The programmers of the sixth annual Chicago Country Music Festival probably weren’t consciously trying to illustrate the dichotomy between mainstream country and alternative country, but they sure did a fine job of it. On this sweltering Saturday afternoon, there were two free, simultaneous shows. Nashville stars Tracy Lawrence, Patty Loveless, and Keith Gattis played their hits in the enormous Petrillo Music Shell, with thousands of cheering fans seated on metal chairs and on the vast lawn area about a country mile from the stage. Meanwhile, Joe Ely, Rosie Flores (with Sonny Burgess), Dale Watson and Jesse Dayton delivered smokin’ sets on a smaller side stage, with a few hundred appreciative fans seated on the grass very close to the performers. I never wandered over to see what was happening on the big stage, but the performances I saw on the small stage were marked by passionate singing, superb musicianship, and sincere reverence for the music’s pioneers.
Rosie Flores makes her appreciation for her musical influences abundantly clear. Last fall, she took her idol, Wanda Jackson, out on the road for Jackson’s first U.S. non-gospel tour in over 20 years. Flores is continuing to support her musical ancestors by including rockabilly pioneer and guitarist extraordinaire Sonny Burgess in her band. Like Jackson, Burgess started playing this music four decades ago, but he still has the ability to rock your socks off. His lightning-fast picking was incredible, and he jumped around stage like a teenager hopped up on too much caffeine. He also showed off his still-potent vocal growl on songs such as “Big Black Cadillac” and “Six Nights a Week”, from his recent self-titled Rounder release. During “You Tear Me Up”, Flores and Burgess engaged in a stellar guitar duel; then Burgess walked behind Flores and reached around her to do some pickin’ and fretwork on her guitar, redefining the phrase “playing together.”
Burgess’s presence added authenticity and punch to the set, which featured several songs from Flores’s Rockabilly Filly album. While Flores’ gorgeous version of “My Own Kind of Hat” on Tulare Dust: A Songwriters’ Tribute to Merle Haggard shows she is a versatile performer who can shine on a midtempo ballad, this live performance was dominated by full-throttle, powerhouse rockabilly. With a plaster Elvis looking on, Flores sang an original tune about the day Presley recorded “That’s All Right”, and she gave spirited performances of The King’s “Trying To Get To You” and Wanda Jackson’s “Rock Your Baby”. Flores closed her set by encouraging the audience not to forget musical progenitors such as Jerry Lee Lewis or Burgess, who she dubbed “today’s rockabilly king.” After seeing him play, this audience will remember Burgess not as a historical figure, but as a veteran musician who can still deliver the goods.
The afternoon climaxed with an unforgettable set by Joe Ely, who may be producing the finest music of his long and varied career. On last year’s Letter to Laredo, Ely showed he’s not content producing the same brand of roadhouse country-rock that has won him a devoted following in Texas and around the globe. Laredo has stronger Mexican and Spanish flavorings than Ely’s previous albums, primarily a result of the beautiful playing of flamenco guitarist Teye. Ely, Teye, and Ely’s long-time musical associate Jesse Taylor provided a three-guitar attack that transported the audience from the shadows of Chicago skyscrapers to exotic, distant lands.
Ely kicked off with Tom Russell’s epic “Gallo Del Cielo”, and the audience immediately responded to Teye’s dynamic playing. The Laredo songs worked remarkably well in a live setting, and the band gave top-notch performances of the title track, “St. Valentine”, “Run Preciosa”, “I’m A Thousand Miles From Home”, and “All Just To Get To You”. Ely mixed this newer material with concert staples such as “Me and Billy The Kid” and the mournful “Where Is My Love?”, which can still choke me up even though I’ve heard it a hundred times. Throughout the show and especially during this tune, I was amazed at the emotional content of Ely’s vocals. You might expect such passion from Ely in an Amarillo bar late on a Saturday night, but not at an outdoor, daytime show in the Midwest.
The day’s series of musical tributes wouldn’t have been complete without a contribution from Ely. Late in his set, he asked, “Are y’all ready to turn it up a notch?” before kicking into a killer version of fellow Lubbock native Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy”. Ely returned for a powerful three-song encore that capped off a day filled with fantastic original songs and choice covers showing tremendous respect for those who paved the way.