Every year, any discussion about the Illinois State Fair leads very quickly to all the live music happening. From the big-time touring acts at the Grandstand or local cover bands getting a hot spot at the beer tents, to the various performances on scattered stages around the grounds, it wouldn't be the State Fair without the music. This year is no exception, as a long list of performers, including well over 100 different acts on several stages over 10 days, most definitely proves. As the description supplied by the fair organizers on their official website says, "a wide variety of shows and talents are in store for you."
Village of Cultures
Let's begin our adventure of looking at these "shows and talents" with a visit to the former Ethnic Village, now, more properly perhaps, called the Village of Cultures. This space, not far from the southeast entrance on the corner of Sangamon and Peoria Road and an easy jaunt from the Main Gate as well, hosts a variety of acts in a permanent gazebo. With plenty of shaded seating on benches surrounded by trees – a welcome commodity on the fairgrounds – along with food and beer vendors in small buildings with a name of a country on them, this area, a fixture for decades, is usually bustling with fairgoers. The idea here is to "experience many cultural groups as they showcase the traditions of their countries," as described on the fair website. This happens as several area bands and a few groups from around the Midwest perform songs and dances of a particular culture. A good example is the Waterloo German Band from Waterloo, Illinois, who return year after year dressed in traditional Bavarian styles to play popular folk songs originating from Germany. Other acts include, Celtic music from Skibbereen, Exorna, St. Andrew's Dancers and Pipe Band, Def Leprechaun and Central Illinois Irish Dance; Brazilian and Latin styles from Samba Llamas, Julie Jules & Co., Brazil Cafe and Jose Gobbo Trio; Hawaiian ukulele songs from The Lei Abouts; American traditional folk from The Dulcimer Guy, Peaches and Bacon, Prairie Wind Flute Ensemble and Illinois Prairie Clogging Association, and well, you're getting the idea now. Many other bands flavor the scene with blues, Americana, soul, belly dancing and more. Culture shock, maybe not, but a good variety of cultures are represented at the Village venue.
It was back in the mid-1980s when beer tents again became a part of the State Fair experience. Since then they've ebbed and flowed, but always remained a good source of entertainment, as well as welcomed exposure and income for Springfield-based bands. Just as the major beer companies have merged, leaving only a few players, our purveyors of libations are down to a Busch Light, a Coors Light and a Miller Lite tent. Each venue hosts three bands a day on weekends, plus two most weekdays with not a lot of repeats. Quite popular area groups like Off the Wall, Captain Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters, Brushville, Fun DMC, Lick Creek, UNCHAiNED and RoxSchool do take to the stages a couple times each. The currently very hip tribute band concept makes a splash with Elvis Himselvis, Damned Torpedoes, For the Love of Lennon, Folsom Prison Five, Resurrection and Brat Pack paying homage to certain artists or eras of music. Original music doesn't get played here much at all, but these venues are about having fun hearing the songs you've already heard while pouring down the popular beers you've drunk before. Maybe someday the craft beers and original bands will get their own spot, but not this year. In the meantime, be prepared for versions of tried and true set lists from our many area cover groups.
Stages around the grounds
There are also temporary and permanent stages set around the grounds just for fun at the fair and include a wide variety of musical acts and other types of entertainers going all day and into the night. The Apex Stage near the Grandstand, showcases up and coming younger acts along with seasoned performers (and here you might hear original tunes), including Tom & Geoff, Gracia, Amanda Torp, Catfish Willie Band, The Elderly Brothers and many others. At the south end of the Reisch Pavilion (Food-a-Rama to oldtimers) you'll find the Grand Central Stage with a quite diverse lineup including original Americana acts, such as Cooper Alan, The Red Clay Strays, Lonestar and Ward Davis along with The Tangents Band, Dueling Pianos, Boom Box 80s Band (with a USA Mullets Championship sandwiched between the BB80sB sets) and even Jump, a Van Halen tribute added in for good measure.
Illinois Building, Lincoln Stage, Illinois Wine
The Illinois Building, known for public health displays, senior days and blessed air conditioning, also has music and dancing in the theater area with everything from the New Jerusalem Singers to the Beige Desperados, several local dance studio demonstrations and even two different belly dancing groups, Lotus Fire and Troupe Zahava.
Back outside there's the ever popular Lincoln Stage with seating and shade along with the most diverse, and we might say interesting, selection of entertainment acts, including some cool music by Myers-Brant-Paoni, Land of Lincoln Chorus, John Drake, Avery Kern, Stuart Smith, the Ex-Bombers and others, plus some non-music acts such as Hooper the Fun Hypnotist (who wins the award for most shows done at the Illinois State Fair for 2023, if there ever was one) and the Illinois State Auctioneers Championship. A couple of all-time, long-running favorite State Fair music events happen here when, as always, on the first Saturday of the fair promptly at 11:30 in the morning you'll find the state fiddle and banjo contests. And then on the last day (it's a Sunday of course) the Powerlight Fest features live music based on Christian beliefs, where the closing act is none other than Petra, considered one of the founders of the original Christian rock music scene.
Not listed in the Free Stages on the fair website (because you need to purchase a $10 ticket to get in for sampling the wine) the Illinois Wine Experience uncorks all-Illinois wine, all the time in the air-conditioned Artisans Building south and west of the Coliseum. Hosting a steady diet of acoustic singer-songwriter music Thursday through Sunday to start the fair and Friday through Sunday on the last weekend, you can experience 3's Company, Ivas Johns, Rhodes & Battles Trio, Tom & Owen Irwin, Ben Bedford and Stuart Smith, in the intimate confines of this restored former poultry house. This fairly new at the fair, wine-drinking space also presents a Paint Night Experience during the weeknights.
Now we've come all this way to get to the goings on at the Grandstand and just maybe it's worth the wait. No other music part of the State Fair seems to create such controversy as the choices booked for the Grandstand year after year. There's always lots of competition with other state fairs, especially the highly attended Iowa one that occurs at the same time as ours, along with other outdoor festivals thriving in the late summer season, but most folks would agree the acts have been stronger and more popular with the populace as of late. Just remember you still have to pay to get into the fair even though you have a grandstand ticket, and the doors generally open an hour before if you're aiming for a front-row spot on the track near the stage.
The country music makers are here aplenty at the 'stand, with Old Dominion, a chart-topping, award-winning, world-traveling modern country group and opening act Alexandra Kay on the bill for Friday, Aug. 11, and mega country superstar Tim McGraw supported by the very up and coming artist Landon Parker on Thursday, Aug. 17. Also in the country market, Maren Morris, one of the top selling and streaming artists of the last several years, shows off her stunning voice with Baltimore native and very cool, singer songwriter, Brittney Spencer opening the show on Saturday, Aug. 19. The 90s throwback and still incredible live performer Alanis Morissette, backed by opening act Tenille Townes, takes the stage Sunday, Aug. 13, while the one and only (and St. Louis native) Nelly with Ashanti + Ja Rule closes things out on Sunday, Aug. 20. REO Speedwagon, who got their start playing central Illinois bars and clubs in the late 60s, returns home on Tuesday, Aug. 15, with Edwin McCain kicking things off and on Saturday, Aug. 12, the inimitable Doobie Brothers, a hugely popular act in the 70s, drops in while on their nationwide 50th Anniversary Tour. A couple of not-household-name acts balance out the roster. There's Alter Bridge, a very successful hard rock band going on two decades of worldwide playing, supported by Mammoth WVH, who is Wolfgang Van Halen, son of the late, legendary Eddie VH on Wednesday, Aug. 16. Then Chevelle, a pair of brothers playing platinum-selling pop hits from the early to mid-2000s, brings it on Friday, Aug. 18.
Now go have yourself a merry little fair time and soak up all the music available.
Tom Irwin is a local musician who has played the State Fair in many different venues, including opening for Willie Nelson and Family in 2001 at the Grandstand with his band the Hired Hands. He writes Now Playing, a weekly music column for Illinois Times and will celebrate 23 years of doing so this August.