El Circo Cheapo
Among local culturevores, the mysterious Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements has stirred up as much curiosity and bewilderment as any event of the fall. So we dialed up its mastermind Mike Reed, the Chicago drummer/composer who programs Pitchfork and the Umbrella Music Festival. After insisting that Brilliant Corners is light years beyond your typical street fest, Reed explained that the season’s most unusual arts and cultural extravaganza will feel like a carnival—with a mix of free and ticketed circus acts, indie middleweights such as Bill Callahan and Shellac, and farmers’ and crafts’ markets. The spectacle unfolds at Eckhart Park (at Chicago Avenue and Noble Street) over three days starting Friday, September 16.
Summer and early fall are chock full of festivals. What made you survey the landscape and decide to squeeze in one more?
It’s not a festival! I don’t really think about it being a festival at all. Basically, this event is so multi-faceted: There’s a bunch of free stuff, like a farmers’ market where you can buy cheese. If you want to see the Bill Callahan show [Friday, 9/16, at 9 pm], you buy a ticket. A huge component of it is the circus festival. If you want to buy a ticket to see George Orange [a flame-wielding tightrope walker; he performs 9/16-9/18 at 5:30 pm], you can. Or if you just want to see a pop-up sword swallower in a free tent, you can. The other festivals aren’t like that. You’re invested fully in the thing. So this is an event. I just collected a bunch of things people could be doing on a weekend and put it in one place.
Was there a model in another city you liked?I am stealing little bits from other events, like a carnival—the simple kind of carnival that happens all over the place. There were some of the events I went to—Andrew Bird playing a show in a circus tent in Belgium—and the great thing was that it started to rain when he started to play, and a tent was the best place to be. Then I heard about El Circo Cheapo [a Chicago-based aerial circus; they perform 9/16-9/18 at 8:30 pm]. I’ve been trying to go to their monthly show for almost a year and a half, and I always wait until a few days before to buy tickets, and it’s sold out. I finally got a chance to go, and it was like, if we’re not going to do this with them, I don’t know that it’s an event. The director, Shayna Swanson, came up with idea of doing different circus acts. So we have five. George Orange is more like a street performer. Zoppé Family Circus [a European-style clowning group; performing several sets a day for free] is for families.
What have you learned over the years dealing with Pitchfork? What’s the secret behind a successful fest?
When I started doing Pitchfork, I wanted to do something that wasn’t like every other beer bash/street festival full of cover bands. We came in the same year that Lollapalooza started back; that model definitely changed what is the norm for things in Chicago. Now street festival lineups are better. Look at North Coast last week. They basically stole our whole footprint. So that’s now rudimentary, to have a fest and upgrade talent. So the need? Maybe it’s to have something that’s more thoughtful and interesting than what’s going on. I started asking the question, what if we keep this free? What if it’s just open? What if we have rides next to the tent where Shellac is playing?
By rides, do you mean there going to be a roller coaster in Eckhart Park?
The rides are not my department, but it’s more small-scale stuff like bumper cars, tilt-a-whirl. We want to bring back the family possibility—that’s really cool to me. Maybe it’s an age thing, but as I get older, I have more and more friends who have kids. They still want to go out. Something I’m thinking is, How do we do an event that’s not just for 22-year-olds? We can all get along. The 42- year-old can be there with his six-year-old, too. It’s all in the atmosphere.
The music lineup is different from other fests. You buy a ticket for individual evenings [$20 each night, for four bands], not for the whole weekend. Then there’s one tent where all the music is free. What did you book first—the music or the circus acts?
We locked in the El Circo thing first, then found the tents [borrowed from a family circus act that isn’t performing in September]. After that, I knew I could fill in the music lineup. I like the variety: On Friday, we have [the Mali singer/guitarist] Sidi Touré and [indie rock crooner] Bill Callahan—they have the same sort of vibe so why couldn’t they be on a bill together? You wouldn’t see that at a music club. On Saturday, we have [funk band] Charles Bradley and [indie folk outfit] Hack and a Hacksaw. They are both dance bands but from different sides of the map. Things like that were key ideas. On Sunday, there’s Fools Gold, a dance band, then Dan Deacon, who makes dance music of sorts.
Why Eckhart Park?
We have tent structures that need their own space. There aren’t that many parks that are big enough. This one is near the Blue Line Chicago stop, toward the beginning of a lively district. It also helps that I work with the alderman’s office when I do Pitchfork. We did look at Addams Park just outside of Pilsen; I liked it. But with hardly any neighborhood around it, some of my colleagues were like, Eckhart Park would be better for a first time event. Especially for families.
Who are you most excited to see?
Obviously, El Circo is great. Hawk and a Hacksaw—they are old friends of mine. I knew Jeremy Barnes, the main guy, since 1996 when he was booked here in Chicago and went on to be in Neutral Milk Hotel. I really love where he’s been moving that music, from his time spent in Budapest. I want to see how audience looks at that, at the energy aspect. And I’m excited about Shellac [Sunday, 9/18, at 9 pm]. I felt really honored that they are going to do it. They are very selective.
Shellac doesn’t usually play local festivals. What was your pitch?
I know [bassist] Bob Weston, and I just got done recording yesterday at Steve Albini’s studio. I told them that this is a unique event, and I know that rings true for what they like to do. Usually, they go for something off the beaten path. Also, I was like, it smells like a festival, but it’s really not. There are only four bands playing on your night, and you get to soundcheck.
GO: For info and tickets, visit brilliantcornersofpopularamusements.com. Ticketed circus and music events range from $15 to $20. Free events include a music tent of local bands (including Dolly Varden and the Hollows), a daytime farmers’ market, and the Renegade Craft Fair.
Photographs: Jim Newberry