TGIFNL: Entertainment gets downtown Champaign hopping

Natasha Nuss and her boyfriend, David Scott, tend to go out around 10 on Friday nights in downtown Champaign.

But one recent Friday the couple left home a few hours earlier to take in Friday Night Live — for the first time. They sat at a table outside The Blind Pig on South Neil Street, listening to the local band The Curses performing modern swing and jazz across the street at Neil and Park.

"A lot of people seem to stay home around this time," Scott said while sipping a beer. "This is a good way to attract business and a good way to start off Friday night.

"And who doesn't like live music?"

"We have a nice downtown area," Nuss said, "and it's nice to bring more people and have more activity here."

Already, just one hour into Friday Night Live, which takes place from 6 to 8 every Friday, most of the outside tables and chairs are taken.

People, a few with dogs on leash, are walking the streets, too, checking out the live music at Neil and Park, One Main Plaza, and Walnut and Chester.

Among the visitors June 13 were Kathy Link and her daughter, Racheal Bingham, who came down from Gibson City to check out Friday Night Live for the first time. Link has always enjoyed downtown Champaign.

"The fact that (Friday Night Live) is free makes it even more appealing," she said from her curbside seat along Neil.

The event is being presented through Aug. 22 by 40 North 88 West, the Champaign County arts, culture and entertainment council — with help from sponsors.

The prequel, you might say, was Art & Sol, an outdoor performance series that took place once a month over the summers. People found it hard to remember, though, and the city wanted even more outside performances.

So the city met with 40 North Executive Director Kelly White. In 2012, she replaced Art & Sol with Friday Night Live.

It was an immediate hit.

"It was amazing," White said. "I think all of a sudden people didn't have to remember dates. It got traction right away. You were guaranteed if you came downtown on Friday nights there would be street-side performances."

Last year 40 North added a family component: activities for children such as juggling, puppets and balloon animals. The only Friday Night Live without kids activities will be this Friday because of the Blues Brews and BBQ Festival in downtown Champaign.

At Friday Night Live last week, kids were getting glitter tattoos at Neil and Main; on the plaza in front of KoFusion they were picking up tips from Satina, a hula-hoop performer. On Aug. 1, there will be a Kids' Sidewalk Chalk Contest.

Downtown businesses get into the act sometimes, too. Last week two employees of Hyatt Place were in front of the new nine-story building handing out free cookies. Christopher's Fine Jewelry Design puts a stand outside its store to offer free jewelry cleaning.

And now that Friday Night Live is into its third year, White no longer has to seek local musicians to perform.

They're calling her.

She strives for an eclectic mix of music and tries to station the larger bands at street corners that are noisier.

Each act performs 50 to 55 minutes, for a total of six acts every Friday. All of the musicians are paid. And White gives them something extra: Each week she photographs the musicians and later gives them copies.

"Part of 40 North's mission is to cultivate creativity," she said. "This helps them with their self-promotion and we use the photographs and video for our marketing and promotions.

"That's one of the values of 40 North, that artists should be valued and compensated for their work."

The 40 North promotions include video compilations of the Friday performances, shot by Amanda Baker, the arts council's programs and events coordinator.

White said Friday Night Live has received an overwhelmingly positive response from the performers, community and businesses.

Even the weather has cooperated. White has had to cancel only two so far because of bad weather, once last year and another time in 2012 — both in September.

This year she decided to end the series the Friday before Labor Day.

"It gets dark earlier in September and it's just a different vibe with football having started," she said. "It just doesn't have the same energy summer has."

Perhaps the only drawback to Friday Night Live is some of the performers have a hard time being heard over the traffic. But don't look for streets to be closed for the weekly event.

"We basically want to drive people down here and make it easy for them," White said. "And because we do it every Friday night,  closing the streets would really cause problems with the businesses."

Tom Turino, who performed last week with his son, Matt, at 1 Main Plaza, had no complaints.

"You play where they have you play and go with it," Tom said. "It's nice to have this outside and this cafe-street life. This town has gone so far in this regard and it's a nice addition to it."

The lineup

There will be no Friday Night Live July 4; the series will run through Aug. 22 this summer. Here are the lineups for this Friday and July 11:

Friday

Walnut & Chester

6 p.m. — Sharon Cho & Erik Swanson, jazz/popular covers

7 p.m. — Young Kim & Jonathan Beckett, jazz duo

Neil & Park

6 p.m. — No Good Jane, contemporary rock

7 p.m. — Kevin Cory, R&B

Neil & Church (One Main Plaza)

6 p.m. — George Turner Trio, jazz

7 p.m. — Samba Soul Band, classical Brazilian samba

July 11

Walnut & Chester

6 p.m. — Donna Herula, blues slide guitar

7 p.m. — Amira Davis, African vocals & percussion

Neil & Park

6 p.m. — Gypsy Hips, belly dancing troupe

7 p.m. — Wildwood, bluegrass

Neil & Church (One Main Plaza)

6 p.m. — Emily Otnes & the Weekdays, jazz/pop/rock/country

7 p.m. — Cody & the Gateway Drugs, rock

Topics (3):Art, Music, People

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