July 14, 2002
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP
Eight years on from the alternative explosion of the mid-’90s, when the
Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, Veruca Salt, and Liz Phair drew national
attention to the local music scene, Chicago remains one of the most vibrant
cities in America for cutting-edge rock, as well as for house music (which
was born here) and hip-hop (which thrives in defiance of the dominating
sounds that hail from the coasts and the south).
But you would never have known this from looking at the musical lineup for
this year’s Taste of Chicago festival, an embarrassment of bland and
mediocre has-beens. And the problem isn’t just with Taste.
From shutting a reunion of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead out of
Grant Park, to helping to drive Lounge Ax out of business, to failing to
support a proper musical museum such as the one at the Motown Studio in
Detroit, Chicago consistently fails to honor its rich pop-music history, and
it actively turns its back on the thriving present-day scene.
Though the city’s cultural czars deny this, Chicago seems to have a real
problem with rock ’n’ roll. Consider the following:
* While this year’s Summerfest in neighboring Milwaukee included first-rate
acts such as Ben Folds, Alanis Morissette, Ray Charles, the Allman Brothers,
Lucinda Williams, Alicia Keys, the Eagles, Gov’t Mule, Los Lobos, and
Chicagoans Local H, the Taste lineup gave us the likes of Foreigner,
Survivor, and Hootie and the Blowfish—all fairly dismal bands at their best,
and now well past their primes.
The difference, city officials are quick to point out, is that Summerfest
charges admission to its concerts, as do other major annual music fests such
as the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans and the South By Southwest
Music & Media Conference in Austin, Texas. Chicago remains committed to the
music at Taste being free, and this is a noble goal. But free garbage is
still free garbage.
Surely the greatest city in America can do better than tiny burgs like
Austin and Milwaukee.
Not surprisingly, part of the problem is politics. Starting in 1999, the
city opted to handle the booking at Taste itself, working in conjunction
with local radio stations instead of recruiting professional concert
promoters like Jam Productions or Clear Channel Entertainment. “It was kind
of for financial reasons; we were able to take monies that went outside and
put them into the entertainment that we were hiring for the Taste,” says
city spokeswoman Cindy Gatziolis.
But the city also admits concerns about the kind of crowd that edgier rock
artists might draw. “The suggestion that certain acts are not welcome, well,
it’s really not about rock; it’s really any genre of music that would draw
too large a crowd,” Gatziolis says. “Obviously, by nature of this being
free, we have to keep some sort of perimeter control. The Stones or Britney
Spears—that type of act would just draw too much.”
This, of course, is relative. Officials estimated that the crowd for the
July 3rd fireworks display would draw 1.5 million people to the
lakefront. Crowds of a similar size were drawn to Grant Park for
celebrations of the Bulls’ championships. No matter how big the musical
star, it is doubtful that they would exceed those draws.
The acts that played at this year’s Taste did not do so for free. Certainly
there were dozens of other more vibrant artists—including locals from
alternative country chanteuse Neko Case, to grunge-rockers Local H, to
dance-music hero Felix da Housecat—who would have performed for the same
amount or less, and which Chicago could have been much prouder of. (Wilco’s
headlining performance on July 4, 2001 remains one of the few Taste
standouts in the last four summers.)
This city deserves a music festival that ranks with the country’s best. (Bluesfest
isn’t it--it operates under the same constraints of limited funds to secure
prime headliners.) If New Orleans can pull it off every year, why can’t
* We’ve been hearing for years about the city’s ambitious Grant Park
Framework Plan, which was finally officially adopted by the City Council on
May 8. As part of the park’s new-millennial makeover, concerts will
eventually be shifted away from the Petrillo Band Shell (host of Taste and
the Blues Fest) south to Hutchinson Field, where plans call for a new
natural amphitheatre. But rock may not be welcome there.
Last August, local promoters Jam presented Radiohead in Hutchinson Field in
what the city viewed as a test of the new site’s feasibility. Despite
complaints of some sound conflicts with the Grant Park Symphony and
objections about the noise and the crowds from some residents, nearly
everyone deemed the show a success. But at the last minute, Jam was denied
the chance to bring Terrapin Station, the reunion of the surviving members
of the Dead, to the same site this August 3rd and 4th.
Instead, the concert was sent packing to the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in
East Troy—which means that the approximately 100,000 people the show would
have drawn took hundreds of thousands of dollars of business out of the city
and the state, depriving Chicago hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and
convenience stores of that income, and forcing local residents to travel to
(a collective groan) Wisconsin.
The controversy recalls an earlier one in 1998, when the Smashing Pumpkins,
the most successful rock band this city has ever produced, wanted to play a
concert benefiting local children’s charities in Grant Park, and were
similarly denied permission by the Parks District. (They wound up performing
at what was then the New World Music Theatre in Tinley Park.)
These concerts would not have cost Chicago taxpayers; promoters here all pay
a hefty entertainment tax that funds clean-up and security. True, with
Terrapin Station, some softball teams would have been denied access to
Hutchinson Field for four days, and neighbors across Michigan Avenue from
the park would have had to put up with some noise and inconvenience. (About
100 of them signed a petition protesting.) But such is life in the big city.
Try living anywhere near Wrigley Field and see what kind of hassles you have
to deal with on a regular basis. In the end, these kinds of events are what
makes city living special, and so much more exciting than life in the
I’m still waiting for Chicago Parks chief David Doig to respond to a request
I made in late May for a sit-down interview about rock in Grant Park—“I
can’t believe that you think this is worth an article,” spokeswoman Angie
Amores said—but sources familiar with negotiations for the aborted Terrapin
Station concert said Doig didn’t think the Dead was a suitable group for
Grant Park, or that its fans were a desirable audience.
The fact is, Grant Park belongs to Deadheads and Pumpkins fans as much as it
belongs to joggers and softball players. Their taxes are certainly welcomed
by the city. Only their music isn’t.
* Chicago’s music clubs are consistently cited as some of the best in the
country, and they are a major draw for tourists as well as a lucrative
attraction for local residents. But talk to the owner of any rock, blues,
jazz, or dance venue, and you’ll hear nothing but a frustrated litany of
complaints about hassles from city building inspectors, police (who monitor
noise complaints), the Fire Department, and the Liquor Control Commission.
This isn’t to say that the city should turn a blind eye toward violations;
we rely on it to secure public safety. But club owners (who only speak off
the record, fearing even more trouble if they complain in public) say that
the scrutiny given to the handful of music venues far exceeds that given to
the hundreds of sports and singles bars.
This was certainly the case with the late, lamented Lounge Ax, which finally
shut down in 1999 after years of noise complaints that never seemed to
trouble the many non-music bars located on the same strip of Lincoln Avenue
west of Halstead.
Equally troubling is the city’s attitude about all-ages shows in rock-club
settings. The legal maze that promoters have to negotiate in order for young
music lovers to be allowed entrance to a venue that normally serves liquor
has always been byzantine (many say that these licenses are simply no longer
granted). But the situation has been even worse since the city passed a
draconian anti-rave ordinance in May 2000, threatening promoters, DJs, and
property owners with fines up to $10,000 for hosting an unlicensed dance
What’s more, Chicago’s most renowned all-ages rock club, the Fireside Bowl
on Fullerton Avenue, has been on borrowed time for several years now. The
city is going to seize the site under eminent domain in order to raze it and
build a park. When it’s gone, it’s doubtful that it will be replaced.
When I decried the situation for underage fans on a recent episode of
“Chicago Tonight,” Cheryl Hughes of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events
suggested as all-ages alternatives Jazz Fest in Grant Park or a trip to
Arlington Park. Memo to the city: Kids tend to like music that’s a little
more upbeat (not to mention of their generation), and do we really want to
encourage betting on horses over dancing to loud music?
* Finally, there’s the matter of history. Some of the most influential rock
and blues music ever was recorded here. But while there are memorials and
tours of everything from the Water Tower that survived the Chicago Fire to
the garage that hosted the St. Valentine’s Massacre, how has the city
honored its historic musical locales?
Maxwell Street, site of some of the most famous blues clubs and a strip that
could have been our equivalent of New Orleans’ Beale Street, was bulldozed
to make way for development. And while 2120 S. Michigan Ave., home of the
legendary Chess Studio where Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and
Chuck Berry recorded, while designated as a landmark in 1990, it’s home to
an under-funded, half-hearted museum (run by Blues Heaven, not the city),
which offers exhibits and tours that pale in comparison to those presented
at Sun Studio in Nashville or Motown in Detroit.
In recent years, the Illinois Film Commission has actively promoted Chicago
as a base for big-time filmmakers, but no such body exists for music. Based
in Austin, the Texas Music Office proudly promotes that state’s historic
rockers (from the wholesome Buddy Holly to the relatively subversive 13th
Floor Elevators), as well as lauding current Lone Star artists like Lucinda
Williams and Jimmy Dale Gilmore, and lending its support to South By
Southwest. The Louisiana Music Commission does
the same there, and it plays an active role in the Jazz and Heritage
Heaven forbid any local resident encourage more
state bureaucracy, but doesn’t Illinois need something similar?
One could argue that this city’s anti-rock bias,
like many things here, dates back to the first Daley administration. The
heads that were cracked during the riots at the 1968 Democratic National
Convention included plenty of rock fans’, as well as those of the venerated
MC5, the only band that attempted to perform at the protests. But surely our
current Mayor Daley, who at 60 is the same age as Mick Jagger, grew up with
a little bit more of appreciation for rock ’n’ roll.
Maybe that’s supposing too much. Listen, Mayor: I
would be happy to burn you a great compilation CD featuring some of the best
Chicago rock artists, past, present, and future. But you’d have to promise
not to give us another Taste music lineup like the one we just endured; to
consider one or two rock shows per summer in the new Grant Park; to lighten
up on our rock clubs (support small businesses as well as the big guys!),
and to pay more than lip service to this city’s musical history.
Is that really too much to ask?