"It's only a food festival," Mayor Daley said months ago as the lamest of ducks, defining his vision of the city's annual Taste of Chicago lakefront chowfest. He was defending his staunch opposition to a proposal to both privatize the event and tack on ticket fees for the musical entertainment. He'd asked to explore the privatizing, but he was adamant the event remain free. All of it.
I won't rehash the arguments here about free vs. pay, but as the revamped, reorganized, still-free version of the annual event begins this weekend, it's important to remind folks that the Taste is not only a food festival. We shouldn't take its name too literally. For many people, especially outside Cook County, the Taste is less about sampling actual food than it is about having a nice excuse to come downtown and sample the city itself.
As my Sun-Times colleague Sue Ontiveros wrote in January of her family's annual jaunt to Taste, "The point of our Taste visits was to see the kids' entertainment and experience what our wonderful city has to offer, giving me a chance to show [my son]: 'See, this is your city, embrace it.' "
TASTE OF CHICAGO
♦ June 24-July 3
♦ Grant Park
♦ Free admission. Food requires ticket purchase: strip of 12, $8
♦ (312) 742-4387; tasteofchicago.us
Music is a crucial part of Taste, but it is admittedly just a part of a free festival. In its current form, I've never expected Paul McCartney or Lady Gaga to rock out between the turkey legs and the pizza squares. It's Taste of Chicago, not Taste of the Touring Circuit. Milwaukee's Summerfest is undoubtedly a better music festival, but it is designed to be; it promotes itself that way, sells tickets and utilizes specialized facilities.
At the Taste, music is secondary but not disposable. It's one of many treats to be sampled, and -- at a free festival -- that's OK. The Lemonheads, for instance -- maybe not worth a club ticket these days, but how cool will it be to wander along with a mouthful of spumoni and go, "Hey, isn't that Evan Dando? He's still alive?" Also on the free bill this year: Loretta Freaking Lynn.
In an effort to cut costs, the city has consolidated several separate free music festivals into daily programming themes at this year's Taste. The music programming for Taste is now in the hands of the Chicago Park District (it was formerly booked by the Mayor's Office of Special Events). The overriding goal of this year's bookings: family friendly.
"For a family-friendly event, I think the acts we got fit the bill," says Erin Bauer, programming manager for the Taste of Chicago. "All the acts will attract a family-friendly audience. That's our focus. It's always been family-friendly, but the push this year was to make it very family-friendly."
As city officials spent weeks mulling the privatization plan, Bauer lost valuable time booking acts for this year's Taste, only receiving authorization in April to pursue national acts. "There were a lot of acts, tons of acts I wanted," she says with a laugh. "Most were booked already. But considering the time constraint, I think the lineup is really good."
Caveats aside, it is good.
Here's a look at the headliners each day in the Petrillo Music Shell in the heart of Taste of Chicago at Grant Park:
Viva! Chicago Latin Music Day (replacing the Viva! Chicago Latin Music Festival)
Los Horoscopos de Durango -- An internationally celebrated band of regional Mexican musicians, formed here in Chicago in 1975, playing a style of music called duranguense. Don't know what that means? Don't worry about it. It's speedy, it's got horns, synthesizers, you can dance to it.
Wander by and shake your turkey leg
In a splendid clash of generations, '70s R&B band Rare Earth ("Get Ready," "I Just Want to Celebrate") opens for '90s alt-rock band Soul Asylum ("Runaway Train").
Wander by or skip it
Gospel Music Day (replacing the Gospel Music Festival)
The Rev. Milton Brunson's Thompson Community Singers with Donald Lawrence -- Known as "the Tommies," this choir started in 1948 at Chicago's McKinley High School and may still be the nation's oldest community choir. It's powerful stuff, and historic. The late Brunson has a post office named after him.
Broadway in Chicago -- The annual sampler from whatever B-list stage shows are trotting through town this year, featuring the casts of "Beauty and the Beast," "Million Dollar Quartet," "West Side Story," "Mary Poppins," "Memphis," "The Addams Family" and more.
The Lemonheads with Material Reissue -- A decent bill from the 1990s, topped by lovable drug buddy Evan Dando's reconstituted Lemonheads, still bashing out finely forlorn alt-rock. Material Reissue features the two surviving members of Chicago's celebrated power pop trio Material Issue (above, plus a ringer in for the late Jim Ellison), re-formed earlier this year to celebrate a reissue of the band's now-classic debut album.
At least catch Material Reissue
Celtic Music Day (replacing the Celtic Music Festival)
Natalie MacMaster -- Celtic music in the sweltering heat? Well, it'll have to do. MacMaster's a fierce fiddler from Nova Scotia who can hold her own with a band or an orchestra. Also on the bill: Liz Carroll & John Doyle, and John Williams.
Natalie Cole -- The daughter of Nat "King" Cole, Natalie started her career dishing R&B singles from Curtis Mayfield's studio in Chicago. She later became the queen of duets, including virtual ones with her late father. Here's hoping we get a little of the old funky Natalie.
Worthwhile as destination or discovery
Country Music Day (replacing the Country Music Festival)
Loretta Lynn with the Court Yard Hounds -- Now that's a fine free show. The coal miner's daughter hasn't made an album since 2004's collaboration with Jack White, "Van Lear Rose," but that gave her plenty of renewed cred to coast on. She played Bonnaroo last week, for Pete's sake. The Court Yard Hounds are Martie Maguire and Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks.
Don't miss it!
The Jayhawks -- Good Americana roots music continues with the reunited Jayhawks, featuring Gary Louris and Mark Olson. We'll likely hear songs from "Mockingbird Time," a new album due Sept. 20 and their first since 1995.
Wander by (the Jayhawks no doubt will be back)
Greyson Chance -- The only real novelty act at Taste this year, Chance exemplifies his surname. At age 12, he performed a Lady Gaga song at a school piano recital and had the good fortune of becoming a YouTube sensation. Thanks to Ellen DeGeneres, he now has a record contract.
Take your daughter
Come for the food, stay for the tunes. Same as it ever was.
"A lot of people do come down for the music, not just the food," Bauer said. "And it's free! You don't have to spend a dime to get entertainment all day long. Where else can you see a national act for free -- and along Chicago's beautiful lakefront?"