Flocking from near and far to Folk & Roots

Local, regional and national acts landing in C-U for event

Like most of the organizers of the Champaign-Urbana Folk & Roots Festival, Jeremy Lindsay of headline act Birds of Chicago considers every genre folk music.

"It's all folk music: We subscribe to the broadest definition of folk," he said.

As for the music of Birds of Chicago — one of the newest and hottest bands on the Americana scene — he describes it as a kind of mongrel music.

"And we like that," he said.

Birds of Chicago, a collective, performs in formations of up to six musicians but will bring its quartet version to the fifth annual C-U Folk & Roots Fest, which takes place Friday and Saturday at venues all within a block of each other in downtown Urbana.

Birds of Chicago will perform from 7:45 to 8:45 p.m. Friday and 11:30 p.m. Friday to 12:30 a.m. Saturday at the Independent Media Center.

Lindsay looks forward to the festival for several reasons. One is that Allison Russell, the other front person in Birds, is pregnant. The two married in July.

By the time they get to Urbana, she will be entering her ninth month.

"When you see us we'll be at the end of our touring run, before we settle down and have our baby," Lindsay said during a telephone interview from northern California, where the Birds played at the Arcata Playhouse before heading for gigs in the Bay Area.

"She's going great," Lindsay said of his wife, a versatile musician and also a member of the band Po' Girl. "We hope we're not cutting it too close. She's feeling fantastic."

Birds of Chicago plays mostly original music, drawing from the 150 or so songs Lindsay has written and the nearly 100 songs penned by Russell.

Lindsay also is known for his solo work as JT Nero and as leader of JT and the Clouds. Those and Po' Girl still exist, but Birds of Chicago is the couple's primary focus.

"It's nice to be involved in this fresh new project and see it pick up momentum like it has," Lindsay said.

Birds of Chicago and its self-titled first CD release are critically acclaimed in Americana circles and by critics.

"Simple, complex and magnificent," a reviewer for Music-News.com wrote. "The playing on every track is to such a high standard that it is difficult to find performances to pick out."

Ron Lockwood of The Toledo Blade wrote last month that Birds of Chicago "music is a joyous, invigorating combination of folk, soul, pop, and rhythm and blues that features Lindsay's literate, evocative lyrics and singing and Russell's sublime vocals and multi-instrumental prowess."

Hearing the lyrics, it doesn't come as a surprise to learn that Lindsay was an English major, at Kenyon College.

It's a family trait: Both of his parents are English professors at the University of Toledo in Ohio, and his brother, who plays in the Birds of Chicago sextet, teaches creative writing in Milwaukee and Chicago.

Because of the musical pasts of Lindsay and Russell, Birds of Chicago soon after it formed was booked into major music festivals, among them the Strawberry and High Sierra, both in California.

"We were so new, and those kind of galvanized us," Lindsay said. "It's nice to get that feedback right out of the gate from a large sector of people. It definitely spurred us forward.

"Festivals are always special experiences. You get to see other bands because ironically when you tour you don't get to do much because you're on your own grind."

While here, the Birds will be able to see plenty of other bands: The C-U festival will bring together more than 80 music performances, dances, storytelling and hands-on activities — for people of all ages.

Besides Birds of Chicago, another headline act will be the Austin, Texas-based duo of Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt. The Chicago Tribune named Schmidt one of the 50 most significant songwriters of the last 50 years. They will perform from 8:15 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and from 11:15 p.m. Friday to 12:30 a.m. Saturday at The Iron Post.

Other national and regional acts include Ganey Arsement, Del Rey, Keith Harden, Mike Kirkpatrick and Kathleen Keane, Rosie Newton and Richie Stearns, Red Sea Pedestrians, Mike Reeb, The Viper and His Famous Orchestra, Stephen Wade, The Whipstitch Sallies, and Los Condenados Huastecos.

Among central Illinois musicians to be featured are Faye Ballard, Ben Benford, David Berchtold, Bones Jugs 'N Harmony, Flower Jax, Kate Fritz, Ivas John Blues Band, Los Guapos, Mackville, Mayhew the Traitor, the Orpheus Mandolin Orchestra, Tony Taylor, Rebecca Rego and the Trainmen, and Wagon Fire.

"Get Rooted!" is the theme for the family-friendly, volunteer-run, grass-roots festival.

"The festival has a particular interest in evolving and unique forms of folk music and art, especially forms that break down barriers between audience and performers while also providing the occasion to preserve local traditions and histories," said festival committee chairwoman Brenda Koenig of Champaign.

Throughout the festival, the Landmark Hotel ballroom in Lincoln Square Village will host dance events. Beginners and seasoned dancers will share the floor for square, swing, contra, Cajun and Yiddish dances and workshops.

All of the dances will feature live bands including the Champaign Central High School Jazz Ensemble, Newton and Stearns, and the Yellow Jacket String Band.

The storytelling events will take place all day Saturday at the Urbana Free Library and feature nationally acclaimed storyteller Dan Keding, who will tell of his Croatian family history, and Chicago teller Oba William King, who tells tales to the beat of his drum. There also will be a Local Storyteller Showcase.

All of the workshops, singalongs, jams and performances during the day Saturday are free. While most of the daytime events are free, several evening events require the purchase of a wristband for admission. 

If you go

What: The fifth annual Champaign-Urbana Folk & Roots Festival, an all-volunteer-run, grass-roots event featuring more than 80 national, regional and local acts and performances

When: Starts 5 p.m. Friday; continues from 9 a.m. Saturday to 2 a.m. Sunday

Where: Landmark Hotel ballroom; Urbana Free Library; The Iron Post and other downtown Urbana venues all within about a city block

Tickets: A wristband for all events (many are free) is $30; a wristband for either Friday or Saturday $20 (purchase through brownpapertickets.com or at the festival); single venue admission is $10; with children 12 and younger admitted free.

Wristbands are available by clicking on the Brown Paper Tickets link on the Folk & Roots website; at the C-U Folk & Roots and starting Friday at 5 p.. at the festival Welcome Center in the Independent Media Center, 202 S. Broadway Ave., U; and at all venues.

Full schedule and other information: http://www.folkandroots.org

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