Wavy Dave Burlingame is the front man and Banjo player for the Chicago Bluegrass band Cornmeal. For the last 10 years, Cornmeal has been evolving their sound with a Bluegrass base and a Jam band mentality. They released their debut album “In The Kitchen” in 2001. Since realizing their first live album, “Live in Chicago, IL Vol. 1” earlier this year, Cornmeal has been touring around the country. They will be playing the Canopy Club’s Halloween Bash on October 31 with special guests The Wood Brothers, Zmick and Mathien.
Smile Politely: Tell me a little bit about how Cornmeal started out.
Wavy Dave: The line up has changed over the years, but we were all sort of musicians playing with different bands. We decided we wanted to get a different side project together. Cornmeal originally started out all acoustic, no drums, no amplification. Just a little side project in the year 2000. From there it started progressing. We added drums, essentially. Drums were kind of loud so we all had to amplify our instruments. It kind of evolved into what you see today.
SP: You guys started playing in small places in Chicago.
WD: Yes, we had residences on Wednesdays at The Abby Pub in Chicago and on Thursdays we would play at the Wooden Nickel up in Highwood.
SP: Are you guys all from Chicago?
WD: Yeah, we are all from the Chicago Land area. And we all live in Chicago, with the exception of our drummer, who lives with his girlfriend in Franklin, Kentucky. That’s the Bluegrass state.
SP: Yeah, that’s a pretty good place to go if you’re going to be a Bluegrass drummer.
WD: Yeah, go figure.
SP: Now you’re playing all over the country. You’re playing in Florida right now at a festival and you’re playing in California after the Urbana show. How did that switch come about?
WD: Well, probably about seven years ago we started branching out of Chicago and playing in the Midwest: Madison and Minneapolis, St. Louis, down in Carbondale, IL. We just kept branching the circle further and further out. The last five years we’ve been really pushing hard. Gaining new markets. Just doing this because we are all really serious about it. And if you’re really serious about it you have to hit all the points of the country like we are doing now. We spend about 2/3 of our lives on the road these days. So we’re out about 200 days a year, probably playing about 150 to 170 shows a year.
SP: How are things going on your festival right now?
WD: Cool. I’m surrounded by Oak trees and Spanish moss. (Laughs) It’s sunny, it’s 80 degrees, it’s beautiful out here. We’re just chilling with our friends that just arrived. We’re getting ready. We’ve got to get going here in about a half hour and get our gear to the stage. We just pulled up about two hours ago. It’s going great. We spent a long trip getting here. We started out in Sacramento.
SP: Is tonight your first show there?
WD: Yeah, it’s our first show. It’s the first night of the festival. There are only a handful of bands playing today, but the next couple of days it’s going to be inundated.
SP: Do you enjoy the festival type of shows?
WD: Oh yeah. We love the festivals. We get to see other bands out on the road that are doing the same thing we do. We make friends with a lot of different bands around the country. And that’s how we get to see them in the summertime at the festivals. And it’s our chance to make other fans too. Thousands of people at a time instead of hundreds. The weather can be bad but you get around that. It’s a festive atmosphere, obviously, at a festival.
SP: How are these festival shows different from the type of shows you’d play at the Canopy?
WD: People walking around, people vending food, vending clothing, jewelry, all kinds of stuff. It’s kind of a big party as opposed to a job. You go indoors, you play in the Canopy Club, it’s a little more formal. Not to say it’s unorganized at a festival, it
#39;s as organized as any club, but it’s a little less formal. You can walk around and you can talk to people a little easier. There is a little less border between audience and stage.
SP: Do you see any difference between the music communities at the places that you’ve been going and the Midwest?
WD: No, I wouldn’t say so. I would say there are Bluegrass fans and Progressive-Bluegrass fans that we have around the country. Pretty much the same all over. The danceability of the music and the way we do our improvisational sections of songs and the song writing. I think it’s pretty consistent all around the country. We have more fans in certain areas that we’ve been hitting longer, obviously, in Chicago and at the Canopy Club. We have a big show Thanksgiving at the Vic Theatre, which fits about 1200 people.
SP: What do you call yourself? Progressive-Bluegrass?
WD: I would call ourselves Progressive-Bluegrass, some people call it Jam-Grass. I guess we are part of the Jam Band community. I don’t know if you are aware, but we won a Jammy award, [sponsored by] jambands.com a couple of years ago. That was a big honor for us. Up there with Phish and Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident, bands like that. It’s quite an honor. Yes, I would say we’re a Jam-Grass band. (Laughs)
SP: It’s interesting to me that you guys play Bluegrass. To me it’s a very specific style of music that’s created out of this working class lifestyle. How do you guys play with this style?
WD: Bluegrass is a blend of music, like Blues and Irish Music, basically. It’s American Folk music at this point. And I think we are able to blend other genres of music at this point too. Rock and Roll and Reggae, Heavy Metal, some Jazz. We try to blend it all in and let it all take you where it goes. We do Rock songs, Classic Rock songs with Bluegrass instrumentation. We try to maintain that Rock and Roll integrity. We play some Bee Gees, some Disco, some Elton John, some Paul Simon. I think we are working on some David Bowie at the moment. (Laughs) But still the same Bluegrass instrumentation, you know, acoustic. We just try to not pigeonhole ourselves into Bluegrass music but try to bring all different types of genres of music together.
SP: It seems like you’re allowing yourself to almost evolve into something different.
SP: Your live performance seems like you’re allowing yourself to evolve as well.
WD: Yeah, I agree.
SP: How did you come to that live performance style?
WD: I’d say probably by the bands that have influenced us. Like Grateful Dead has been a big influence on everyone in the band. Their live performance made them really popular. Bands like that, like Leftover Salmon. They would have a section of the music that was completely improvisational. Kind of let the music just evolve and see how it goes.
SP: So you’re going to be playing the Canopy on Halloween, and you’ve done that for a couple of years, right?
WD: Yeah, this is our third year.
SP: What keeps you coming back?
WD: Well, we like the Canopy Club a lot. We have a big fan base in Champaign/Urbana. It’s one of the markets that we hit when we were first branching out of Chicago.
SP: So are you guys going to be dressing up?
WD: Yes, yes we are. (Laughs) We usually try to dress up every year for that.
SP: Do you want to give out any spoilers?
WD: No, I can’t disclose what we are going to be. No, that’s a secret until the show. (Laughs)
SP: It’s the big reveal?
WD: Oh yeah, that’s the big reveal. That’s what we are calling it.
SP: Have you played with the Wood Brothers before?
WD: I think we’ve done two festivals with them. Really great guys. Chris and Oliver are an amazing duo. So much sound coming out, too much to register–them together.
SP: I was listening to songs from both the Wood Brothers and you last night. You both have really different sounds.
WD: Yeah, I’d say so.
SP: How do you think that’s going to blend together?
WD: Well, they are an acoustic act and their songs are really danceable and fun. I think that’s the similarity we have with them. We have fun with the music and they have fun with the music too. And the fans can relate.
SP: Before I finish, I have to ask, where does the name Wavy Dave come from?
WD: (Laughs) People wave at me all the time; it’s a really strange phenomenon.
Photo by Richard Findlay