Smile Politely

Come alive for Friday night

Friday nights bring a sense or relief in a handful of ways. The weekend is finally here; plans are being made for your next few days of freedom, dinner and drinks downtown perhaps, or going home to hang out with family for a while and relax. If you’ve spent any of that time within the streets of downtown Champaign over the last few months, you’ve probably seen people gathering around the sounds of Friday Night Live.

The series began in mid-July and is wrapping up tonight with a handful of artists, but I had the chance to speak with Kelly White, Executive Director of 40 North 88 West in Champaign, one of the people who made these free street-side performances happen. We talked about how the event got off the ground, how the series has encapsulated the culture of C-U, as well as the plans for the future in upcoming summers to come.

Smile Politely: What was the inspiration behind the series?

Kelly White: In 2009, 40 North kicked off a pilot program called Art & Sol with support from the City of Champaign. The idea was inspired by some of the outdoor performances we had coordinated during the Boneyard Arts Festival. This new program involved monthly guerrilla-style street-side performances throughout downtown Champaign during the summer. It has been a very successful program, but it was difficult to build impact and recognition with a once-a-month timeline. Then in May of 2012, I discovered that BankChampaign was interested in getting involved with a similar type of performance series that would give people who live, work, or are visiting our community a reason to head to downtown Champaign on Friday nights.

With the additional sponsorship from BankChampaign and Champaign Center Partnership we were able to evolve Art & Sol into a weekly event (re-named Friday Night Live) that would help create a vibrant atmosphere that encouraged people to stroll around, enjoy live local music, stop in the retail shops, etc., as well as give performers a venue for showcasing their talents.

SP: Who were the main players in making this series happen?

KW: Probably one of the best things about this series was being a part of such a collaborative effort among several stakeholders who all believed in supporting the culture of this community. BankChampaign provided financial support, as well as helped solicit crucial business partnerships throughout downtown. Illini Radio Group was the media sponsor, and Champaign Center Partnership also provided financial support, along with the City of Champaign. We (40 North) were in charge of coordinating all the performances and working with all the local talent!

SP: What has the reception been like for the series? What were the expectations like going in?

KW: The reception has been truly fantastic. Seeing the diverse crowds that come downtown every Friday, as well as the encouragement of each group’s individual fan base has totally lived up to our expectations.

SP: How was it scheduling musicians to perform each week?

KW: Scheduling was challenging at times, mostly due to juggling everyone’s availability, choosing locations based on the size of the group, providing diversity of genre each week, sound equipment needs, and of course, the weather! Nearly all the performers were local, and many more are ready to join us next year.

SP: How have community members reacted to the series?

KW: We have received such great feedback. Some folks come back every week and some pick and choose depending on the line-up. We consistently get phone calls from people throughout Champaign County wanting to hear details on who is performing and where. It has also been so inspiring to see how many families come out to the event.

SP: What was the most memorable installment of the series for you?

KW: That is such a tough question — each week has a completely different personality and it is so cool to walk a few blocks and hear so many diverse music genres. Of course the kick-off night was very exciting, but honestly every week has had a life of its own.

SP: Were there any surprises you encountered along the way?

KW: I think what surprised me the most was that after 10 weeks we have only had to cancel once! Between the crazy heat this summer and a leftover hurricane, I still can’t believe only one Friday night was called off.

SP: How has the series reflected the culture of C-U?

KW: It has reflected the diversity of the community, the tremendous appreciation for cultural vibrancy, and probably most of all, the astounding amount of talent we have in C-U.

SP: What is the schedule of events for the last performance tonight?

KW: Friday, September 21 —

Walnut & Chester:
6:00 p.m.: The Mugdock Pipers – Highland Bagpipe
7:00 p.m.: McMahon, Boynton, & Wilkie Trio – Classic Rock/Country

Neil & Park:
6:00 p.m.: Seventeen Sisters – Eclectic Rock
7:00 p.m.: Big Bluestem String Band – Bluegrass

Neil & Church (One Main Plaza):
6:00 p.m.: Matter of Days – Rock/Pop
7:00 p.m.: The Early Jazz Ensemble – Jazz

SP: What has the overall experience been like for you?

KW: I know it sounds corny, but it has been profoundly inspiring to experience the camaraderie of the performance community. They support each other, passionately dedicate themselves to their craft, and truly embrace the opportunity to share their skills with the community.

SP: What does the future hold for the series?

KW: Hopefully, it will only get bigger and better in 2013 — we already have several ideas in the works. We will be following up with all the sponsors, business partners, Facebook followers, and performers to get their overall feedback and see what they would like to see happen next year.

All photos by Eric Ponder, used with permission.

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