December in Chicago is typically nothing short of frigid, full of blistery winds and unpredictable weather patterns. For me the long winter months lead to hibernation, longing for warm sunny days filled with ample outdoor activities, and endless concert opportunities. On Saturday December 12th my longing paid off in the form of the second annual Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival (CBB) at the city’s historic Congress Theater.
Bill Nershi and Drew Emmitt
Designed to embrace the atmosphere and ambiance of a typical summer music festival the CBB showcased some 25 bands over a period of 12 hours. While it may have been a typical Chicago winter outside, inside the music and vibe brought a sense of comfort and warmth to musicians and concert goers alike. Spread between three stages—and adjacent hallways and stairwells—sounds of bluegrass, blues, rock and roots music and sporadic jam sessions filled every nook and cranny of the Congress.
On the bill were a collection of local greats including Sex, the Giving Tree Band, and Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, plus headliners the Emmitt-Nershi Band, Béla Fleck & the Flecktone, and Dr. Dog. Adding to the excitement were improv acts, nonprofit activists, assorted vendors and more. In order to get to the main stage one had to meander through a maze of vending booths, followed by patches of lawn chairs and picnic blankets, rows of hula hoopers and swarms of erratic dancers.
Looming over all the festival’s acts was Béla Fleck and his Flecktone—featuring Victor Wooten on bass, Future Man on percussion and patented synth-axe drummitar, and Jeff Coffin on saxophones and flute. In honor of the holiday season and last year’s release (the jazzy Jingle All the Way) the ensemble performed their own twists of holiday standards. If you are like me, you may have just rolled your eyes at the mere thought of Christmas music, but they succeeded in taking a bunch of redundant holiday tunes to the next level. Imagine “Silent Night” in 5/4 time complete with a funky bass breakdown by Wooten, or “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” full of fluttering banjo and Coffin ripping on two saxophones simultaneously. How about a bluegrass rendition of “Linus and Lucy”? If you’re a band camp veteran, and certified jazz geek, the most impressive jingle was “Twelve Days of Christmas” where each day was played in a different time signature and key. Before conquering that feat Fleck warned the audience that experimenting with “Twelve Days of Christmas” was something never before attempted in the Midwest, and that brains would potentially explode. I can assure you that nothing of the sort came close.
Béla Fleck and Alash
Béla Fleck, Jeff Coffin and Alash
Adding to the Flecktone’s impressive spread was guest fiddle player Casey Dreissen, aka the “Christmas Leprechaun”, and, all the way from Siberia, the Alash Voice Ensemble. Alash was comprised of Tuvan throat singers and instrumentalists who added extra flair, texture and interest to “What Child is this?” and especially “Jingle Bells” imposing standard Christmas music provocative new textures. But the show was hardly holiday based; not only did each member of the Flecktone have their requisite expansive solo, but the band also stepped aside to let Alash perform a few traditional compositions. As a whole the nearly two-hour Flecktone set pumped the audience to new heights and musical expectations.
Following the Flecktone on the main stage was a distinct change in musical pace, Dr. Dog. Known for their contemporary 1960’s influenced, harmony-centric, lo-fi, root-rock techniques, Dr. Dog was no match in popularity as a majority of the audience exited the festival before their set. However the resilient crowd that did stick around did not leave disappointed despite the band experiencing a minor bass set-back, which seemed to enhance the enthusiasm after the technicality was remedied. Fans bounced around, screaming out to the band as members of Dr. Dog played it cool by dancing and flailing around stage, in chic plastic sunglasses and knit ski caps, singing of existentialism, reflections, and life.
Dr. Dog wrapped up their set with “The Rabbit, The Bat and The Reindeer” at midnight bringing the festival to a close with a heartening end. Looking out into the main hall the scene was instantly barren: the music was over, the floor littered with cups, lawn chairs were nowhere in site, and security guards were signaling loiterers towards the exit. After a long day of fabulous music and friendly conversations it was time to bundle up and face the impending outside cold.
Dr. Dog setlist