Champaign-Urbana: Music town

By MELISSA MERLI
mmerli@news-gazette.com

Newcomers to Champaign-Urbana might have the impression that it’s a sleepy little college town tucked amid the corn and soy fields, that there’s not much going on here.

But it’s no cultural backwater. There is a lot going on in the arts, theater and especially music. In fact, you will often hear from musicians and others here that this is “a great music town.”

Maybe it’s not the new Seattle, as it was touted as being several years ago. But you will find nearly every genre of music here, nearly every night of the week, at the usual venues and some more unusual ones as well.

And there’s something for almost everyone, from indie rock to world music to jazz to hip hop to classical, And the performers range from local bands to global stars, particularly at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Among the more active indie-rock bands here, ones th go on tour, are the bands Headlights and Elsinore. Other popular indie acts here are Tractor Kings, The Chemicals, Common Loon, Cameron McGill and Kayla Brown.

Every fall, indie-rock lovers converge on C-U for the Pygmalion Music Festival, which brings some of the top names in indie music to town while shining the light on the local music scene.

In addition to indie rock, C-U  has great jazz, world-music and classical music scenes going, mainly due to the presence of the University of Illinois School of Music, one of the top public-university music schools in the nation.

Its faculty boasts stars such as opera baritone Nathan Gunn and the Grammy Award-winning Pacifica Quartet. This coming season, Pacifica will perform all 15 Shostakovitch string quartets at Krannert Center.

At least three professional symphony orchestras — the Champaign-Urbana Symphony, Sinfonia Da Camera and The Prairie Ensemble — call C-U home, and there’s also the accomplished UI Symphony Orchestra, made up of students, as well asother university ensembles.

New to the community is the Urbana Pops Orchestra, which gives both adults and students a chance to perform orchestral music.

The UI School of Music offers about 300 concerts and recitals each year, some of them free and others with nominal admission fees.

The jazz scene here can be credited to the School of Music’s Jazz Studies Program, which boasts world-class faculty members and accomplished students who enliven the local scene, particularly at The Iron Post in downtown Urbana and other venues.

One of the best websites for tracking the jazz scene is www.shout.net/~jmh/; it’s maintained by home-grown jazz trumpeter Jeff Helgesen, who once toured with Ray Charles.

The Americana music scene is growing here, too; musicians in that seemingly all-encompassing genre (Irish and Celtic music, anyone?) last year founded the Champaign-Urbana Folk and Roots Festival (www.cufolkandroots.org/).

The 2010 C-U Folk and Roots Festival on Sept. 23, 24 and 25 in downtown Urbana will present a variety of local and national acts, with one of the latter being the Austin, Tex.-based Hot Club of Cowtown.

The presence of a top ethnomusicology department at the UI School of Music also means you’re able to hear zydeco, Latin, African, Balinese and other kinds of world music from faculty members, students and visiting artists. There’s even a psychedelic didjeridu-driven band, Tree Thump, formed by didjeridu makers based in Fithian, east of Urbana.

Keeping track of the world-music scene is the UI’s Robert E. Brown Center for World Music, at www.music.illinois.edu/cwm/.

In some cases, community members can participate in Ui Music programs like the UI’s Balinese Gamelan Ensemble. Community members also may learn, from masters, West African drumming and tabla and sitar.

To catch international acts, Krannert Center is the place to be. Coming to Krannert in the 2010-11 season, among other acts, will be singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega, violinist Itzhak Perlman, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, Chucho Valdes wth the Afro-Cuban Messengers, The Robert Johnson Centennial Concerts with David “Honeyboy” Edwards and others and Marvin Hamlisch’s Broadway’s Greatest Moments.

Krannert Center’s expansive lobby has become a sort of public square, with free concerts year-round, many featuring local bands.

Krannert also is home to the Elnora Guitar Festival, happening every other year and bringing the finest guitarists in the world for a three-day blowout. At the last festival, more than half of the concerts were free.

There’s a plethora of other music festivals and just plain festivals with lots of live music. One in the first category is Blues, Brews and Barbecuel in late June in downtown Urbana.

Among the more hard-working local bands in town that you’re likely to see at some festivals and at local nightclubs are the Delta Kings, who play straightforward rock; the Tons O’ Fun Band, which plays a horn-heavy rhythm and blues; Kilborn Alley, a young Chicago-blues style band that’s making a name for itself even outside C-U; Candy Foster and Shades of Blues; and the Prairie Dogs, a trio that plays old-time music. (Jordan Kaye, one of its members, also leads a Django Reinhardt tribute band.)

The venues for live music range from bars like the Rose Bowl in downtown Urbana for country and country-rock to Bentley’s Pub and Clark Bar, both in downtown Champaign, for alternative, hip-hop and other kinds of music, to the V. Picasso Tapas Bar and Lounge in Urbana, which offers jazz and acoustic music.

There are numerous other venues for live music, among them the Champaign and Urbana public libraries; Alto Vineyards northwest of Champaign in the summers; the neighborhood bar Huber’s on West Church Street, Champaign; Jim Gould Restaurant in downtown Champaign — house jazz band Panache plays there on weekend evenings and Sunday brunch; Memphis on Main in downtown Champaign for classic rock and blues; and the Phoenix for rock and blues. Other restaurants like Silvercreek in Urbana and even coffeehouses like the Aroma Cafe in downtown Champaign offer live music.

And WEFT 90.1 FM, a community radio station WEFT based in downtown Champaign, airs WEFT Sessions from 10 to 11 p.m. every Monday, featuring local musicians playing live in studio.

So check it out. Your ears maybe never had it so good.

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