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Chicago Country Music Festival

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The Country Music Festival in Grant Park is traditionally the only block of thematically linked programming during the Taste of Chicago. The headliners, who play the Petrillo Music Shell, are typically current, former, or potential mainstream radio staples, while most of the acts on the Taste Stage can only dream about that kind of airplay--that is, assuming they don't find the idea revolting. For the past few years the festival's organizers have been cutting down on the cover bands, and this time there's only one; unfortunately, few of the other acts in the Taste Stage lineup have much more personality than a cover band. There are also disappointingly few bookings drawn from Chicago's bustling alt-country scene. Petrillo is at Columbus and Jackson, and the Taste Stage is at the southwest corner of the same intersection. All concerts are free.

SATURDAY 25

Taste Stage

12:30 PM | Dan Whitaker Country Band

Local journeyman Dan Whitaker has brought a bit of twang to rock combos like the Great Plains Gypsies, A Horse Named Bill, and Western Grand, but in this band--which has been playing a weekly gig at Hotti Biscotti since early 2004--he dedicates himself to country flavors exclusively. The group's debut album, Your Final Ride (Sunny Smedley), is a tasteful, unflashy mix of old-fashioned honky-tonk, brisk western swing, and Marty Robbins-style cowboy hokum, but Whitaker's dishwater warble actually seems to suck the life out of his workmanlike band.

2 PM | Goldmine Pickers

This young quartet from Goshen, Indiana, bases its music in traditional bluegrass but sometimes veers into jamgrass territory--amid the Celtic breakdowns and mountain ballads you get strummy, simpering folk rock and the occasional overwrought train wreck worthy of Old and In the Way. These guys can definitely play, and unlike most of the jamgrass scene they don't show off their chops just for the sake of it. But the performances on their self-titled debut feel surprisingly lifeless, and their repertoire comes off as self-consciously eclectic--it's as though they're worrying about hitting all the bases rather than trying to explore.

3:30 PM | Delafields

In winter 2000 this local quintet picked up where the rock band Milhous left off, with Paul Quaintance taking over on lead vocals and upping the twang quotient of the simple, poppy tunes. Eddie Torrez, on accordion, piano, and organ, adds a hint of Tex-Mex here and a heap of barrelhouse boogie there, but for the most part the Delafields' self-titled debut sounds like these guys fell asleep 20 years ago listening to their R.E.M. records and only just woke up.

5 PM | Mark Lonsway

Most of the Taste Stage acts this weekend steer clear of the airbrushed family-values rock that passes for country music in Nashville, but not Chicagoan Mark Lonsway. He debuted last year with Not Your Typical Cowboy (Jabberwocky), produced by Doug Sisemore, Reba McEntire's keyboardist and musical director, and it's chock-full of Music City cliches. The corny romantic claptrap in "What Has He Got" could fill a rack of Hallmark cards, and the lyrics to "The Harder They Fall" are a catalog of stale platitudes like "You don't always win / But you gotta try / Gotta take every chance 'cause it might pass you by" and "If you get knocked down you get back up again." When you hear lines like that delivered as hard-won insights, it makes you wonder whether that celebration of mediocrity is actually what keeps this kind of country on top of the charts.

6:30 PM | Weary Boys

Three of the five Weary Boys moved from Humboldt County, California, to Austin, Texas, in 2000, and started out as street buskers. Now this mostly acoustic band is one of that city's best-loved live acts, playing breakneck sets of unplugged rockabilly and high-octane honky-tonk that combine original tunes with classic covers by the likes of Hank Williams, Ralph Stanley, Lefty Frizzell, and Bill Monroe. Sounds great after you've had a few beers.

Petrillo Music Shell

3 PM | Aaron Tippin

Aaron Tippin might be the only mainstream country singer who could make a credible leatherman (crew cut, mustache), but even a perfunctory listen to his post-9/11 hit "Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly" ("There's a lady that stands in a harbor / For what we believe / And there's a bell that still echoes / The price that it cost to be free") dashes any hope that he might liven things up with a pair of backless chaps. Tippin made his mark as one of country's new traditionalists (read "hat acts") in the early 90s, scoring big with the gulf war rallying cry "You've Got to Stand for Something," then spent the rest of the decade churning out increasingly formulaic albums full of slick honky-tonk and treacly ballads.

4:15 PM | LeAnn Rimes

LeAnn Rimes has survived teenage stardom--on the strength of her 1996 hit "Blue," with its impressive Patsy Cline imitation--and a nasty legal fight with her father, her former manager, over her earnings and career direction. Now, after an attempted comeback as a frothy pop temptress, she's reclaimed her place on the country charts with This Woman (Curb). Unfortunately she hasn't reclaimed the relatively pure country sound she debuted with--Rimes's voice is bigger and stronger than ever, but the new album is a bland, micromanaged Nashville product, sodden with rock bluster, faux-blues wailing, show-tune bombast, and lukewarm blue-eyed soul.

SUNDAY 26

Taste Stage

12:30 PM | The 101 Ranch

The only awful suburban country band on the Taste Stage this year, the 101 Ranch is fronted by Scott DuBose, who wrapped up a four-year stint last October as the lead singer in the band that used to appear in Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding--a real proving ground for a country singer if ever there was one.

2 PM | Moonshine Sway It's always a bad sign when bands have so little to say in their bios that they start listing acts they've been compared to by the second paragraph. Milwaukee's Moonshine Sway seem more interested in evoking alt-country and roots-rock heavies like Uncle Tupelo, Bruce Springsteen, and the Bottle Rockets than they are in creating a sound of their own. Not bad, but hardly memorable.

3:30 PM | Forbes Brothers

The first track on this Detroit combo's album The Wrong End of the Bar is "Opening Act," an anthem about musical also-rans that celebrates the joy of playing for its own sake. If these guys are poking fun at themselves--with their undistinguished rock-tinged country, they're not likely to be topping a big bill any time soon--then I salute them for their well-adjusted outlook.

5 PM | Urban Twang

Singer Trish Clausen and guitarist Max Getzel have been the core of this local band since founding it in 1991. On its third and latest album, 2003's Vintage (Sweet Pickle), Urban Twang sounds more confident than ever, but the most interesting things about the music are the touch of Natalie Merchant in Clausen's moody vocals and the echoes of Over the Rhine in the band's roots-rock sound--not much to write home about.

6:30 PM | Stone City Stragglers

This Joliet sextet stands tall among this year's Taste Stage acts thanks to the sweet harmonies of Brent James and Allison Moroni, whose voices casually intertwine a la Gram and Emmylou. There's nothing particularly noteworthy about the country-rock tunes, but the band gets the job done without any lapses in skill, range, or good taste that might distract us from the proper focal point.

Petrillo Music Shell

3:00 PM | Julie Roberts

I usually judge mainstream country records by a separate standard, since they're almost all so bad that anything rising above mediocrity is a pleasant surprise--so it's nice to be able to give Julie Roberts's self-titled debut a relatively unqualified endorsement. Though the album was clearly made with country radio in mind, Roberts's bluesy singing has a nuanced emotional depth that sets it miles apart from the usual over-the-top caterwauling. There's more than a touch of Bonnie Raitt on the opener, "You Ain't Down Home," where she dismisses a rich, phony suitor, and she brings convincing sass to the stomping "No Way Out," which cheekily likens marriage to a jail sentence. Roberts doesn't write any of her own material, and prior to making this record she worked as an assistant to Luke Lewis, chairman of Universal Music Group Nashville. But the songs she sings--including the gorgeous Julie Miller tune "I Can't Get Over You"--suggest that her love of country music is much more than an infatuation with its superficial glamour.

4:15 PM | Clint Black

To release last year's Spend My Time, Clint Black--one of the most successful of Nashville's late-80s hat acts--parted ways with RCA and launched his own Equity imprint with former Sony exec Mike Kraski. Country insiders have long praised Black's refusal to knuckle under to the suits on aesthetic issues, and this business decision could certainly be used to cast him in a similar light. But I've never heard much of the maverick in his easygoing music, and Spend My Time is no exception. It's his usual mix of rock-tinged honky-tonk, folksy soft rock, and sappy ballads--there are actually wind chimes at the end of "She's Leavin'." Black has promised that his next album will be more rootsy; we'll see.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Sebree.

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