Think of Ravinia as the anti-Lollapalooza. Over three days each August, Lollapalooza runs thousands of fans through a marathon of hundreds of bands. There's the walking back and forth and back and forth between stages. There's the dusty skillet of Grant Park in the summertime. There's the difficult decision-making when you realize you can't be at two stages at once. It's a blast, make no mistake, but it's exhausting.
Ravinia is the country's oldest outdoor music festival, and it's in no hurry. Take the summer, explore and enjoy its music. Picnic on its cool lawn, kick your shoes off. Arrive early, stay late. It's a hike into the far north 'burbs, sure, but it's definitely relaxing.
Ravinia will never corner the market on Lolla's pop-rock cred, but every so often the festival's pop lineup shows signs of at least some creative effort. This year, the schedule has a few perennials -- I keep waiting for the summer Patti LuPone and the BoDeans finally just book a double bill -- and a few are mercifully absent (no Elvis Costello! no Indigo Girls! no Tony Freakin' Bennett!). While this summer's new blood doesn't exactly set the heart racing, here are five sure bets worth the pavilion ticket price and five shows perfect for lying back on the lawn:
SPLURGE FOR PAVILION SEATS
The smirking, white-haired funny guy made a career as a stadium-filling comedian and a theater-filling movie star. All the while, there was always a banjo nearby. Finally, all these years later, his five-string bluegrass chops are his focus. The yuks aren't far behind, though. When he played the Chicago Theatre last fall, he introduced one song saying, "Sad and melancholy -- just like when I told my agent I wanted to do a banjo tour." (7:30 p.m., June 12, performing with the Steep Canyon Rangers, with the Punch Brothers; $22-$50.)
John Hiatt & the Combo and the Levon Helm Band
John Hiatt is one of those American rockers who chugs along just underneath the mainstream radar, securing a revered reputation that somehow never delivers the same level of sales. But his lyrical conviction and satisfying stomp, combined with the Band's legendary Levon Helm, makes for a killer night at Ravinia. (7 p.m., July 1; $22-$45)
The Cat Empire
Silly name, tepid vocalist, a jam-band stink about them -- but here's a live music experience that often exceeds expectations and transcends tastes. Mixing up reggae, beatnik jazz, salsa, hip-hop and classic rock jams, this well-traveled Australian collective offers soft-rock lovin' with a broad world view laced with a spicy horn section. Great to watch on stage, but you're also going to want to dance. (7 p.m., July 6, with Soulive and Raul Midon; $22-$40)
UPDATE: Late Thursday night, Ravinia announced that this concert has been canceled due to a scheduling conflict.
Cheap Trick and Squeeze
Get off the lawn for this double bill of power-pop. Rockford's Cheap Trick is still remarkably viable and flashy in its old age. Robin Zander, 56, remains one of rock's strongest vocalists, and the band's trippy 2009 album, "The Latest," wasn't just Beatles-by-numbers. The reunited Squeeze has a new album coming (yay), though it's just re-recorded hits (boo). Still, the Lennon-McCartney trade-off between Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford is electric live. (7:30 p.m, July 10, $22-$50)
It's a quandary: Do you want to hear Sting make new music, which last time included Shakespeare-era vanity noodling on lutes? Or do you just want the pop hits? After the success of the Police reunion tour, Sting returns on his own for the latter, delivering band and solo singles with the added twist of a full orchestra behind him. It'll be very Sting, which means kinda pompous, occasionally self-righteous and undeniably beautiful.
(7:30 p.m. July 17-18, with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, conducted by Steven Mercurio, $33 for lawn only)
PICNIC ON THE LAWN
Earth, Wind & Fire
Chicago's veteran pop-soul band makes its Ravinia debut this year. The music's great, but the band is not a showcase for stars. Recline on a blanket and look at actual stars while grooving to the bright, hopeful tunes. (7 p.m. Sunday; $22-$70)
'Prairie Home Companion'
One of the finest afternoons of my Chicago life was spent picnicking in the sun while Garrison Keillor did his thing somewhere over there on the Ravinia stage. It's fun to watch the radio show in action, but over 30-plus years Keillor & Co. have proven that visuals are certainly not required. (4:45 p.m., July 3; $10-$65)
Crosby, Stills & Nash
The hair gets whiter, the waistbands get more elastic -- this is not a trio you need to stare at. But their harmonies are still sweet, and they'll have a few choice words about life and politics, no doubt. Enjoy a nosh and just listen. (7 p.m. Aug. 22; $27)
George Benson, and Lee Ritenour & Dave Grusin
Jazz guitarist George Benson's fretwork is worth watching from the front couple of rows. Otherwise, you're best served listening to "Breezin'" while actually in the breeze. The pop-jazz ground covered by Ritenour and Grusin is still fertile, too, proved by 2008's finely composed "Amparo." (7:30 p.m., Aug. 19; $16-$45)
Poi Dog Pondering
Chicago's neo-hippie pop-jam collective remains a secular spiritual experience. Still exciting to behold, whipping up their frenzy onstage, but even better to dance to barefoot on the grass. If there's room, that is -- they've set attendance records at Ravinia before. (8 p.m., Aug. 27; $22-$45)