When a high-profile executive director of the Grant Park Music Festival departed abruptly after only a year on the job in 2011, longtime principal conductor Carlos Kalmar stepped up and added “artistic director” to his responsibilities, in essence becoming the de facto music director of the nation’s only remaining free summer music festival. In a cultural landscape where much of the lakefront festivals have been privatized, the fact that Grant Park concerts are not only free but have remained innovative and wide-ranging is in no small part due to the vision and high artistic standards that Kalmar sets for the festival. This summer, as the festival celebrates its eightieth anniversary season, Kalmar has set the bar even higher than usual with past principal conductors Hugh Wolff and Leonard Slatkin conducting concerts as well as a Grant Park-commissioned season finale world premiere by William Bolcom on August 15-16 conducted by Kalmar.
After an unsuccessful bid for the 20th Ward alderman seat in 2011, Rhymefest (Che Smith) remains an influential voice in Chicago’s rarely intertwined musical and political worlds. Smith currently serves as a creative director for the youth arts education program Donda’s House (named for Kanye West’s mother) and hosts a radio show on WVON 1690 AM. This spring, Smith turned to PledgeMusic to crowdfund his latest album “Violence is Sexy,” a commentary on gun violence in Chicago, but later put the fundraising effort on hold to revamp the project. His recent single “4th of July” gives a glimpse of his overall musical message, telling the story of a soldier who returns to Chicago after serving in Iraq.
Have you ever noticed how many Alkaline Trio tattoos are out there? Seriously, pay attention when you’re out in Wicker Park and you’ll see them. The skull in a heart logo is everywhere and that’s because Alkaline Trio has been drawing in new fans since dial-up internet. The band has twelve large shows booked in October, including four in a row at the Metro, and every single one of them is sold out. Alkaline Trio has more than five times the Facebook likes of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and is gaining on Wrigley Field—if that’s influential enough for you.
Andrew Bird has been warming up to the television in 2014. His track “Pulaski at Night” was featured in the first episode of season two of the hit series “Orange is the New Black.” The song, an homage to Chicago, plays as Piper looks out the airplane window to see she is descending into a new (incarcerated) life in the Windy City. In June, Bird also released “Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…”, a collection of ten covers of songs by former Chicagoans The Handsome Family, whose song “Far From Any Road” was used as the theme song for the hit show “True Detective.”
Shellac lead man Steve Albini told reporters in 2013 that the band’s first new album in seven years would be released in 2014. He gave no specific release date, and did so in classic Shellac fashion, stating that “that sort of stuff doesn’t really mean anything anymore.” Shellac’s avid following, thirsty for an actual date, was left waiting until late June, when it was announced that “Dude Incredible” would be hitting shelves on September 16. Albini says that the release will change nothing about their glacial pace of touring—a Scandinavian tour this fall is all that Albini says is confirmed at the moment.
DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn, DJ Manny, RP Boo and DJ Earl make up half of the entire Teklife crew. With varying histories and roles they sum up the collective most responsible for taking Chicago’s footwork sound and culture worldwide—especially the late DJ Rashad who suffered an unfortunate and fatal blood clot last April. Many of these fellows started as dancers immersed in the local juke and ghetto house scenes of the 2000s. Today, they’re sought after by clubs and EDM festivals worldwide. Though their acclamations go deeper than mainstream press and awards, you can’t dispute their span of influence when London and Tokyo offer “Chicago Footwork” dance classes to kiddies.
Long gone are the days when Chicago native Kurt Elling could be counted on to make it to the Green Mill on a weekly basis when he wasn’t touring. And yet, despite the fact that Elling is largely considered the best male jazz vocalist anywhere—so says Down Beat’s annual Readers’ Poll for over a decade and a half—and travels seemingly everywhere to solidify that perception, Elling has not forgotten where home is, coming back to his old haunt earlier this month over the Fourth of July holiday weekend. The Grammy Award-winning baritone with a four-octave range and master practitioner of vocalise, or non-verbal improvised singing, has an uncanny sense of pitch and line that developed out of love of Bach growing up singing in his Lutheran chorus master father’s Sunday choir. A heady guy who is as smart as a whip, Elling nearly completed a master’s degree in philosophy of religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School before the clubs beckoned him full-time. Gaining prominence as a wunderkind who could do no wrong, Elling has moved into middle-age gracefully, his vocal virtuosity more sparsely displayed at the service of elucidating the meaning of a lyric or to create a musical mood.
It’s been a transformative couple of years for J2K (Josh Young) and Autobot (Curt Cameruci), the DJ/production duo collectively known as Flosstradamus. Since establishing themselves as fixtures in the national club scene since the mid 2000s, the pair’s musical reinvention in 2011 put them at the forefront of EDM’s current trap music trend. Their 2013 single “Mosh Pit” was an aggro party-starter that rocked the summer festival circuit. This summer’s anthem, the duo’s collaboration with Waka Flocka Flame, “TTU (Too Turnt Up)” has earned them an even wider spectrum of new fans after being featured in the film “22 Jump Street.”
As of this write-up, rapper Lil Durk is on the cusp of releasing the sequel to his highly acclaimed “Signed to the Streets” mixtape, with not much promotion needed outside of a tweet every now and then to his half-a-million followers. To put that number in context, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has less than a hundred thousand; which is to say, who really represents the streets of Chicago? Def Jam’s vote is for Lil Durk, whose full-length debut for the major label is due out this year. The title? “Remember My Name,” as if we would’ve had any trouble…