Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements is one of Chicago’s odder festivals, with a truly eclectic mix of musical acts, plus a circus and stand-up comedians, too. Now in its second year, it took place over the weekend at the Riverfront Theater, a 22,000-square-foot tent on the grounds near the Chicago Tribune Freedom Center, next to the Chicago River. While I’m not the only person who went to the festival for all three days, it seemed like a completely crowd showed up each night.
On Friday night, Zola Jesus paced the stage and twirled in circles as she sang in rich, throaty tones, giving her songs a primal quality. The headliner was John Cale, former member of the Velvet Underground. It’s always a privilege to see a musical legend like Cale in concert, but it was disappointing to hear him playing with a band that sounded at times like Bon Jovi. The performance finally took on a bit more of a ragged edge when Cale switched from keyboards to guitar, but still, it would have been more gratifying to see Cale play his songs with revealing minimalism rather than obscuring bombast.
Saturday night was the one night when Brilliant Corners sold out — thanks to headliner Conor Oberst’s enduring popularity. A bunch of his loyal fans thronged to the space in front of the stage within seconds after the doors opened. But they’d have to wait, since the revered orchestral-pop composer Van Dyke Parks was on first. Backed by a small string ensemble, Parks played piano and sang and offered up many wry comments to the crowd. After explaining that he’d just played a song about the freedom of expression, Parks said, “I did a Pussy Riot on you, folks. Forgive me.” And before playing “Orange Crate Art,” he said: “I wrote this song for Brian Wilson, may he rest in peace. In due course.” Parks doesn’t have the greatest voice, but he is a clever and adept songwriter, and his intelligence and wit were clear during this performance.
Parks kept on mentioning how happy he was to be playing on the stage as Oberst. “Conor’s gonna rock your roost,” he remarked at one point. Well, not exactly — not in the literal sense of rocking, anyway. When it was Oberst’s turn to play, he was alone on the stage, sitting down as he deftly plucked and strummed on acoustic guitars and sang his verbose poems and stories in that distinctive, vulnerable voice of his. Other musicians joined him now and then, adding subtle touches of vibraphone, piano or pedal steel guitar, and by the end, there was a full band of sorts. But the show was really all Oberst’s. Although it wasn’t billed as a Bright Eyes concert, Oberst is, for all intents and purposes, Bright Eyes, so it was hard to see what the difference was.
Starting with “The Big Picture,” Oberst played many of Bright Eyes’ best and most beloved songs. At one point, asking the audience to choose between a dark song and a sweet one, he remarked, “I know Chicago is a rough-and-tumble town. You don’t take to sentimentality. That’s rough when you’re a folk singer.” Actually, as the crowd’s reaction demonstrated, these Chicagoans wanted both the dark and the sweet, and Oberst obliged.
Saturday’s festivities also featured El Circo Cheapo, which I missed. And there were free stand-up comedy performances late Friday and Saturday. I caught the comedy on Saturday, including a sporadically hilarious performance by Jon Benjamin that was memorable for being so surreal and awkward.
Soul music fans turned out on Sunday night for headliner Bobby Womack, though they didn’t rush immediately to the stage, as Bright Eyes fanatics had the night before. The night started with a set of intriguing electronic pop music sung in Spanish by Helado Negro. He received a respectful response, but it felt like much of the audience was biding its time until Womack hit the stage. And by the time that happened, many of the fans who had been hanging back finally came forward. And boy, did they make their presence known.
It was a great performance by Womack and his band, but what made it a truly exceptional experience was the enthusiasm and joy of the audience. Fans sang along and danced — and flirted with Womack and his backup singers. As Womack began to say that he was dedicating one of his songs to someone, a woman near the stage called out, practically pleading, “To me, Bobby! To me!” Womack exuded coolness, but he was clearly eating up all of that adoration.
Womack is getting renewed attention and critical acclaim this year for his album, The Bravest Man in the Universe, which updates his sound with help from the XL label’s Richard Russell and Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz. It’s an evocative record, but Womack didn’t play a single song from it on Sunday night. Its weird, moody textures probably would’ve required a different band and a different setting. Instead, Womack focused on his R&B of old. He name-checked some of his colleagues who have passed away, getting the crowd to sing a bit of Marvin Gaye, before he performed an emotional rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” Womack took off his shades for only about a minute all night. He was cool to the end.