The Tradition Continues at Chicago Bluegrass and Blues

Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival
Auditorium Theatre
Chicago, IL
January 21, 2012



The blues runs through Chicago’s sonic jugular. The city’s history is steeped in the genre. However, the music of the mountains curries nearly the same favor in the present day Windy City — running through its streets and clubs in near stride with its grassless brother. The Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival is testament to this.

Chicago Bluegrass & Blues is not the typical festival. There are no tents, Flaming Wok, or extracurricular activities. In fact, the only thing about the event that resembles a modern-day festival is the fact that its bill runs from morning through evening with multiple acts slated on multiple stages. In short, it is a music festival in the most purist sense of the phrase.

Over the course of two days spanning two weekends at two venues, CBB marries two distinct styles (see the name of the festival) of music for purveyors of multiple persuasions; and it was these purveyors’ search for the sound that kept both local and traveling fans undeterred by the fact that visibility near Chicago had dropped to a quarter of a mile due to hazardous weather and a threat of a repeat of 2011’s “snowmageddon”  on the day before the festivities.

This past weekend was the bluegrass phase of the event, and throughout the day the venerable walls of the Auditorium Theater rang with the echoes of bluegrass legends, both living and passed.

Majors Junction started the day’s tunes off with a deeply country-influenced set that included raucous covers of songs by Johnny Cash, an artist whose influence was plain to see; the Man in Black’s tonal attitude continuously reverberated through the room.

Utilizing the lobby as well as the venue’s main stage of the venue provided the perfect environ for the simplistic instrumentation of mountain music. A great example of an ensemble that utilized this well was Jonas Friddle, who played without amplification but had no vocal trouble as they sung above their instruments to the chagrin of the smiling group of gathered onlookers.

Strongly stating Chicago’s case for producing quality bluegrass music was the Windy City’s own Henhouse Prowlers. Favoring the awry take on the traditional bluegrass approach, the Prowlers were dressed to impress, and their play came across in the same manner. Mixing originals and covering masters like Bill Monroe and John Hartford, HHP did their part by both amply honoring and adding to the rich tradition of sharing the song.

Keeping the homegrown feel of the festival going, The Giving Tree Band brought their brand of amplification and percussion oriented music to the stage, along with a rabid local fan base who reacted very vocally to their onstage appearance. While far from traditional, The Giving Tree Band held the music’s core spirit tightly in their grasp while they delivered one energetic and spirited song after the next, ably lifting the audience to new heights. Obvious crowd favorites, the band would later return to back up the second half of singer/songwriter Joe Purdy‘s set.

Mandolin player David Grisman has earned a stellar reputation as both a band mate and leader. Equally at home whether sharing the load or leading the way, Grisman was an integral part in the way that bluegrass reached new ears over the years, primarily through his work with the unlikely supergroup Old & in the Way, alongside Jerry Garcia, Vassar Clements, Peter Rowan and John Kahn.

Through the years, “the Dawg” has worked with virtually every acoustic notable, from Doc Watson to Bonnie Raitt, Earl Scruggs and countless others. His current quintet, which spotlights a jazzier lean, was the outfit that took the stage in Chicago.

From the set’s inception, the CBB crowd was hushed and enthralled by tunes Like “Dawg’s Waltz” and “Midnight Moonlight.” Adequately demonstrating that instruments can be used to play any type of music when placed in the proper hands, Grisman picked and strummed with a mixture of force and dexterity that showed the mark of a true master.

Following the Grisman set would be a daunting task for most, but not to another true king of bluegrass who was in the theatre… living legend, Del McCoury.

For more than fifty years, Del has been making his living with a strung up box, a falsetto croon and a sense of style and composure that has become famous in its own right. Dapper as always in his customary tailored suit, Del was joined by his band that features sons Rob and Ron on mandolin and banjo, respectively.

Whatever talent-bestowing force there is in the universe, it has truly blessed the McCourys. Throughout the set, and per recent tradition, Del called out for requests halfway through his set, wowing the crowd with the sheer number of songs at his command. For most who exhibited a move like this, it would be deemed as grandiose, but no so for Del. For him, it is simply the showmanship that courses through his soul and his consummate desire to always leave his audiences knowing that they got a bargain when they bought their ticket.

The elder McCoury embodies a musician that, even with over half a century in, remains grateful and humbled by the fact that people come to see him play. His sons are following directly in his footsteps, creatively their own people but possessing the same instrumental mastery and genuine demeanor of their dad. The set was, as it always is, beautiful.

To close out the evening, there was not a living bluegrass act who promoters could place atop Grisman and McCoury on a lineup. Therefore, the two living giants participated in a resurrection of the sound created by the man credited as being the “the father of bluegrass,” Bill Monroe, with a set dubbed “The Big Mon Jam (a Tribute to Bill Monroe).”

Monroe’s ghost haunts stages across the world when banjos, fiddles and such are taken up in song. David Grisman and Del McCoury are two men who respect this significance and chose to honor him with a combined set of tunes written by the master.

Starting out together alone on the stage, Grisman and McCoury were joined by Del’s band, and brought the house to its collective feet by the end of their tribute to the man who would have been 101 years old this year; and while living over a century would have made him remarkably well aged, that lifespan is nothing compared to the length of time is songs will live, written into the fabric of bluegrass’ soul.

When Del McCoury is not of a mind to go a’wandering, his sons and band mates venture out as the Travelin’ McCourys. Without their patriarchal leader on guitar, the band drafts the finest talent in music to help them thicken out the sound and thereby provide a sonic diversity to keep things fresh. The Travellin’ McCourys even recorded an album with the gospel-tinged sacred steel sound of The Lee Boys. On this auspicious occasion, they recruited no less than Billy Nershi (String Cheese Incident / Emmitt-Nershi) to play guitar and added Yonder Mountain String Band front man and mandolin player extraordinaire, Jeff Austin, into the mix for good measure for the CBB’s proverbial “late night set” coined The Bluegrass Ball Jam.

Easily the energy highpoint of the night, Austin traded runs with Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Rob McCoury sped through blistering leads, and Travelin’ violinist Jason Carter bowed and sang with wisdom and gravity. The smiles traded between the players matched the grins on the faces in the Auditorium Theatre throng to perfection, and their choice of the set-closing SCI number, “Jellyfish,” had the band running and jumping in place while the crowd gave the appearance of an ensuing joy filled riot.

With a noticeable looks of disappointment the band said goodnight, while casting longing glances at their instruments, obviously wishing for one more chance to play, not just for the people, but for themselves.

With their goodbyes and the blinding house lights, the audience began the herding shuffle out into the cold Chicago night, having been warmed from the inside all day long. There was much chatter as the mass made its exodus, but one topic reigned high above the rest: Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival weekend two at the Congress.

Click the thumbnail(s) to view more photos from the fest by Rex Thomson