I’ve mentioned this a few times before (here, for example), but I first met the indefatigable Chicago singer and songwriter Tom Schraeder more than a decade ago, when he was 16 or 17, lived across the street and sat on his front porch constantly playing Dave Matthews songs on acoustic guitar. Partly out of the altruistic desire to steer an obviously talented kid in a better direction, and partly because it would have been preferable to hear anything but Dave Matthews, I loaned him albums by the Velvet Underground, Nick Drake and Paul Westerberg, took him to some shows and generally encouraged him to think for himself and to think big.
Mind you, I’m not taking credit for any of this, but think big he certainly has during the intervening years: living for a stretch in Austin and sponsoring an independent showcase timed to but sneering at South by Southwest; recording and touring nonstop; making a movie when releasing another plain old album seemed like a too-predictable move, and putting together and promoting innumerable genre-defying multi-band bills highlighting diverse local talents, often to benefit a worthy charity.
When Tom first breathlessly runs his latest scheme by you in his usual rush of energy, it’s hard not to think, “Well, that’s a noble idea, but he’ll never pull it off.” And then, somehow, he pulls it off. Now, he’s about to realize his most ambitious idea yet: A month-long celebration of the local arts scene — film, comedy, visual arts, spoken word and of course music — that he’s calling “Chicago, I Love You.” And it’s already generated heaps of enthusiasm from Chicagoist, Red Eye and other outlets that, in the past, probably would have been in the “he’ll never pull it off” camp.
When I caught up with him Friday afternoon, Tom was painstakingly cleaning every brick at Lilly’s, the often-overlooked gem of a bohemian water hole on Lincoln Avenue where his festival is going down every night in September, and he’d just gotten word that it was okay to expand into the daytime hours, too, starting at 11 a.m. “There are just so many bands and artists who want to be involved, we have to!” he said.
As many Chicagoans have noted, denizens of the Windy City can be bipolar about the place: They love it and they hate. And the music scene is not immune to this attitude. Many local venues, God love ’em, are quick to book the touring buzz bands, but they take the locals for granted, adding them to the bill only because they’re known to draw a hundred people while the headliner may pull a dozen, but then paying the Chicagoans fifty bucks. Schraeder hates that sort of thing.
“Too many shows and festivals here are not as much about the city and its talents as they should be,” the musician says. “I wanted to do something that celebrated what we’ve got here, and there are just so many people who want to do that, too, even if it means playing for free.” Now, he adds, he’ll pay able to pay many of the artists, thanks to a generous grant from Mayari Pritzker, “even if it’s only five or six bucks each, and even if some of it has to come out of my own pocket.”
The genesis of this particular big idea came from Tom wanting to do something special to celebrate the release of his next indie album, which I’ve heard parts of, and which is his best yet. Then he was thinking how sad it was how Chicago doesn’t have anything like SXSW, and how SXSW today isn’t really the SXSW it once was either, and that’s why he did his Austin anti-SXSW celebration. He realized he could do that at home, too. And finally he recalled the advice he got from Evanston homeboy Eddie Vedder when he met the Pearl Jam singer a few years back.
“He said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t care too much about the labels and the industry. Record whenever and however you can, even if it’s on a cassette player and you’re banging on the couch for a drum. And most of all, meet as many other artists as you can!’ And I thought, ‘Hey, this festival would be a great way to meet a lot of artists!’”
So now we have 30 days and nights running of “Chicago, I Love You,” with more than six dozen acts already announced, and the second blast of artists set to be publicized on Aug. 30. It all goes down at Lilly’s, 2515 N. Lincoln, and it’s all free. More info can be found at Tom’s Web site, but here’s a quick look at some of the musical and other highlights:
Music: Tom Schraeder, Mars Williams (Liquid Soul), Pat Sansone (Wilco), Brighton, Ma, Amy Saraiya and The Outcome, Moritat, Derek Nelson, Jeremy David Miller, Nick Miller and The Neighbors, ZiPS, Sleepy Kitty, Gia Margaret, Natureal, Glass Lux, Microphone Misfitz, Matt Ammerman, Rambos, The Kickback, Little Light, Edgars Legzdins, Rego, Gabe Lebowitz, For All The Sweet Children, Audience, David Singer, Grandkids, The Canoes, Sarah Holtschlag and The Crosscuts, Kellispell, Bears of Blue River, Volcanoes Make Islands, Julie Meckler, Istavan and His Imaginary Band, Shelley Miller and The BCC's, Glad Fanny, His Ego, Nick Broste Trio, Will Phalen, Corbin Andricks , 1991, Y La Bamba, Bob Rok, Weeping Willows, Matthew Kerstin
Comedy: Jason Folks, Junior Stopka, Danny Kallas, Adam Burke, James Fritz, Seth Martin, Natalie Jose, Joe Kwaczala, Megan Gailey, Putterbaugh Sisters, Bob Palos, Joe McAdams , Stan Morrow, Matt Riggs, Charlie Bury, Joe Fernandez, Anthony McBrien, Caitlin Bergh, Liza Trager, Alex Sherman, Jacob Williams
Film: 92 Tales, Bailout Pictures , Letterblue Productions, Act Naturally, Big Dog Eat Child, Herman Asph, J.P. Riley, Felix Pineiro, Windy City Story Slam Writers, Alex Bonner, Isidro Hurtado