I’ve long been a Sufjan Stevens fan. He is an intelligent, clever songwriter who seems to enter every record with an ambitious plan and the determination to carry it through, and his finest songs are charged with the strongest emotional resonance, especially “Chicago,” which with its anthemic strings, inviting mass choir, and straining but hopeful lyrics, is a soundtrack for new beginnings. This is why it is all the more remarkable for me that Stevens, has made the finest album of his career and one of the best of 2015 with Carrie and Lowell, a record about the ultimate ending.
If you’re like many people, you watched the Grammy Awards on CBS last Sunday night. If you’re like even more people, you paid attention as the Internets blew up about some media-fueled spontaneous feud that may or may not lead directly to causing World War III.
Long story short: on Sunday, in a huge upset, alternative rock musician Beck’s Morning Phase won the coveted Album of the Year trophy over Beyonce’s self-titled silver lion of death that was widely expected to take home the tiny record player.
I know the best place in town to hear music and try literally dozens of beers, and it is not Taste of Chicago. Tonight, I checked out the Square Roots Festival in Lincoln Square, and it was awesome. The Square Roots Festival runs from Friday, July 11 through Sunday, July 13, and you (yes, you) should check it out. Despite getting there shortly after 8:00 p.m., music was pumping out of the north stage and there were hundreds of people in the street between Montrose and Wilson on Lincoln Ave. Most of the vendors were still open, including an amazing line up of food trucks, tents, and…oh, right, the beer: Fifteen primarily local breweries each with at least two of their lineup for you to try.
Most street festivals and art shows in Chicago put forth the same line up of art vendors, and this festival isn’t much different, save that a number of local vendors from Lincoln Square have tents offering their wares. A score of local restaurants have food stations lining the street, including Lincoln Square favorites Bistro Campagne, Fountainhead, Gather, and Cheesie’s Pub.
Music, however, is the biggest draw for the festival, proceeds from which will help support the Old Town School of Folk (full disclosure: I take guitar lessons at the school). Tonight, Joe Driscoll & Sekou Kouyate were creating amazing African/hip hop/reggae awesomeness (that’s a thing, right?) to a crowd of well over two hundred. They were followed by Ivan & Alyosha, a Seattle based group with a fantastic name (any other Literature geeks get the reference?), a remarkably upbeat folk band whose album I’ll be purchasing as soon as my bank account will allow. Tomorrow’s headliner is Bobby Bare, Jr’s Young Criminals Starvation League. You can check out “Valentine” on YouTube.
Folk and World Music bands aren’t the only acts getting stage time. Old Town offers a number of awesome music ensembles and classes. Sunday will feature their Brazilian Folk Ensemble with Paulinho Garcia (5:00-5:45 p.m); visitors can try out their African Dance (1:30 – 2:30 p.m) or Flamenco classes (2:45- 3:45 p.m), or just hang out and watch Aloft Circus Arts (8:00 – 8:30 p.m). If you want to catch up with Travis and me, you’ll find us in the 2nd Half Guitar Jam (1:30 – 2:15 p.m).
There’s always something to do on summer weekends in Chicago. There’s a street fest happening almost every weekend, and this weekend there’s Taste of Chicago to compete with as well. If you want over-crowded places with absurd food prices and too many tourists, go to Taste. If you want a chill atmosphere, great beers, and an amazing musical experience, then go to Square Roots.
Well, not completely bare. A single table draped with a black tablecloth sits center-stage. Two bottles of water await the performers. There are two microphone stands, both positioned to broadcast the acoustic instruments that will be played throughout the two hour-long sets. Beyond that, there is nothing to suggest any finery — the backdrop is a single black curtain. Various backstage elements – a step ladder, touring crates, a trash can – are visible from the edge of the audience. All of these aesthetic choices suggest a haphazard conception, yet there is intention to everything. Gillian Welch’s strength lies in the contrast between the minimalist qualities of her musical performance and the soaring strength of her rich, smoke-flavored voice. The staging only enhances this.
When she takes the stage, she carries an acoustic guitar. Neither her instruments, nor the multiple guitars played by accompanist/collaborator David Rawlins, are connected to any amplifiers. The very presence of a microphone seems a violation of the intimacy of her music. One gets the feeling that the best way to listen to the music of Gillian Welch would be to sit in a parlor room in Nashville as she and Dave play their latest offerings for family and friends. We are not at a concert — we’re at a family talent show, invited guests, and what we’re hearing is as fresh as the moment it was conceived.