The start of Chicago’s summer of scaled-down music fests

June 9, 2011

The crowd at Chicago's Blues Fest in June of 2008.

Unless they’ve been paying close attention, most of the music lovers who’ll kick off the long loud summer in Grant Park with this weekend’s Blues Festival probably are unaware that the big free fests almost didn’t happen this year, at least not as we’ve seen in summers past, and that their future remains uncertain. But concertgoers noting the scaled-down nature of things may wonder why.

Here’s the answer.

In the chaotic months preceding his exit from office, Mayor Richard M. Daley took several actions that dramatically impacted Chicago’s signature musical celebrations: Taste of Chicago, the Blues Festival, and the Chicago Jazz Festival (each of which draw 300,000 to a million visitors a year, according to the city), plus the Celtic Festival, the Gospel Music Festival, the Viva! Chicago Latin Music Festival, and the Country Music Festival (each of which draw 100,000 to 300,000 people).

Last fall, with the ongoing budget crisis looming, Daley announced a desire to privatize these festivals (just like the parking meters), sparing the city the cost without hurting a big part of the musical culture. Officials issued a request for proposals which sources say was tailor-made for the administration’s favorite concert promoter: Austin, Texas-based C3 Presents, who have a long-term deal to bring Lollapalooza to Grant Park negotiated in part by their lobbyist and Daley’s nephew, Mark Vanecko.

Surprising many observers, when the deadline for proposals arrived during the sleepy days around Christmas, there only was one bid—and it wasn’t from C3 (which may be overextended, recently branching out to bring Lollapalooza to Chile, and reviving the Langerado Festival in Southern Florida, in addition to running the Austin City Limits Festival). Instead, the city got an attractive proposal from a trio of companies that came together as Celebrate Chicago: local promoters Jam Productions, who had been shut out of the city parks for some time by the Daley administration in favor of the corporate concert bad boys, C3 and Ticketmaster/Live Nation; AEG Worldwide, a national concert promoter with an excellent track record of running major festivals including Coachella and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the Illinois Restaurant Association, which always has been closely involved with Taste.

The Celebrate Chicago proposal would have significantly stepped up the ambition and artistry at all of the festivals, but it would have come at a cost: While most shows and events would have remained free, some would have had a ticket price similar to what’s charged for big concerts at Milwaukee’s Summerfest.

In early January, Daley suddenly reversed himself, claiming that the festivals had to remain 100-percent free—though the request for proposals specified no such thing, and in the preceding months, then-city festivals chief Megan McDonald and the mayor himself both made numerous public statements saying the festivals probably would have to start charging. The reasons for this flip-flop remain unclear.

Concurrent with all of this, the Daley administration was gearing up to merge McDonald’s department, the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, with the Department of Cultural Affairs, and to move all of the music and cultural programmers at the latter to the Tourism Fund. (That is, those who weren’t just laid off.) And very little if anything was being done to book the acts for the summer of 2011.

When the dust settled, temporarily, in mid-winter, oversight and booking for Taste were shifted to the Park District; the Viva! Chicago and gospel, Celtic, and country music festivals all were reduced to one day each as part of that; and employees at the Park District and the newly merged Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events were scrambling to book acts for those celebrations and the jazz and blues festivals—a task made especially difficult for the latter because veteran Blues Festival coordinator Barry Dolins retired after last year’s event.

Ably assisted by stalwarts of the blues community, including the Alligator and Delmark Records labels, the city managed to pull a 2011 Blues Festival out of its butt, pretty much in line with the predictable rut it’s been in for the last decade. There are no superstars this Friday through Sunday, but there are a handful of credible main-stage acts (including Hubert Sumlin, Honeyboy Edwards, Shemekia Copeland, and Lonnie Brooks with Eddy “the Chief” Clearwater) and, as usual, some good free music on the smaller side stages. (The full lineup can be found here.)

The music at Taste, which runs from June 24 through July 3, is a sadder affair, but we’re lucky there’s any at all, given Daley’s muddled about-face. (Da Mayor on Jan. 6: “It’s called Taste of Food! We’re not in it for music!”)

Los Horoscopos de Durango play on June 24, Viva! Chicago Latin Music Day; Donald Lawrence & Company headline on June 26, Gospel Music Day; Broadway in Chicago does its hackneyed thing on June 27; the Lemonheads, an alternative pop act that hasn’t been relevant since 1992, perform with the survivors of Material Issue on June 28; Natalie MacMaster tops the bill on Celtic Music Day, June 29; easy-listening offspring Natalie Cole croons on June 30; Loretta Lynn (the best booking of the fest) joins two-thirds of the Dixie Chicks on July 1, Country Music Day; Everest and the Jayhawks play on July 2, and teen favorite Greyson Chance closes things out on July 3. (As yet, the artist is “TBA” for Saturday, June 25.)

Following the dubious modus operandi in place since Jam was edged out of booking Taste in the ’90s, the city seems to have relied on local radio stations to rope in performers in their respective genres, which is one reason why so many of the bookings in 2011 and recent years have been so uninspired and bland. Only artists on a certain level are willing to play a festival pretty much as a favor to a medium whose importance is shrinking every day, at least in terms of selling CDs.

As for the Jazz Festival, I’ll leave it the experts and/or tireless boosters of that shindig to discern the merit of what has been cobbled together there. It takes place on Labor Day Weekend, and the lineup can be found here.

The biggest festival question, though, is what happens next.

Our new mayor hasn’t said whether he’ll honor Daley’s last-minute “the music needs to be free!” edict, or if he’ll revisit the privatization plan. Rahm Emanuel has yet to name a replacement for outgoing Park District Superintendent Tim Mitchell, or to say whether that department will continue to run Taste. And though his new commissioner of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Michelle Boone, made her first appearance before the City Council on Tuesday, she did not mention music once in her 500-word statement. (“My first priority as commissioner will be to ensure that the entire department is working together as one unified team, with shared goals and a common culture,” she said.)

Bottom line: Enjoy what’s left of the big free music festivals in 2011, because it’s anybody’s guess whether they will be here in 2012.

How we got here: Further reading about all of the above

June 2: A key post for Chicago music: Park District to get a new chief

May 13: Controversial city festivals chief resigns

Feb. 2: Daley rejects the only bid to privatize the city music fests (and finally make them world-class events)

Jan. 20: Lois Weisberg: “This is one of the worst things that ever has happened to the city.”

Jan. 7: Privatizing Taste: What changed for Daley since November?

Jan. 6: "It's called Taste of Food. We're not in it for music."

Jan. 3: And the mystery bidder vying to privatize Chicago's music festivals is...

Dec. 27: Only one bidder wants to privatize Chicago’s music festivals… but who the heck is it?

Dec. 20: What's really going on at Cultural Affairs, and what happens to arts and music now?

Dec. 16: Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs is dismantled as 29 are laid off

Dec. 14: Nope, they won’t have to remain free… and answers to other questions about privatizing the city music festivals

Dec. 7: City festivals chief responds to this blog’s reporting on the push for privatization

Dec. 6: Are a political power struggle and a sweetheart deal fueling the city's push to privatize the summer music festivals?

Nov. 22: Psst! Hey, buddy: Wanna buy a city festival?