose with applause.
Cornmeal continued treating the audience with fresh off the tour songs, “All I had.” Littell would kick the song off with heavy bass drum rolls and Tipping took vocals on the country-rock tune. Wavy would own, “Rise Above,” his vocals calling out paying homage to the last few years of change with the band. Again the band would reflect the tightness and cohering mindfulness of a well oiled machine. The almost 20 minute song would showcase the gritty, deep and psychedelic song drenching the audience in all it’s glory. The close of the song was met with applause and Gangi thanking the audience and Railroad Earth. Gangi also made an excited announcement of the return of Cornmeal Winter Wednesdays at Martyrs‘ in Chicago before the band went into their last song, another newbie from 2015 tour, “Burn My Body.” Wavy took vocals on the fast paced number, driven and well executed it was the perfect song to end the set.
During break, the Cornmeal kid’s on the rail and floor seemed to be over run by the Railroad Earth fans, the hobos. The somewhat cranky, pushy hobos sauntered through pushing their way and domineering the space sending the sweet faced kid’s backwards to find other dancing areas for the headliners for the evening, Railroad Earth.
The dim house lights of the Vic were replaced with Railroad Earth lights and the stage lit up as the members of Railroad Earth made their way onto the stage. The band Todd Sheaffer (guitar, vocals), Tim Carbone (fiddle, guitar, vocals), John Skehan (mandolin, vocals), Andy Goessling (multi-instrumentalist, vocals), Carey Harmon (drums, vocals) and Andrew Altman (upright bass, bass, vocals) dressed sharply in suits met the audience with smiles and cheer.
Railroad opened with a snappy instrumental piece, “420,” with a slight pause they went into, “Happy Song.” The fast paced song reflects the title and the audience drifted into a steady bounce of dancing as the well orchestrated six piece took hold of the night and continued with, ” Just So You Know, Potter’s Field> Lone Croft Farewell, Walk Beside Me, Untitled 13, Been Down This Road, Colorado, Right in Tune> 1759.” The first set would conclude with, “Walls of Time.” The second set would kick off with, “Monkey,” a Railroad Earth tune that has not been played often during the bands career. Father Time would make an appearance for the countdown to 2016 with a message that “We must transcend the bullshit.” The 2016 year was brought in with streamers and confetti from the stage, joyous cheering from the audience and the band kicked into a fantastic, “Butterfly and the Tree.” During the song giant cloth butterflies on sticks bounced and traveled through the floor, the colorful lights reflecting off the material in iridescent beauty. The set continued with “Magic Foot>Luxury Liner, Goat> Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites> Drag Him Down, Railroad Earth, Hard Livin’ and Elko.” The close of the evening’s festivities was a heart felt “Long Way To Go.”
The evening was a wonderful tribute to 2015 and a great way to bring in the New Year. Fans were bright faced and happy as they made their way to the streets of Chicago to the start of a new year!