This weekend while at the big On the Waterfront (OTW), I found myself wandering the streets desperately seeking a stage that hosted something new and tolerable. The best bets seemed to be the Ethnic Stage and the ComEd Left Bank Stage, with a brief stop at Kryptonite. Sort of disappointing, especially when you consider years past when you had to put your running shoes on and jog the entire downtown area so as not to miss your favorite acts that were simultaneously playing on different stages. Now, I and many other locals found ourselves conglomerating in the middle of the streets with nothing to do but wait for Jethro Tulla day in advance.
Honestly though, the Ethnic Stage pulled throughas alwaysthis year. Friday night gave the stage to Natty Nation and The Prodigals (at least thats what was going on when I finally made it down there). Natty Nation was just thata bunch of scraggly-looking Jamaicanesque dudes in dreadlocks playing (surprise, surprise) reggae music. What distinguished them from other reggae groups that night was their emphasis on the rock n roll jam-band style instead of the typical generic Afro-Caribbean cruise boat sound. No steel pan button on the Casio keyboard for Natty Nation, and no fake synth stuff.
On the flipside of the river, Chicagos own Baaro rocked out, packing the Left Bank stage with dancers. I couldnt help but notice that their set list was almost exactly the same as the last few times theyve played the Web in Rockford, and I could live without ever hearing Hot, Hot, Hot again, but their energy and awareness of reggae rhythms was, as always, pleasurable. One suggestion would be to lose their cheesy keyboard playersynthesizers have little place in ethnic folk music.
I caught The Prodigals after Natty Nation, which played traditional Irish folk (and drinking) songs I had been told by Craig Nagus, the guy who runs the Ethnic Stage, that they were better than The Tossers. I tend to disagree only on the basis that there wasnt any energy in the group. The Tossers might be Celtic-Punk and completely unorthodox, but they were together and tight, and they inspired emotions from the audience.
All the musicians in The Prodigals were good in their own right, but the bass player kept trying to sound like Jaco (and would not stop for a moment), while the drummer was obviously an ex-punk rocker, and the guitarist/singer wanted to take the group to a soft, folksy almost New Age sound. The lead singer and accordion player couldnt tie them together, and an obvious struggle was perceived on stage. However, besides all that, The Prodigals were a good time for many non-music snobs, and their song choice was great. They were arguably the best thing going on Friday night next to Baaro.
In the chairs next to me I met a couple, in their 30s Im guessing, who had been coming to On The Waterfront for years. They complained that the Rock Block had been knocked off the list, that there werent as many bathroom facilities as last year, and that the lack of the Jazz Stage was really quite annoying.
They also railed the OTW committee for charging entirely too much for not enough worthwhile acts. Remember when we used to nab up The Blue Meanies and the entire Rock Block would be filled with kids and adults alike dancing and BUYING drinks? The couple theorized that they got rid of that scene to prevent the annual fight that breaks out during the festival, but if I remember accurately all the fights started in or near Stewart Square and not across the river. They werent the only complainers I heard this weekend. Oh, well.
I found Wishing Chair and Kara Barnard at the Left Bank Stage Saturday afternoon by accident. I was waiting for Boulas and caught the last hour of this great bluegrass trio.
OK, so the three women were a little militantly femi-Nazi and sang a few too many woman-are-great-men-are-evil songs for my taste (and I swear that guitar player is one of the Indigo Girls!), but they were great musicians. Without a drummer, they tapped their mic stands and slapped the sides of their instruments maintaining perfect rhythm. They sang harmonies that elicited goosebumps from many, and their clean traditional sound raised spirits for all there. Nobody walked out on Wishing Chair.
Boulas followed in suit with a guest appearance by Sarah Abrahmowitz on a Tom Waits song. The crowd loved that stuff, and enjoyed the mix-up of Creole, blues, jazz and rock. They will be even happier to know that they can check out Boulas (Doug Furze) and Sarah at the Rockford ChopHouse every Friday night on the patio in fair weather and inside in rain and cold.
No, I did not go see Willie Nelson or Uncle Kracker (which I heard was in surprisingly low attendance) or Jethro Tull. Well, I caught a bit, but Im sure most of you were already at Davis Park missing the side stages, and dont need to hear about how Willie sounds the same, etc. By the way, if anybody found a silver Ologie watch that looks similar to an arm cuff near the Ethnic Stage, please return it to me. Somewhere in the shuffle I was disbanded and would really like it back. Ill give you a monetary reward if you really need it.
All around, On The Waterfront was slightly depressing with a few refreshing highlights. The lack of diversity between the stages added to some confusion, and there really werent any distinguishing factors between the band line-ups.
Gone are the days of the Oldies Oasis, gone is the Jazz Stage and The Rock Block. Since they lowered the Davis Park Great Lawn Stage down a few feet, no one on the river could even see Willie Nelson, and even in the general seating area, viewers still had problems viewing Jethro Tull or Cheap Trick. One OTW-goer theorized that this change was deliberately done to encourage people to grab the expensive seats. So, I guess what youre supposed to do is scramble to pay even more money to see the big names, and get herded into the gated area in front of the stage, while the rest of us crane our necks in the back. Maybe next year itll work out.