I think the Reader’s pullout Blues Fest guide [June 4] was beautiful and functional, a welcome adjustment (if my memory serves) to your usual Blues Fest coverage. The only obvious lack was a map of the area, but you probably have your reasons.
I’d like to respond to some of the ideas posed in the written introduction, inside front cover of the guide. I also have been to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, three times in the last five years, and two of those times attended all seven days, both weekends. I have attended the Chicago Blues Festival probably nine times in the past 14 years, usually one or two days each, but this year I plan to hit three of the four days, because so far (as I write on Sunday morning) it’s been the best ever. I am not in any way or shape a musician or music critic; I’m probably in that group of a few hundred thousand who will “pack Grant Park no matter who’s playing,” but I don’t think that’s necessarily all bad.
I too run a mental comparison between the New Orleans and Chicago music festivals, and the New Orleans fest usually comes out on top. But I don’t think the Chicago fest has a long way to go, and I don’t think that charging for tickets in order to pay higher performance fees is the right path. When I read the suggestion of charging for “just those prime seats down front at Petrillo,” I got a vision of a more classist Blues Festival, with the best stuff available for those who pay, and only the by-products available for those who don’t. There’s already enough elitism in both cities’ fests, what with VIP-access authorization available to some (most of whom probably deserve it, one way or another). It’s partly a question of scale. I paid $18 to get into the New Orleans fest each day this year, but I had a chance at something like 13 music venues, not to mention art exhibits, cooking demos (where I received a soft-shell crab), craft workshops, panel discussions on local culture…here I’m sounding like a commercial for the New Orleans fest, but what I’d really like to urge is that the Chicago Blues Festival get better at what it is, not mimic the festival in New Orleans. Exciting as it is to know (in New Orleans) that there are 13 musical opportunities out there and all the other stuff too, most people probably don’t make it to a third of them in a day, and I think the scale of the Chicago Blues Festival is just about right. I do wonder if the selling of tickets for food and beer is a good idea. I think it’s really great that the Chicago Blues Festival happens downtown, against a backdrop of some of the most beautiful and dramatic urban architecture, and anyone can come, whether they have 18 bucks in their pocket or not. That part’s truly better here, and I think it’s really great that the city of Chicago makes it a priority to keep it free. I don’t know what the musicians’ performance fees are in New Orleans or Chicago, but I would not assume that the fees are higher there in New Orleans. Reportedly musicians are proud to have the privilege of playing the Jazz & Heritage Festival. And I had some music experiences this year in Chicago that at least rivaled music experiences I’ve had in New Orleans. The thing I saw was passion and care, and people playing their hearts out, taking nothing for granted. That’s one of the beautiful things I’ve seen in New Orleans–the performance is elevated somehow, and I think part of it is that the musicians think this is special, they don’t act like they’ve arrived.
I spent my afternoons this past weekend at a small side stage, moving up to a close seat at Petrillo for a while on the last evening when the action was over at the small stage. I had a better time eye-to-eye with the workers and the triers at the smaller stage than amidst the hoopla and star-spangled pomp at Petrillo.
The culture in New Orleans is very different than the culture in Chicago, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to mimic their fest, no matter how tempting. Though I’ve had a better time at the Chicago Blues Festival applying the principles I’ve learned in New Orleans: make a day of it, don’t just stop in between appointments. Be ready to tolerate some heat and maybe suffer a little. Travel light, leave the pager and cell phone behind, and interact with the people right around you, the people gathered there in a common interest. Leave the datebook planner and to-do list somewhere else as well, and just soak in the glory that is life in Chicago in June. A good festival has as much to do with the attitude of the festgoers as who’s playing or how much they’re getting paid. Chicagoans could stand to loosen up, as if nobody’s watching, just for the joy of it.
All in all, I think Chicago’s got a good thing going. I think it can be better, but I don’t think charging admission is the way, and I thank the Reader for making the Chicago Blues Festival a priority as well.
Anne Marie Harm