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Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2007 01:53 am

Fair enough

This is time when playing local bars is a mixed bag

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Untitled Document When the Illinois State Fair comes to town, the local nightlife business changes. With the extra entertainment booked at the fair, the influx of thousands of strangers with money in their pockets and time on their hands, and the generally increased excitement level of the entire community, Springfield morphs into a raucous party town for 10 days, like some teenage kid getting goofy at his first party. Local bars’ being allowed to stay open until 3 a.m. during the fair if their proprietors so desire certainly adds to the festive mood. It used to be that proprietors had to let the city officials know of their plans in advance, but these days the laws are relaxed and each bar decides on a nightly basis whether to remain open for the extra hours. I think it’s a good experience for any bar considering a 3 a.m. license — similar to sending high-school students home with those fake babies to experience in some small way the consequences of producing real ones. As a performing musician, I’ve found that playing the bars during fair time is a mixed bag: Sometimes the joint is jumping with excited strangers, and other nights you can nap during set four, ’cause everyone else is. It depends on who’s playing the grandstand or the beer tents; what political party is celebrating what; whether it’s officially Illinois wine, swine, or equine day at the fair; and other variables to numerous too mention and too complicated to explain. All you need to know is that bars can and do stay open later during fair time, and often bands play longer as a result.
And what about those ubiquitous beer tents that seem to be more numerous each year or at least change location every few years so that it appears that there are more of them? I believe it was merrymaking guv Big Jim Thompson who brought back those portable party palaces and, with them, live music consisting mostly of area bands. I’m unable to find out much about the history of beer at the fair, except that it was first sold in 1933. I believe that entertainment in the outdoor tents was out of fashion for years, until Big Jim taught Illinoisans how to party with dignity again. Little Jim — Jim Edgar — kept them but limited their numbers and use, leaving beer tents as a peripheral but essential part of the fair experience. The entertainment lineups for the 2007 beer tents are more diverse than I’ve ever seen, I think, featuring big bands, rock bands, bluegrass bands, tribute bands, country bands, dance bands, blues bands, and many other bands (but I’m not mentioning any specific names, lest I get in trouble). With perhaps no venue in town that has a large stage, good PA, nice lights, and decent listening room, a beer-tent gig is a big deal for local groups. It’s a great way to get your name in front of thousands of strangers while playing in a near-concert setting where your local fans can see you as they’ve never seen you before. Just remember as that Fillmore feeling arises to watch out for the occasional pop-up thunderstorm, drummers with heatstroke, flying bugs headed for singers’ opened mouths, and too much room-temperature beer. I think we’ve covered enough to be eligible as official sponsors of the fair. This year’s theme is “Educate and Celebrate” . . . oops, I mean “Celebrate and Educate.” Let’s get — and keep — our priorities straight.
Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com.
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