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by Rachel Devitt

August 23, 2013

Musical Tour: Chicago

by Rachel Devitt  |  August 23, 2013

Chicago is not an easy city to love. As a near-lifelong Illinoisan who's been trying to do just that for a decade, I oughta know. The people are gruff, the politics are draconian, the violence in some areas is heartbreakingly depressing (and the apathy in others is even more so), and the winters are brutally, horribly, all-work-and-no-play-madness-inducing cold. But then the sun comes out and the street fest season starts and you eat at a groundbreaking restaurant and some crazy dude on the "El" sings R. Kelly all the way home, and you think, hey, maybe this town ain't so bad.

Chicago music induces a similarly dizzying array of emotions. On the one hand, all those street fests? They are bursting with crappy cover bands that Chicagoans clamor to see for inexplicable reasons. On the other, just look at -- no, listen to -- this little musical history we've assembled here. The Windy City has made significant noise in (and sometimes founded) just about every great moment in pop music history you can think of. Jazz grew up here. The blues developed its own game-changing school here. One of the most important labels (Chess Records) in R&B (and a host of other genres) was housed here. Alt rockers in the late '80s and early '90s established Seattle's main competition here. And genres from house to Latin's duranguense were created here. There are reasons why whole Broadway musicals were written about this crazy old town, you know?

And almost all those movements continue as living, breathing scenes in this city. You can still hear great jazz music at legendary spots like the Green Mill (where talking isn't allowed during sets, but if you're lucky, a bartender might tell you on the break about the secret passages built under the bar so Al Capone could make a quick getaway). The still-thriving house scene has spawned the buzz-worthy footwork movement. Indie rock is fueled by important Chicago labels (Touch & Go, Thrill Jockey), tastemaking outlets (The Onion's A.V. Club, Pitchfork) and legendary producers like Steve Albini. The blues thrives in gritty bars and living legend Buddy Guy's Legends club. (Meanwhile Guy's daughter, hip-hop artist Shawnna, carries on his legacy in a different genre.) And while its biggest name (a certain Mr. West) may have moved on, Chicago hip-hop is still a loud voice in the dialogue. Case in point: last year's much-ballyhooed beef between controversial street-hopper Chief Keef and elder rap statesman (and onetime alderman candidate) Rhymefest.

Pop music history is bursting out of the seams of these mean, sometimes-chaotic, often-frustrating, always traffic-jammed streets, in other words. We've assembled just a little taste of it here, starting with jazz and continuing on through some of the City of Brotherly Love's hottest up-and-coming artists. We think you'll agree: It is, indeed, a hell of a town.

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