The 37th edition of A Taste of Chicago was loaded with surprises and worked harder then ever to please as many people as possible.
There were big-ticket dining options ( with well-known chefs creating signature meals every day ), two dance sections ( Stomping Grounds Chicago featured performances from Chicago dance companies while Chicago Summer Dance offered outdoor social dancing ), a street art and graffiti alley, a daily puppet parade with larger-than-life puppets and a full-day celebration of Chicago's Latino community while 15 restaurants and food trucks debuted this year.
Musically, the festival offered even more surprises, with local artists stealing the thunder from established headliners; old-school artists who spoke directly to our troubled times; and hordes of Black and brown people who gave the city a lesson in community, solidarity and the fine art of shaking some ass.
Of the main stage attractions, Canadian pop princess Alessia Cara elicited squeals from her largely teenage audience while her opener, Eryn Allen Kane, managed to convey the slinky sultriness of Peggy Lee with the street-edged cool of Chaka Khan. Grammy winner Ben Harper performed with heartfelt passion and surgical precision while Michael Angelakos of Passion Pit combined nerdy, angst driven neuroses with electronic dance music in a way that had his audience on their feet his entire set.
All of that was well and good, but the best of the fest came from unexpected artists.
DIY faves Twin Peaks opened for Harper and ripped through a sloppy, jolly set that was as thrilling as it was ragged. With vocalist Cadien Lake James slinging his guitar like a revival tent preacher and guitarist Clay Frankel stumbling about with a goofy grin on his face, they seemed to be more interested in having a blast then hitting the right notes.
Unsurprisingly Twin Peaks, with all that careening, was not only galvanizing but lots of fun. The Kickback managed a muscular set that hit all the right notes AND was fun, but the act managed to upstage the music by adding a "magic trick" that turned out to be a surprise marriage proposal between two of the band's friends. Headliner Angelakos didn't have a prayer in hell of topping that one.
On the smaller Budweiser stage, I couldn't wait to see how funk-glam rock monstrosity The Gold Web would fare on an outdoor stage in the afternoon sun and it turned out to be one of the festivals biggest surprises. Typically, the stage is frequented by bored onlookers looking to rest their feet and digest all those cheesecake squares; however, once vocalist Max Perenchio got onstage in his Forbidden Planet get-up, all bets were off. Not only did the extraterrestrial glam of the band attract a huge crowd of onlookers but the mix of covers ( Prince's "Kiss" turned up early ) and ass-shaking originals ( "Moonlight" is still a corker ), along with confetti, glitter, oversized balloons and an unidentified lady jazz dancer turned the set into an unexpected epic.
Cafe Tacuba, Esso Afrojam Funkbeat and Los Vicios de Papa
Never mind the allure of Cara or HarperLatin locals Esso Afrojam Funkbeat merged onstage with Los Visios de Papa and blew the festival into orbit. With more than 10 musicians jamming onstage ( all of them playing with an intensity, joy, and passion which could only be described as rapturous ), the set went bonkers when rapper Logan Luis jumped off stage and ran through the audience with a rainbow flag in a show of support for the LGBTQ community. Without making a political comment, the band telegraphed the importance of solidarity and community that was spontaneous, popular and refreshing. Then the much loved Cafe Tacuba celebrated its emergence to a much larger audience by ripping through a headlining set that had the capacity crowd dancing and singing along with a vengeance.
I swear I didn't see this one coming, though I should have been prepared after The Isley Brothers closed the festival last year. Although co-vocalist Walter Williams was not present due to illness, Eddie Levert and Eric Grant did more than just saunter through their five decades of hits, starting the show with a touch of social commentary.
The swirling string overture felt a bit like Vegas, but as images of African-American history were projected on the screensthe middle passage, Jim Crow, lynchings, The Black Panthers, civil-rights leaders ( including out activist Bayard Rustin and ending with The Obamas ) Levert and Grant came out wearing powder blue ensembles while singing "Ship Ahoy." Much like that rainbow flag, the gesture brought home an awful lot without explanation. Much to the delight of the audience, which skewed toward people in their seventies, The O'Jays still found time to celebrate the day with intense and joyful readings of many hits like "Living for the City" and "I Love Music."
With a record attendance of more than 1.6 million people, this year's Taste of Chicago could only be described as a flaming success, despite the unpopularity of our current mayor ( Rahm Emanuel was a no-show this year and the mention of his name from the stage elicited boos ), clearly, this town is doing something right.
Heads up: Queer icon Moor Mother Goddess joins local faves Ono and Mykele DeVille for a show at The Hideout on Wed., Aug. 23.