Big Names on the Street

When I moved to Chicago in the mid-80s, neighborhood street fairs mostly featured second-rate acts destined never to expand beyond a local audience–does anyone remember Phil ‘n the Blanks or Heavy Manners? Though music was an integral part of these summertime events, the programming seemed like an afterthought. Today local bands still dominate street-fair lineups, but the quality has been improving. For instance, Interpol and OK Go played at the Belmont-Sheffield Music Festival in May. And at this weekend’s Taste of Randolph Street–a three-day event whose array of vendors includes upscale restaurants from the celebrated Randolph Street corridor like Marysol, Sushi Wabi, La Sardine, and Marche–the music is almost as good a reason to attend as the food. Saturday’s lineup features Calexico, Spoon, Archer Prewitt, and rarely heard local heroes Eleventh Dream Day.

“My memory of street fairs was that you would have the bar-band mentality. It was like there were bands that were on the street-fair circuit,” says Eleventh Dream Day’s Rick Rizzo. “When I called [bassist] Doug [McCombs] to ask him to do it, he said, ‘Do we really want to do a street fair?’ When I told him that Calexico and Archer Prewitt, people we knew, were also playing, he said OK. It also pays more than a regular show.”

The North Mississippi Allstars and Evan Dando perform on Friday, while Jackopierce and Dada are on the bill for Sunday. This isn’t the first time the festival has presented national touring acts–Cracker, They Might Be Giants, and Soul Asylum are among the bands that have played the event in previous years–but this year more of the performers are in their prime.

The community groups behind neighborhood street fairs usually hire outside companies to book talent, organize vendors, handle security, and advertise. This year the West Loop Gate Community Organization, which puts on Taste of Randolph Street, raised the bar by hiring Jam Productions, the city’s biggest independent concert promoter. “It seemed like a natural to partner with Jam to create an event at a level much higher than people typically expect from street festivals,” says Eric Sedler, president of the organization. “If you have really high-quality entertainment you’re going to get a bigger turnout, the restaurants will make more money, there will be more people making donations, and everybody will do well.” In recent years his event–which requests a donation ranging from six bucks before the music starts to ten once it’s under way–has drawn an estimated 30,000 people.

Donna Sue Van Cleaf, vice president of Entertainment and Creative Services for Jam Productions, says that her company has organized music festivals in the past, most notably the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival and the Madison Blues Festival, but this year marks its first foray into Chicago neighborhood street fairs. Jam’s music industry connections give it plenty of juice in booking good bands–a task Van Cleaf says becomes even easier once a lineup’s strength is established. “A lot of these bands are choosing to play these festivals because it is cooler now,” she says. “They pick and choose if a particular festival is worth playing. They also know that they’re hitting a big audience and they’re not going to get the same number of people they would at a club.” Jam fronts the money to pay the acts and receives a percentage of the fair’s profits. The company is also organizing the 19-year-old Taste of Lincoln Avenue in July and the Chill on Kingsbury Street in August.

Not every festival will feature such top-line entertainment. Taste of Lincoln Avenue has booked 10,000 Maniacs, but most of the 30-plus other acts it’s scheduled are the contemporary equivalent of those 80s bar bands, unoriginal if popular groups like Hello Dave, Underwater People, and Mike and Joe. Its long history and reputation make Taste of Lincoln a steady draw, with average attendance near 50,000, but Mike Lufrano, president of the Wrightwood Neighbors Association, which organizes the event, is still excited about the potential of working with Jam. “Jam is going to be more professional and has a lot more resources and experience than we’ve had in the past, which is great,” he says. But he points out that such festivals are not designed as rock concerts. “These things are good for the neighborhood. We use the revenue that comes from the festival to fund all kinds of institutions, organizations, and charities in our community.”


A few weeks ago Mitch Marlow stepped down as talent buyer at Nevin’s Live, Evanston’s first rock club. He’d been booking the venue since it opened in April 2001. Burned out by the grind of booking a club full-time, he’s now managing a young mod-inspired rock band from Deerfield called the Pages, who will release their debut album in July on Undertow Records. Filling his position at the club is Chris Anderson.

Johann’s Face, the Chicago indie imprint operated by Marc Ruvolo, has just released Urbs in Horto: A Chicago Indiepop Compilation. The collection celebrates the annual Chicago Indiepop Festival, organized by avid show taper Aadam Jacobs. While in its two previous years the festival has taken place over a single weekend, this year’s fest takes place at various venues throughout the summer; the CD will be available at these shows for five dollars. Three of the acts on the compilation, Archer Prewitt, Light FM, and M.O.T.O., play on Thursday, June 26, at Schubas. The 19-track CD also includes previously unreleased music from David Singer, the Slugs, Happy Supply, Kim, the Hushdrops, and Tenki, among others. Indiepop gig info will be updated at

There were several errors in last week’s column on Pete Cosey: Melvin Gibbs never played in Living Colour; Cosey is approaching 60, not 70; and Gibbs, Johnny Juice, J.T. Lewis, and MC Baba Israel are members of Children of Agartha, not Burnt Sugar. I apologize for the mistakes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Arianne Nelson, Emily Wilson.