How Do You Program a Music Fest? We Ask the Folks at Old Town School

By Patty Wetli | Thursday, July 19, 2012

Sidi Touré topped the wish list of performers for the Square Roots Festival and was the first act booked. Credit: Courtesy Old Town School of Folk Music

When Old Town School of Folk Music announced the Square Roots Festival back in March, in partnership with the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce, Alisa Baum, the school’s director of special events, and her staff went straight to work. They had acts to book.

Expectations of an Old Town event are not the same as for other street fests: no cover or tribute bands allowed. “We know that we need to have quite a wide variety,” says Baum. But when an institution defines folk music as “music made by folks,” how do you even begin to narrow your options?

“We try to get people in our wheelhouse — roots, Americana, World, bluegrass,” says Baum. “Part of it is knowing what works at a festival.”

In addition to drawing from the roster of acts that have previously graced the stage at Old Town and making note of who’s touring, the festival setting allows the School to experiment with under-the-radar performers who might not yet have the fan base to fill 400-seat Maurer Hall or even the new 150-seat Szold Hall.

“You can step out and take some risks,” says Bau Graves, OTSFM executive director. “You can be a little bit looser and wide ranging.” Even if the public has yet to hear of a band, they trust Old Town’s taste. “It’s what our reputation is built on,” he says.

One such newcomer is Elephant Revival out of Colorado, part of the white hot neo-folk scene but lacking the name recognition or radio play of breakout artists such as Mumford & Sons, The Head and the Heart, and The Lumineers. “That’s one of the reasons why I picked them,” says Baum. “At a festival, you can expose them to your audience.”

Jonas Friddle & the Majority
is another band cut from a similar cloth, with close ties to OTSFM. The group, which issued its first release this March, counts a number of Old Town instructors among its members. Says Baum, “The first time I saw them, I thought, ‘They have to play the festival.’”

Once the majority of slots are filled, the truly challenging work of a programmer begins in terms of plugging the few gaps that remain. “You’ll look at a schedule that’s three-quarters assembled and see, ‘Oh, we don’t have any country music,’” says Graves. “The last three pieces are a lot harder.”

Further increasing the degree of difficulty, Baum and her staff juggled programming for as many as five venues a day over the course of the three-day event (July 20-22): the Wilson stage (Wilson and Lincoln), the Montrose stage (Montrose and Lincoln), Maurer Hall (4544 N. Lincoln Ave.), Szold Hall (4545 N. Lincoln Ave.) and the lobby of the East Building (4545 N. Lincoln Ave.).

Dilemmas became very specific. “What would be great as a closer on Saturday night in Maurer Hall,” says Baum, who answered that puzzle with reggae artist Taj Weekes & Adowa. For country music, she turned to Chicago’s Hoyle Brothers, who are moving their weekly Honky Tonk Happy Hour from the Empty Bottle to the Montrose stage.

To snag the artist tops on her wish list, Sidi Touré, Baum went the extra mile, literally, visiting the singer in his native Mali. In order for him to appear at Square Roots, Baum had to coordinate additional bookings for Touré, whose music draws not only from the traditional forms of his homeland but from blues and rock.

“For somebody from Africa, it’s very expensive to come here,” she says. “To come, he has to have multiple gigs.” Calling on other promoters, she found an opening for Touré at Millennium Park, among others. “In the past, we’ve worked with SummerDance,” she says. “People in Chicago work cooperatively.”

No Old Town festival would be complete without the dance classes, sing-a-longs and jam sessions led by the School’s faculty. Baum’s team curates that portion of the programming as well. “Some is based on what is popular,” she says (hello, Beatles Ensemble), while other selections are designed to showcase new offerings.

“We want to show the public what happens at Old Town every week,” says Graves. To that end, more use is being made of Maurer and Szold Halls, which, given the weather of late, Graves predicts will prove popular venues not only with festivalgoers but with the performers. “We want to provide an A-plus experience for our musical artists,” he says. “This is a musical institution after all.”

In the end, Baum and her staff spent eight to 10 weeks creating the festival’s performance schedule. Barring any last-minute crisis — somebody’s flight is always late, notes Graves — her work is done. The Hoyle Brothers will be first to take the stage Friday at 5 p.m., and the music doesn’t stop until Sunday night.

When the last note’s been played, Graves’ hope is that people will walk away thinking “A, they had a fabulous time and B, that they saw five things they didn’t know that they loved.”

About Square Roots

The festival runs July 20-22 on Lincoln Avenue between Montrose and Wilson: 5-10 p.m. on Friday, noon – 10 p.m. on Saturday, noon – 8 p.m. on Sunday. Billed as a craft beer and music experience, Square Roots features brewers exclusively from the Midwest including Metropolitan, 5 Rabbit and Founders. Bistro Campagne, Fountainhead, Pizza D.O.C. and Provenance Food & Wine are among the neighborhood food vendors participating in the fest. Kids activities include a craft tent, family drum circle and instrument petting zoo, which we have a feeling will attract a few adults too.

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