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Feature Thu Jun 17 2010
[This story was submitted by freelance journalist Evan Minsker.]
Chicago is the home of jazz and the blues. That's no secret. Going back to Jelly Roll Morton and eventually giving the world Chess Records and the Bo Diddley beat, the foundation of Chicago's music history is built almost entirely by the "blues people" who came up from the South.
But Chicago has a less-advertised but storied history with an unlikely genre — bluegrass. Yes, the mandolin and banjo-laden music often associated with backwoods Kentucky and the Tennessee hills had some roots right here.
In 1924, around the time when Louis Armstrong was making waves on the South Side, the WLS National Barn Dance started up in the Sherman Hotel in downtown Chicago. The show is often cited as "second only to the Grand Ole Opry" in its time and was an outlet for Southerners who had recently migrated north. In 1929, Bill Monroe moved to East Chicago, IN, to join his two brothers, Birch and Charlie, who were working at an oil refinery. That year, The Monroe Brothers became members of National Barn Dance. Monroe later became "The Father of Bluegrass," and the rest, of course, is history.
Today, blues bars are spread out all over the city, but there isn't a single "bluegrass bar" in the strictest sense of the term. And while Bloodshot Records mixes roots music with punk sensibilities, there isn't a bluegrass label here in town, either. But there's certainly a "scene." It's not easily defined by a single location, considering the city's bluegrass bands play all over the place. And it's not an easily defined genre, considering bluegrass is split up by subgenres and factions. But there's a number of musicians in town — young and old, suburban and inner-city — playing bluegrass to an enthusiastic audience. Here's a look at three of Chicago's major players in the bluegrass scene and a guide for seeing the music around town.
The Special Consensus
After Bill Monroe left the city, there wasn't very much bluegrass around until the '60s. The folk boom, which famously spawned the likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, had a presence in Chicago. Young acoustic players in the city started taking notice of American roots music. It was then when Greg Cahill got started picking banjo in a Kingston Trio-inspired band. Another member of the band introduced Cahill to the music that would change his life.
"He came in with this record and he said, 'Man, you aren't going to believe this — you gotta hear it,' and he put the Foggy Mountain Banjo album on by Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, and I was like, 'Oh my God!'" Cahill said. "I just couldn't believe it, how great it sounded."
It wasn't long before Cahill acquired "a good banjo," started practicing, won a banjo contest, and started gigging around the city with The Special Consensus Band.
The Special Consensus is the longest running bluegrass band in the city, founded by Cahill in 1975, although there have been many personnel changes over the years. Cahill is the only original member of the band, and currently, the only member living in Chicago (two of the members are based in Nashville).
"We're more of a national band these days," Cahill said. "I'm not in town as much."
Cahill and The Special Consensus are more often on the road playing the big traditional bluegrass festivals as well as southern and western cities. But when they're touring, even though Cahill is the only Chicago man in the band, they're representatives for the city.
"On the national scene, a lot of times people would say, 'Yeah, there are these guys from Chicago trying to play bluegrass music,'" Cahill said. "But I must say, we were good ambassadors for the music, because now, not only are we on an international label, Compass Records, I was elected to the board of the International Bluegrass Music Association, which is a truly international representation of professional bluegrass musicians."
"Greg has been instrumental in introducing people to bluegrass in Chicago," said Chip Covington, founder of the Bluegrass Legends Concerts.
Cahill is currently the president of the International Bluegrass Music Association. Not bad for a guy who grew up on the Southwest Side of Chicago. The Special Consensus' next gig in Chicagoland will be at Harrer Park in Morton Grove on June 22.
[mp3] The Special Consensus: "From_Dusk_Til_Dawn" from 35th Anniversary
Another band of bluegrass ambassadors from Chicago play a wildly different brand of the genre. Bass player Chris Gangi doesn't love defining Cornmeal as a "jam band," but he's willing to concede that it's a somewhat fair term.
"I think in the beginning when we started out, we tried to push away from that moniker as much as possible," Gangi said. "But over the years, we just kind of learned to embrace it and just kind of ignore the negative connotations."
Now elder statesmen of Chicago's bluegrass scene, Cornmeal has been around for 10 years. For the first six years of their career, they played a gig every Wednesday night. Today, they've made themselves a niche by touring on the jam band circuit and playing jam festivals across the country. Chip Covington called the music "jamgrass," a subgenre that steers away from the intellectual, public radio setting of bluegrass and puts it in a setting where the fans actually dance.
Jamgrass, logically enough, takes the traditional elements of bluegrass — fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and twang — and mixes it with elements of jam band music — longer songs, lengthy improvised solos, plugged-in instruments, and drums. Gangi suggested that their jam/bluegrass hybrid is just a logical evolution of traditional bluegrass. While a typical bluegrass recording from the '50s is quite short and doesn't contain a lot of solos, Gangi said that's not because the old time musicians are a conservative bunch. He said Cornmeal's drummer JP Nowak learned that from a group of bluegrass veterans who were session men in the '50s and '60s.
"They said to him, 'You know what, back in the old days, we couldn't take a long solo because we could only record on a 15-minute or 20-minute album.' That's all the room they had on the album," Gangi said. "All we hear is straight songs, but these guys could rip and wail all day long."
Gangi said that while they certainly get "a wonderful response" at traditional bluegrass festivals, the jam festival audiences are much more ready to hear long songs and improvised solos.
"I think that's when we feel the most comfortable is when we know we're in front of an audience that is accepting of the experimentation that we enjoy doing on stage," Gangi said.
Cornmeal are about to head out on another festival tour, which will bring them back through Chicago on July 18 to headline the Windy City Ribfest.
[mp3] Cornmeal - "Girl With Short Brown Hair" from Live In Chicago, IL Vol. I
The trouble with touring staples like The Special Consensus and Cornmeal is that they only play Chicago every once in a while. What about the bluegrass fan in Chicago who wants to hear something right now? That's where Sexfist comes in — a band that's had a standing, weekly gig in Chicago for six years.
When they started out, banjo player Chuck Oakton chose a traditional, old timey name for the band. As a prank, the band dubbed themselves "Sexfist" while Oakton missed a gig to attend his brother's wedding.
"I was livid. But it was weird, because people started coming out to see Sexfist," Oakton said. "We were playing every Tuesday in Rogers Park, and people thought it was hilarious in the neighborhood."
After three months, Oakton said a weekly crowd had developed at the Red Line Tap in Rogers Park to see Sexfist. Oakton thinks people were expecting "Sexfist" to be a punk or metal band, but stayed to enjoy the bluegrass.
Although the moniker is a crass one, it's hard to get more old school than Sexfist. The guys take the "one mic" approach like musicians did in the old days, where they play completely acoustic and gather around a single mic. Plus, they wear suits.
"Bill Monroe — all of his band members wear suits, and he started that tradition in bluegrass," Oakton said. "If you're not dressing up and looking good, to him, it meant you weren't respecting the power of music."
Oakton said Sexfist was the first band to start frequently playing bluegrass at the Red Line Tap. Now, it has become somewhat of a staple. At their weekly show in Rogers Park, Sexfist introduced their replacements, The Mudflapps (a band that features a former member of Sexfist). Now, there's two opportunities to see bluegrass on Tuesday nights — The Mudflapps at Red Line Tap and Sexfist at Jerry's in Wicker Park.
The members of Covington's band, the Bubbly Creek Bluegrass Band, all have day jobs. So do many other musicians around the city. Not Sexfist. Playing bluegrass is how they make their money.
"They've really paid their dues," Covington said.
The band's tenure at Jerry's is on a brief hiatus, but they'll be back in Wicker Park on July 6.
Additional Chicago bluegrass bands
- Tangleweed - A bluegrass/americana band with an Irish tinge. [mp3]
- Bubbly Creek Bluegrass Band - Chip Covington's band was named the Best Bluegrass Band of 2009 by Chicago Magazine. Like Sexfist, they're a traditional "one mic" band. [video]
- The Giving Tree Band - An indie/folk/americana outfit with a mandolin, fiddle, banjo and a killer cover of "Billie Jean." [video]
- 3rd Sunday - Actually an "old time" band by definition, but it's definitely the same string music any bluegrass fan is fond of. [mp3]
- Sunnyside Up - Headed by Colby Maddox from the Old Town School of Folk Music. [stream]
Venues where you're likely to hear Chicago bluegrass
- American Legion Hall, Post 42, in Evanston: As Chip Covington put it, it's an old time legion hall, there's salty veterans, and it's down by the railroad tracks by a river. It's the perfect spot for bluegrass. From the fall to the spring, Chip Covington books bluegrass acts from across the country to play the Legion Hall as part of the Bluegrass Legends Concerts. Unfortunately he closes up shop for the summer because he doesn't want to compete with the free festivals, but keep an eye on their Twitter account for upcoming events.
- Old Town School of Folk Music: One of the most important entities to bluegrass in Chicago is the Old Town School of Folk Music. In fact, Cahill and Gangi both teach classes at the Old Town School. Occasionally, the Old Town School hosts bigger, more prominent bluegrass bands. They also have classes for those wanting to learn how to play bluegrass (Cahill started the Bluegrass Ensemble class).
- Jerry's and Red Line Tap: As noted above, bluegrass happens every Tuesday night at both venues — The Mudflapps at the Red Line Tap and Sexfist at Jerry's.
- The Hideout: The Hideout has a reputation for playing host to a lot of local bands, especially garage rockers and Bloodshot artists, but they also frequently host country and bluegrass bands. On June 27, they're hosting the "Day In the Country" event, which has a variety of country and bluegrass bands on the lineup (also, barbecue).
- Abbey Pub, Fitzgerald's, Martyrs', Evanston SPACE: These venues traditionally host a myriad of music-- Fitzgerald's and SPACE are known for hosting folkies and singer/songwriters, Martyrs' has rockabilly, and the Abbey Pub has a pretty wide variety. But each venue occasionally welcomes bluegrass bands that come through town.
- Schubas, Double Door: It's pretty rare, but on occasion, the two rock clubs play host to bluegrass bands.
- Uncommon Ground on Devon: The restaurant plays host to singer/songwriters and folkies, but this summer, they've got a lot of bluegrass and old time bands on the schedule.
- Farmers markets: Albeit a more freeform and less predictable venue, Chicago's farmers markets are a good spot to find a group of people picking a mandolin and playing a fiddle.
Upcoming bluegrass events in Chicago:
- 6/15 Red Line Tap - The Mudflapps (every Tuesday) [more info]
- 6/18 Uncommon Ground (Devon) - The Mudflapps [more info]
- 6/20 Uncommon Ground (Devon) - 3rd Sunday [more info]
- 6/22 Harrer Park, Morton Grove - The Special Consensus [more info]
- 6/23 Uncommon Ground (Devon) - The Pickin' Bubs [more info]
- 6/24 St. James Cathedral - Sunnyside Up [more info]
- 6/23 Uncommon Ground (Devon) - Hayward [more info]
- 6/27 The Hideout - A Day in the Country feat. Tangleweed, Hayward [more info]
- 7/3 Cubby Bear - The Giving Tree Band, Clifton Roy & Folkstringer [more info]
- 7/7 Jerry's - Sexfist (every Tuesday) [more info]
- 7/8 Millennium Park Family Fun Tent - Tangleweed [more info]
- 7/17 Old Town School of Folk Music - The Henhouse Prowlers 6th Anniversary Show [more info]
- 7/18 Abbey Pub - Dogpatch Ramblers [more info]
- 7/18 Uncommon Ground (Devon) - 3rd Sunday [more info]
- 7/18 Windy City Ribfest in Uptown - Cornmeal [more info]
- 7/20 Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe - The Special Consensus [more info]
- 7/21 Fitzgerald's - The Special Consensus [more info]
- 7/23 Millennium Park Family Fun Tent - Dogpatch Ramblers [more info]
- 7/24 Green City Market - 3rd Sunday [more info]
- 8/06 Evanston SPACE - Tim O'Brien [more info]
- 8/06 Wallace Bowl, Gillson Park, Wilmette - The Special Consensus [more info]
- 8/11 Evanston SPACE - Joy Kills Sorrow [more info]
- 8/29 Portage Park Farmers Market - 3rd Sunday [more info]
- 9/16 Schubas - Crooked Still [more info]
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information.