Putting the state back in the grandstand

Next year, let's think Illinois

click to enlarge Former Springfield resident Adrian Belew. - PHOTO COURTESY ADRIAN BELEW
Photo courtesy Adrian Belew
Former Springfield resident Adrian Belew.

Is there anything more subjective than music?

One person's Ernest Tubb is, well, another person's Ernest Tubb. Same with Boy George, or Foreigner. None are playing the state fair this year because there is no fair and, in the case of Tubb, no Tubb. He died in 1984, but not before twice appearing at the fair, most recently in 1971.

Grandstand shows, through the years, have been uneven affairs. For every Heart, which put on a show to remember back in 2009, there is a Tony Orlando, who surely gave event planners fits trying to decide whether he or the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders should go on first when they appeared on the same bill nearly 40 years ago. The cheerleaders opened, and Orlando, freshly cleaned up from a cocaine addiction, soon became a big deal in both Vegas and Branson. It's nice to think that the state fair might have been a springboard for his comeback.

There have been plenty of Illinois performers on the grandstand stage but not enough of them, and too many of the same ones. Nothing against Cheap Trick, Styx, REO Speedwagon or Head East, but every 70s arena rock band has its day, and that was a long time ago. But not at the fairgrounds, where these groups have just kept coming back, five or even six times.

If we ever have a fair again, we should strive for more Illinois-centricity in grandstand shows, which might be tricky, since the Land of Lincoln isn't known for producing country artists, which long have been to grandstand shows what mustard is to corn dogs. Still, there's Alison Krauss, who hails from Champaign and ranks third on the who-has-the-most-Grammys list. Have her headline a show opened by Gretchen Wilson and a resurrected Uncle Tupelo and that would be plenty enough country music for one fair.

Not everyone who was born in Illinois or grew up in Illinois or settled in Illinois, either temporarily or permanently, is state fair material. Miles Davis, arguably the greatest musical genius Illinois ever produced, never played the fair, but that's fine. Jazz doesn't belong in grandstand shows unless it's Benny Goodman, and the King of Swing is no longer with us. Neither is Juice Wrld, but if he were, a show featuring him and the Smashing Pumpkins would make for a memorable evening. Chance the Rapper? Of course, if he doesn't win the White House, Kanye West might have time to join Chance on stage. Neither John Prine nor Sam Cooke, rest in peace, would have needed opening acts, but if they did, Curtis Mayfield would have done fine.

We're closer to Chicago than Nashville, and so the fair's failure to book blues acts over the years is almost criminal. It's too late for Junior Wells, James Cotton, Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor and so many others, but Buddy Guy still tours, and he might be able to convince Harmonica Hinds to join him at the fair. Adrian Belew, guitar master who's played with likes of Frank Zappa, David Bowie and the Talking Heads, isn't from here, but he once lived in Springfield. Get weird, put him on stage with Guy and see what happens.

Let's have Urge Overkill open for Patti Smith and hope the grandstand is still standing when they finish. If we need to take the edge off, there's always Liz Phair. The grandstand stage is a big place with plenty of room for large ensembles. Earth, Wind and Fire has played the fair once, but that was in 1995. Bring 'em back. Same with Chicago, which has four fair gigs under its belt, most recently in 2001.

While quotas are rarely good, they might be worth considering when it comes to grandstand acts, which are known for losing money. Require that at least half of the headliners in any given year be from Illinois, even if they moved (a lot of people are doing that these days) shortly after birth. Who knows? With a state fair version of a residency requirement, maybe we'd have better music than we've had before, even if we don't break even.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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