A drummer and leader in three local jazz bands now, Reed (pictured, left) also helps organize the annual Umbrella Music festival (coming Nov. 2-6) and co-owns and operates the Pitchfork Music Festival each summer. Now, he's added another expo to his lineup.
It's a doozy, too -- called Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements, this new three-day event seeks to synthesize music, film, comedy and especially circus performances under two big tops this weekend in Eckhart Park (Chicago Avenue and Noble Street, just north of the Pitchfork fest's Union Park home). The mission statement: "To reinvent the traditions of Vaudeville for a 21st century audience -- a live mash-up of art forms and entertainment under one umbrella."
"Vaudeville, you know -- the idea that if you went to a show, you'd have a small to large band, someone up there with a dog trick, a comedian after that, maybe a little film, someone might lead the audience in a popular song of the day, and then there'd be a headliner of some sort," Reed says. "Nowadays, everything is very portioned off -- it's music, it's a reading, it's a movie, it's an art gallery show, only one and not the other. We think we have to experience these things one at a time."
Which, of course, we don't. Our daily entertainment intake often is exactly this kind of mash-up -- TV, Internet, movies, music, books, sometimes all in one afternoon. We are hardly as single-minded as most music-only, film-only festival producers prepare for.
"Like, if this were 1900, you could see a whole bunch of stuff in one night," Reed says. "Since then, things have gotten single-tracked. Obviously, mega rock concerts don't draw the same as a book reading, but that doesn't mean rock fans wouldn't enjoy hearing a bit of the reading if they had the chance. I mean, those sell out, too. I've seen David Sedaris sell out overnight."
BRILLIANT CORNERS OF POPULAR AMUSEMENTS
♦ Noon-10 p.m. Sept. 16-18
♦ Eckhart Park, Chicago Avenue and Noble Street
♦ Tickets, $15-$20, varying by individual acts
The idea for Brilliant Corners came to Reed after he finally got in to see Chicago's El Circo Cheapo.
"The last couple of years, friends had been telling me this is a really fun thing. They do this circus show in their loft space, and I couldn't get in because these things sell out months in advance," he says. "Once I finally did, I thought it was really cool."
Once Reed started brainstorming big tops, he turned to Shayna Swanson, ringmaster for Chicago's Aloft Circus Arts (which has produced El Circo Cheapo for nearly three years), for an assist.
"Mike had some pretty awesome foresight into this," Swanson says. "This is a regular thing in other countries, these huge festivals that incorporate more than just music. Here, it's just music, music, music. But elsewhere, they encompass other art forms, especially circus.
"Circus encompasses more than people think of. It's not just" -- and here she hums Julius Fucik's "Entry of the Gladiators," that instantly recognizable tune that conveys cotton candy, carousels and merchandise labeled with "Greatest Show on Earth." "When Americans hear 'circus,' they think either Ringling Bros. or Cirque du Soleil. Those two forms are so distant from each other, even though they're gigantic spectacles. There is a wide range in between them of intimate, underground stuff, street performances, aerial dance and more."
So here's how it goes down this weekend: The Criss/Cross Tent features a wide variety of musicians, and the Magic City Tent spotlights the circus acts; these are both ticketed. But the park is full of carnival activities such as the Renegade Craft Fair and a farmers market, as well as the free Birdhouse Stage focusing on local bands. (Reed's a jazz guy, remember, so dig the names: "Brilliant Corners" and "Criss Cross" were albums by Thelonious Monk, "Magic City" was a Sun Ra record, etc.)
"Say you go to the 5:30 George Orange show," Reed says. "A band plays while you get seated. Someone comes out and greets everyone, does a monologue. George takes it from there and does his circus show. Or there are short films showing before things get rolling at the Ricochet show. In the music tent, same thing: segments in between bands, with people doing trapeze and sword swallowing. That's for the tickets, or you can wander around outside and not spend a dime."
The music acts include Bill Callahan (formerly Smog, a rich, deep-voiced singer-songwriter), Sidi Toure (innovative guitarist-singer from Mali), CAVE (Chicago-based psychedelic drone band), School of Seven Bells (breathtaking, lush electronic duo), A Hawk & A Hacksaw (gypsy world music folk innovators), Shellac (a stomping, angular rock trio) and more.
Circus performances feature El Circo Cheapo (carnival basics, from acrobats and jugglers to clowns and sideshow freaks), George Orange (who does tricks on a slack rope, not a tight one), the Ricochet Project (creative acrobatics and dance) and A Taste of Zoppe (selections from the 160-year-old Zoppe Family Circus, including horses, dogs and Nino the Clown).
Also, get ready, because the Brilliant Corners anything-goes concept could show up anywhere, anytime from here on out. The festival's literature warns that the multi talent shows are "not wedded to a festival, time or place. We may pop up in your neighborhood park, at a nearby theater for one night, or just parading down your block."
"I'd like to do a version of this in a theater next," Reed says. "You know, have a singer-songwriter up there, then a trapeze artist. Maybe move it around different neighborhoods. The variety is onstage but could also be in how, when and where it's staged."