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Bluegrass And Blues Fest Closes On A Sour Note

By Sarah Cobarrubias in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 30, 2012 7:00PM

Day two of the Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Fest reminded us of why we avoid Congress Theater like the plague. That’s not to badmouth the fest itself—the attractive bill featured both local favorites and big-name acts, though it could be argued that there should have been a greater emphasis on blues music. But the multi-stage layout of day two made for a chaotic mess (the lobby was so packed at all times that you could barely get through to the main stage), and the venue’s poor sound quality put a muddy damper on much of the night.

The headliners may have drawn in the crowd, but some of the most entertaining acts of the night graced the secondary stages. The Great Divide, Jaik Willis, and Band Called Catch brought incredible energy to the lobby stage, and we were ecstatic to finally hear Jon Drake and The Shakes’ symphonic-pop hit “Elizabeth Johnston” live. These bands seemed to put forth everything they had, perhaps attempting to compensate for the lobby’s lousy acoustics and their second-string roles in the event. The Big Hit Blues Band took to the balcony stage, filling the room with gorgeous wailing horns and heavy blues riffs. At the end of their short 30-minute set, we found ourselves wishing the Big Hit had more time and maybe a main-stage spot.

Over on the main stage, both Joe Pug and Dawes gave excellent performances, and their warm, acoustic-driven folk music seemed to benefit from the arena-like sound quality of the Congress. The sound quality during Drive-By Truckers’ performance, however, was horrendous, and not just because of the terrible acoustics of Congress Theater. For the first few songs of the set, the volume was cranked up so high that what was supposed to be loud-and-rowdy Southern rock was just blaring, incoherent thunder. After being approached about the volume, the sound engineers finally turned it down about five songs in, but the band had already lost a chuck of their crowd.

The hardcore DBT fans, of course, stuck around. Through a nearly 2-hour set of grinding guitars, Southern rock riffs, and crashing drums, the Truckers played fan favorites like “Three Dimes Down,” “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,” and “Marry Me” before closing with “Hell No I Ain't Happy.” The crowd demanded an encore, and so DBT returned to the stage with “Zip City” followed by “Let There Be Rock,” ending the night with a jubilant sing-along.

In all, this year’s Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Fest presented its best lineup yet, and we’re curious to see what it brings to the table next year. But its closing day was hindered by the constraints of the Congress. Here’s hoping the fest moves on to a more suitable venue in the future.