The Great Performers of Illinois festival, sponsored by the Illinois Arts Council, seemed like it was about to slip under the radar. I got the feeling not many people were even aware of it, but its presence in Millennium Park was hard to miss this past weekend. The headliner was Dennis DeYoung playing the songs of Styx, an event I would have paid to miss, but the festival was almost surreally diverse, with everything from mimes and Abe and Mary Lincoln impersonators to the Fiery Furnaces playing their perversely challenging rock.
On Saturday afternoon (July 11), I caught about half an hour of the set by Daniel Knox, whom I’d seen recently at the Hideout. I appreciate the wit of Knox’s piano songs, though I’m having trouble warming up to his rather blunt voice. I wonder how his songs would sound sung by either a more polished vocalist or someone who’s idiosyncratic but more interesting, like Tom Waits?
Speaking of idiosyncratic, the Fiery Furnaces were the next act playing at Millennium Park’s Wrigley Square — a space just off Michigan Avenue, south of Randolph, where a series of classical-style columns and the Chicago skyline makes a beautiful, panoramic backdrop for the music. In fact, one of the delightful quirks of the Fiery Furnaces show was watching guitarist Matthew Friedberger occasionally looking off to the side of the stage and peering up at the skyscrapers while he was playing. Oh, yes, he was playing guitar — at last. Recent Fiery Furnaces tours have been dominated by the sound of Matthew playing organ, and a little bit of that went a long way. It was a good change of pace to hear him back on electric guitar during this show, which was one of three that the band played in Chicago in three days (following gigs at the Hideout and FitzGerald’s).
I’m still absorbing the new Fiery Furnaces album, I’m Going Away, so it’s hard to say yet what I think of it. Now that I think about it, that remains more or less true of every single record this band has ever put out. Their music is so jam-packed, with fast changes in tempo, style and lyrical themes. It can seem maddening, but it’s often brilliant. Some of the things that may drive you mad during one listen will seem brilliant the next time. The Fiery Furnaces have turned out to be an uncompromisingly strange band that revels in throwing down the gauntlet in front of its listeners, daring people to enter the twisted musical world of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger.
Going into Saturday’s concert, I was bracing myself for yet another peculiar musical experience. Would the Fiery Furnaces’ nonstop Jabberwocky drive me crazy or enchant me? This time around, the band was a delightful marvel. As always, Eleanor seemed to have a bad case of logorrhea, throwing out whole paragraphs of lyrics. The band was lively, sounding almost improvisatory as it shifted from one quirky rhythmic pattern to another. The songs from I’m Going Away sounded strong — these tunes seem to be a little more compact and straightforward than previous Fiery Furnaces compositions. The highlights for me were songs from the group’s previous record, Widow City, including “Duplexes of the Dead.” That album is turning out to be one of my favorites by the Fiery Furnaces, although like just about everything by this band, it’s hard to take it all in with one listen.
I was back at Millennium Park on Sunday (July 12) to catch some of the three-hour show by the Viper and His Famous Orchestra, a “neo-skiffle” band from Champaign. After an hour set by the Viper, one of the band’s members, Edward Burch, played a set of his own. Burch is best-known for collaborating with the late Jay Bennett on their record The Palace at 4am (Part 1), and when I walked up around 1:30 p.m., Burch and some of his musical friends (including Steve Frisbie) were playing the Bennett and Burch song “California.” It was a beautiful and touching tribute to Bennett, who died on Memorial Day weekend, and the rest of Burch’s set was just as good. It seemed a little strange seeing this unannounced tribute to Bennett in the middle of Millennium Park — this stage was next to the mirrored “Bean” sculpture” — as dozens of people walked by, unaware of who was performing or whose music was being played.
During the third hour of this show, the Viper and His Famous Orchestra played again, offering tributes to various Illinois towns with cute tunes about subjects such as the MTD (Champaign-Urbana’s Mass Transit District). It was quaint music, and the park crowd seemed to enjoy it. The set ended with a skiffle tribute to Michael Jackson.