Guitarist John Greenfield started his latest band, Illinois First!, after picking up a 1986 grade school textbook called Discovering Illinois at a yard sale last fall. The lyrics for "Nauvoo (City of Joseph)" are culled from what he found inside: "Our town of 15,000 was bigger than Chicago / Made of bricks and mortar, plaster and paint / But the gentiles hated and / Feared us / And threatened our very lives / They accused us of polygamy-- / Having multiple wives."
Greenfield, a Pennsylvania native and occasional Reader contributor, currently works as the bike parking coordinator for the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. On a bike trip along the Mississippi last summer, he stopped in Nauvoo, which was settled in 1839 by Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith and his followers after they were thrown out of Missouri. He was taken with the town's history: five years after their arrival, Smith and his brother were arrested for destroying an anti-Mormon printing press and killed by an angry mob. The town made news earlier this year when the Illinois legislature issued a formal apology for banishing Mormons from the state in 1846. "It's an amazing place," Greenfield says.
The trip got him thinking about how to get people excited about Illinois, which he believes has an image problem. A fan of former governor George Ryan and his $12 billion Illinois FIRST public works initiative and the front man for John Greenfield's Rock Band, he decided a side project about the Prairie State was the way to go.
The Nauvoo song is one of nine upbeat, didactic pop songs on the group's debut CD, Songs About the Land of Lincoln, which also covers subjects like Starved Rock, the love affair of Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir, the city of Rock Island ("Where the young people know how to rock"), and "the coolest Republican since Honest Abe," George Ryan. "Like a tragic hero he has his flaw," says Greenfield, "but I think history will be kind to him in the long run."
"We're an edutainment kind of act," says accordion player Rob Cruz, a Des Plaines native. "John views the state with a childlike wonder and curiosity that a native-born Illlinoisan would find hard to muster."
The band, which also includes fellow Pennsylvanian Mia Park on drums and Indiana native Brent Olds on bass, has only played one show, at a Bike Winter benefit at the Hideout last December. Accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation created by Greenfield's roommate, Jake Juros, the band "went over well," according to Greenfield. At one point the crowd of a hundred or so hoisted their glasses and sang along to a drinking song about Chicago founder Jean Baptiste Point DuSable.
Greenfield hopes Illinois First! can eventually tour high schools and colleges, and play more clubs in the city. He admits that touring outside of Illinois might be a hard sell, but he plans to explore the southern part of the state on his bike this summer and eventually write a follow-up album. "I think you could do a good rock band about every state in the union," he says. "This just happens to be the one we live in."
Park and Olds are out of town, but Illinois First! will play a CD-release party with Grant Davis on drums and Amy Malick on bass Saturday, May 15, at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia. Telenovela opens at 9; DJ Woodsy the Owl spins after the bands. There's a $7 suggested donation, and you must be over 21; call 773-227-4433. That morning at 9, Greenfield will perform songs from the CD on Live From the Heartland on WLUW, 88.7 FM. For more information see www.illinoisfirstband.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/T.C. O'Rourke.