Chicago’s live-music scene is increasingly dominated by festivals, and not necessarily for the better. Summer blowouts like Pitchfork and Lollapalooza certainly give you bang for your buck, at least in terms of bands per dollar, but trekking from stage to food vendor to beer tent to revolting portable toilet and back again leaves most festivalgoers smelly, exhausted, and broke–and you’ll be lucky to see a third of the acts on the bill.

More often than not the headliners’ slots are beyond mobbed, and the smaller acts haven’t figured out how to command a big festival stage. Even worse, plenty of out-of-town bands end up playing their one tour date in Chicago in front of thousands of indifferent onlookers interested mostly in defending their patch of dirt so they can catch the next, bigger act–and many of these bands have to sign noncompete agreements that preclude more intimate shows elsewhere in town for a big chunk of the rest of the year. Unfortunately, festivals that should be opportunities for music fans of all stripes to party together end up as grueling exercises in feeding the hype machine and keeping up appearances. 

But of course the massive-outdoor-spectacle model is hardly the only way to go. This weekend’s Ears & Eyes Festival, which runs Friday through Sunday at the Hideout, is a decidedly low-key affair, more akin to the Wire‘s Adventures in Modern Music (hosted by the Empty Bottle last month) in that it happens over consecutive nights at a single modestly sized club. It’s focused on fostering a diverse community of artists, not on bringing out the masses to consume what some Web site has decreed to be the Most Obligatory Music of the past year.

Ears & Eyes features 21 bands spread across three nights (each show is $12), plus a prefestival party on Thursday at a secret location–to get invited to that one, you have to buy a three-day pass for $30. This is the fest’s third year, and it’s grown considerably since bassist Matthew Golombisky founded it in 2006 as a one-day party at Sylvie’s, thrown together to raise money to pay off an open-container citation received by one of his friends, who was on tour from the more public-drinking-friendly New Orleans. Golombisky, a Katrina refugee turned Chicagoan, had so much fun that he decided to make Ears & Eyes a yearly event. Since then the festival has moved from the comfy (if scuzzy) confines of Sylvie’s to Subterranean and now the Hideout. The festival has also spawned a record label of the same name, which has released music by several of Golombisky’s projects and by a few of the bands that were part of the scene centered around the defunct Ice Factory.

This year’s lineup includes Brooklyn sculptors of epic noise-punk Parts & Labor, who headline Friday night. The Eternals, purveyors of paranoid agit-reggae and the Reader’s Best Rock or Pop Act of 2008, occupy the top spot on Saturday. Chicago stalwarts Eleventh Dream Day close out the festival at midnight on Sunday–expect guitarist, vocalist, and CPS teacher Rick Rizzo to promise “one more song” before he heads home so he can make it to class in the morning. Many of the other acts (like Algernon, Bill MacKay, and David Daniell) share a spacey, psychedelic jazz-rock vibe, though bass-and-drum punk duo Black Ladies have more in common with Parts & Labor–there’s nothing particularly nuanced or trippy about their yelping, pummeling, and thudding. Look for more coverage in the music section in the days ahead.