The Taste of Chicago (June 26-July 5) is known primarily as an excuse to pig out on every kind of food imaginable. But one long, drawn-out walk through the crowd surrounding the festival's main stage at the Petrillo Music Shell will prove that the music is a pretty big draw, too. This year's event once again brings in some big names, and also addresses a key shortcoming by dedicating an entire stage to local artists. Here's a taste of our favorite tunes being dished up in Grant Park - and since you can't go to the Taste without getting some grub, we offer our choices for the best foods to accompany each performance.
Andre Williams Saturday, June 27, noon, Taste Stage
R&B legend Williams kicks off a day full of Bloodshot Records artists (the lineup also includes The Deadstring Brothers, Dollar Store, Scotland Yard Gospel Choir
and Waco Brothers), and he's sure to do it like he's done everything else in his 40-plus-year career: with swagger, style and a whole lotta swearin'. Expect a set full of the hits he's either penned or performed over the years, including "Shake a Tail Feather" (popularized by Ike & Tina Turner), plus the fuzzy punk of later releases.
Food: One of Williams's many raunchy classics was "Greasy Chicken," so Harold's Chicken (Booth 39) would probably be the way to go here – and it's something Williams, an occasional Chicago resident, probably knows pretty well. (He also wrote "Bacon Fat," so do with that what you will.)
Counting Crows Saturday, June 27, 5 p.m., Petrillo Music Shell
No matter how you feel about the band's direction since its 1993 debut, "August and Everything After," there's no debating that the Crows are a fun live act full of energy and improvisation. This show should include everything from altered versions of songs like "Round Here," to radio-friendly hits like "Hanginaround," to a healthy dose of covers (the band's 2002 re-imagining of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" among them).
Food: Frontman Adam Duritz's battles with weight issues have been well-documented. So you wouldn't want to taunt him with something greasy. Instead, show up with one of the Taste's relatively healthy options, like a grilled cajun turkey link with garlic potato from Oak Street Beach Cafe (Booth 41), or a watermelon slice from Dominick's (Booth 37). Ok, you can sneak a popcornsicle (Garrett Popcorn Shops, Booth 52) when he's not looking.
Chicago Afrobeat Project Monday, June 29, 5:15 p.m., Taste Stage
Of all the internationally minded acts playing on "World Music Day" at the Taste Stage (others include Latin/Caribbean act Pantastic 4, reggae group The Opposition Party, El Payo Nuevo Flamenco and percussion troupe Be The Groove), these local torchbearers of Fela Kuti's legacy seem the most likely to spark a party – and not only because they'll be playing for some just-released office workers ready to let off some steam. The band's horn-driven funk and jazz jams have been getting people grooving for years, and this set shouldn't be any different.
Food: A musical journey of this magnitude deserves some appropriately international accompaniment. The sauteed goat meat with plantain at Vee Vee's African Restaurant (Booth 20) should do the trick. Just remember to wait at least five minutes after eating before doing The Swim on the dance floor.
Ne-Yo and Keri Hilson Wednesday, July 1, 5:30 p.m., Petrillo Music Shell
If you've turned on a radio in the past year, chances are you've heard one or both of these artists within 10 minutes. Hilson's debut album, In a Perfect World
, has topped the R&B charts thanks to such hits as "Turnin' Me On" (featuring Lil' Wayne) and "Knock You Down" (featuring Kanye West and Ne-Yo). But it'll be hard for her to overshadow Ne-Yo, whose illustrious career now includes multiple Grammy awards (thanks to two wins this year for his song "Miss Independent"). Bring your smelling salts for this one, as the combination of Ne-Yo's steamy love songs and the July humidity could cause mass swooning.
Food: An evening with a suave "Gentleman" like Ne-Yo calls for something smooth and sensual, like gelato from Canady Le Chocolatier (Booth 15). For a true taste of romance, try the chocolate-covered strawberries (and chocolate-dipped bananas) at Aunt Diana's Candy Makers (Booth 17).
8 Bold Souls Thursday, July 2, 7:15 p.m., Taste Stage
It's difficult to single out just one of the many talented artists representing Chicago's Thrill Jockey Records today; if you have the time, go see 'em all, including improv legend Fred Anderson, freewheeling popster Bobby Conn
and alt-rock stalwarts Eleventh Dream Day
. But Edward Wilkerson's jazz outfit gets the nod for its commitment to innovation and unusual instrumentation, plus the fact that it's a rare feat to get all eight musicians (including bassist Harrison Bankhead and woodwind player Mwata Bowden) on the same stage at the same time.
Food: Embrace the unpredictability of jazz – close your eyes and pick a booth!
Independent Independence Day Extravaganza: Songs for Presidents Saturday, July 4, noon-3 p.m., Taste Stage
Though it sounds like an extra-credit project for a high-school American history class ("44 songs for 44 U.S. Presidents"), this concert, presented by the Hideout
, is worth checking out. Songwriters Christian Kiefer, Jefferson Pitcher and J. Matthew Gerken will perform the songs with a variety of Chicago musicians. We're especially looking forward to "William Howard Taft (There Was No Longer Use to Hide the Fact That It Was Gout)," "Lyndon Baines Johnson (Ladybird Take Me Home)" and, of course, the latest addition, "Barack Obama (Someone to Wake)."
Food: July 4 is a time to show what Americans are really made of. You know what that means – barbecued turkey legs (Manny's, Booth 1) for all.
Buddy Guy Saturday, July 4, 3 p.m., Petrillo Music Shell
He may not be the hippest of headliners, or wield a huge string of hits like last year's big draw, Stevie Wonder, but Guy is really a perfect fit for the Taste of Chicago. The huge, jovial crowd that comes in on the 4th should eat up (pun intended) the bluesman's legendary energy and showmanship – not to mention the still-fiery guitar licks that have inspired countless performers.
Food: The real question here is, what do you want to be eating when you hear "Sweet Home Chicago"? In other words, what's your quintessential Chicago food? Is it a Billy Goat double cheeseburger (Booth 6)? A slice of sausage from Lou Malnati's (Booth 30)? A Chicago-style dog from Gold Coast Dogs (Booth 27)? You make the call.