Smile Politely

Exit stage left… please?

I’ve been living in the heart of downtown Champaign for over six years now, which means for many summers in a row, or so it seems, I’ve been bombarded by The Brat Pack. In fact, in recent years, their Street Fest / Block Party sets have been so loud that all of the cheese from the 1980s that I work so hard to avoid 364 days a year is inescapable one day a year unless I physically flee my home.

Before I get too far ahead, I’ll admit some biases straight from the start to hopefully stave off a Smile Politely comment war. And no, nothing you say will make me change my mind on these points:

  1. I hate a lot of ’80s pop music. I don’t hate ’80s music. But I do hate the following songs: “Oh Mickey,” “Love Shack,” “Don’t Stop Believing,” anything from the fucking Grease soundtrack, “The Stroke,” “Rock Lobster,” “Come On Eileen,” most songs by Blondie, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “Don’t Stop Believing,” and “Talk Dirty To Me.” The list goes on and on.
  2. I however, love, ’80s hip hop. I love, love, love New Order. Duran Duran is awesome. Talking Heads should be listened to every day. Yaz is vastly under appreciated. So no, I don’t hate the ’80s. There are tons of ’80s songs I love. I just can’t stand “Oh Mickey” and the B-52s entire musical output. There is a line somewhere, and it’s mine — but I think you see where I am going.
  3. I have a real problem with obvious public music performances. If I go to see an act live, I want to be challenged, not hear a band appeal to the lowest common denominator by playing mediocre pop songs. I know that makes me different from many people in this world, but that’s just the way I am.
  4. I completely understand that these street fests hope to provide what seems to be called “family friendly” entertainment — although ten to midnight seems a little late for mom and dad to be spilling their Miller Lites on their kids. And maybe that’s because the real goal of these outdoor shows is to sell as much alcohol as possible under the guise of family entertainment. And unfortunately for those of us that can’t stand it, ’80s pop music really delivers on both of these fronts. I understand why The Brat Pack gets picked to play. You don’t need to explain to me why they get booked.
  5. I don’t personally know the members of the Brat Pack. I’m not trying to attack them personally. They, like most people in Champaign, are probably great people to grab a beer with. And judging by how they shred through Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” every year, and really nail “Love Shack” complete with choreography, I can say that they more than have the chops to be a great cover band.

But the harsh reality is, a cover band gets to headline a major show in the heart of Champaign — the same Champaign that at times could lay a claim to as strong of an original local music scene as Omaha or Athens, Ga. The same Champaign that hosts Pygmalion, Ellnora, C-U Folk and Roots Festival, and hundreds of other great shows every year.

We are the twin cities that gave the world HUM, Braid, Poster Children, Head East, Dan Fogelberg, The Didjits, The Vertabrats, Jay Bennett, and later on, American Minor, The Red Hot Valentines, Absinthe Blind, The Living Blue, Headlights, Elsinore, and more keep coming.

REO Speedwagon alone, you know?

All of these bands in their own way have created original music that all of C-U should be proud of.

So why on earth in a musically rich community are we settling for a band covering “Baby Got Back” on one of our biggest outdoor events in the summer? I hear “Ice Ice Baby,” and all I can think is, “Get the fuck off the stage so a band with some real music to play can have a chance.”

Maybe these awful campy cover choices are part of some schtick that appeals to people with hyper evolved tastes for irony and humor that I don’t have. Maybe I’m missing the joke and I just don’t see the value of hearing pretty much the same bad set list year after year. But that’s probably not the case.

More likely, the idea of “playing it safe” is why The Brat Pack gets booked to do their version of “Oh Mickey” year after year. The band knows what they’re going to do. The promoters know what they’re going to get by booking them. And since the set barely changes from show to show, the audience knows what they’re going to hear at every single performance.

But looking out my window at the audience gathered to listen to this year’s show, it’s hard to spot families. It’s hard to see people that came out because they thought the best way to spend their Saturday night is listening to “Summer Lovin’.”

Most of the crowd at the Street Fest or the Parking Lot Party is made up of younger people or “grownups” who clearly aren’t trying to act like grownups on this night. Most of the crowd looks like the same downtown crowd that goes to hear DJs spin at Radio Maria, go to Mike N Mollys to catch local bands, and often go to Cowboy Monkey and Highdive to hear bands from all over the country.

If the effect of the street fest isn’t to bring families to downtown, but instead concentrate the downtown alcohol purchasing business in one area, then I think that it’s time for the street fest organizers — both private and public — to try something a little more challenging than The Brat Pack and its ilk.

It’s time for Champaign to start being proud of the bands it calls its own. And gasp! Maybe it’s time to invest some money on a major headliner for one of these street fests the way Sweetcorn Festival tries to do once a year. Yes, spending money on an out of town act might cut into the profits from alcohol sales at downtown Champaign street fests, but it also might actually double the already big audiences, which in turn, might create even more profits. It might even be a situation where people drive in from out of town to check the band out? It’s a dice roll, but it’s one we ought to be able to take by now.

It’s very possible I have a fantasized image of American music meccas comparable to our size like Athens, Ga. and or even Omaha. But even if I have put those places on too high of a pedestal, I find it hard to believe any of those cities that genuinely support their “creative class” would put up with a band covering the Now That’s What I Call The ’80s CD year after year after year at a major Block Party in the heart of downtown. It would just come off as a wasted opportunity to celebrate what makes those towns great musically.

If the people of Champaign-Urbana really want our music enclave to be taken seriously as a hotbed for creativity (and I know local leaders bank heavily on the idea that Champaign’s creative class will yield revenues for the local economy), then it’s time to give some of our best local original bands a chance to shine at our street fests. It’s time to leave the cover bands to the bars in Rantoul and Peoria.

Let’s put Elsinore in front of several hundred people. Let’s try to get Absinthe Blind, Temple of Low Men or Lorenzo Goetz to reunite at a street fest. Let’s bring Parliament back to town to play outside. Bring REO back but put them on the street for everyone to enjoy. Have a Battle of The Bands. Let’s have DJ Delayney and Tim Williams throw a huge ass dance party on Walnut. Come up with some strange Champaign All-Stars show made up of local musicians where you can still have covers, but it won’t be so campy and repetitive as what we’re stuck with now by always booking the Brat Pack.

Let’s do anything besides booking a cover band to do the same covers every year when we have a town with so much original talent.

But covers of terrible ’80s music has been done enough for our street fests. Now it’s beyond played out. Now it’s time to stop. Now it’s time to let Champaign-Urbana’s original artists shine in the summer time.

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