When I first started at Smile Politely back in 2011, I was hired on as one of two Music Editors as the time, replacing the honorable John Steinbacher and Ben Valocchi after they did it up in their own respective ways within the section. When it came to covering music in the community after a few years of managing music-related things at WPGU, I just became utterly possessed by the idea of getting involved with the scene. I've never been a musician, so my love for music wasn't shaped by playing, but by talking with people about what I thought was good or not so good. I just wanted to invest time into a community like this one.
Oftentimes, keeping up is the biggest challenge in a music community like this one. That's why The Overture is such a relevation, and a bit of an undertaking. Thankfully, it was a fun challenge for me, and as it goes being an editor at Smile Politely, it isn't an actual "job". We just love being engaged community members like our writers, though just being able to have a little more invested into it.
This section has always meant a lot to me, even as I've transitioned away from it into a different role at the magazine — the amount of people that I've gotten to engage with is truly magnificent, and as a community, we should really be proud of the human beings that decide to get up on that stage and perform. There are so many places without the things we have. So, while these are highlights, we certainly can't be comprehensive, and won't ever be, but in the end, damn, it is fun to get out there and experience it.
— Patrick Singer, Executive Editor
BEST Artist: CJ Run
BEST Scene Ambassador: Kamila Glowacki
It’s not just that Kamila Glowacki has performed in… count’ em — 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 — bands. It’s not just that her role as Education Coordinator at Krannert Art Museum brought us the best new music-meets-art project event we can remember in Art Remastered. It’s not just that she is deeply participant in organizations like Girls Rock! C-U.
It’s that she does the thing, every time.
A dear friend likes to refer to people who talk big but that don’t show up to get the work done as “all hat, no cattle.” And while I am not sure that particular aphorism applies perfectly here, Glowacki is the opposite of that idea. She has presided over so many different projects, and has been part of so many others, and all of them have added value to who we are, and what we should aspire to be.
She’s our best scene ambassador for the decade, and I’ll be curious to see if that changes by 2029. It feels like she’s somehow still just getting started. (SF)
Photo by Veronica Mullen
BEST Record Store: Exile on Main Street
Owner Jeff Brandt knows that this whole thing is never going to turn around. We won’t ever return to a golden era of this business model, and that is something he’s never going to pretend to seek. What Exile on Main Street brings to our community stands as perhaps the single most beacon of preservation that we have as far as what we once were as a music forward culture. And that’s not just limited to this very community. It’s about a culture that once was, and no longer is everywhere you turn. That change is palpable. But it’s better to celebrate what we still have than to mourn what we don’t.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that there are a number of fine record shops doing the work too. Record Swap will forever be my very favorite, and despite the fact I no longer buy vinyl, I can’t escape how I feel. See You CD and Vinyl is a terrific shop, and if you are feeling wild, you can still stop in at Parasol Records to get this, or that, or the other. All three of those shops are in Urbana. All of them, gems in their own right.
Exile is in Downtown Champaign, which for me is apropos of opportunity. There’s still opportunity in Downtown Champaign. It will look different, but it will develop. And when it does, Exile will likely be there, as the old guard, standing watch, to make sure it has a center. A place to hang and talk about it. A space to learn.
Exile is the very best record store we’ve had available to us for the past decade. (SF)
Photo by Anna Longworth
BEST Festival: ELLNORA: The Guitar Festival
Having dropped the curtain on the eighth edition just a few months ago, ELLNORA: The Guitar Festival has spent the last decade cementing its place as one of the world’s preeminent celebrations of guitar music in every style.
The festival has gained worldwide attention and acclaim, as well it should; there are few, if any, events that shine this kind of spotlight on the breadth and scope of guitar artists from around the globe, packing it all into a single three-day event. And we would argue that there are none that do as much justice to the instrument and the artists as ELLNORA. The list of past performers — including Buddy Guy, Derek Trucks, Ani DiFranco, Andy Summers, Daniel Lanois, Samantha Fish, and many more — reads like a virtual string-strummers hall of fame, and every two years that list grows to include even more fleet-fingered luminaries who make a stop right here in our town.
All of us here at Smile Politely — along with the rest of the Chambana community — look forward to another decade of discovering new artists, enjoying exceptional performances, and wishing we didn’t have to wait two years for the next one. (JB)
Photo by Eric Frahm
BEST Album: Check back on this one next week
So, a part of what we’re doing for BEST of the decade is a list that’s coming out next week: Top Albums of the decade. For the time being, we’re reserving the right to retroactively update this portion of this article with a link to the new one as to not spoil the surprise. (PS)
UPDATE, December 15th at 9 a.m.: Here's the list.
BEST Export: Polyvinyl Records
Although Polyvinyl Records itself isn’t an export of Champaign-Urbana in the sense that they are sending things out into the world that are from here, certainly, the work they are doing is impactful far beyond Champaign County. The music industry is robust and global. The amount of amazing records they are issuing every year is just astounding, and the humans that make it happen live right here in C-U for the most part. They have a few people on each coast, but the core of the operation itself is just south of Downtown Champaign on Neil Street.
As the music industry continues to evolve, releasing albums by bands that are predominantly in the indie rock genre creates a super small target to hit if you’re going to do it right. Polyvinyl has seemingly done just that, finding ways to make their roster far more than the label that puts out albums by American Football as most with a vague knowledge of their work might think. There’s a challenge to the work they are doing, and for that, the world should be grateful, because just look at the artists they’ve issued records from over the decade: of Montreal, Japandroids, STRFKR, Deerhoof, American Football, Braid, Julia Jacklin, Jay Som, The Dodos, Pedro the Lion, Vivian Girls, and so many more. They are the best export in C-U music because their impact goes far beyond a 217 area code. (PS)
Photo by Justine Bursoni
BEST Crooner: Crofton Coleman AKA Melvin Knight
There was a particular moment in 2017 where I was watching Crofton Coleman and The Amber Sky perform at The Accord, at the very end of the venue’s run, when I truly and honestly felt like my chest was going to explode from an overwhelming sense of joy. Here was a man channeling the best of Teddy Prendergast, Isaac Hayes, Barry White, Luther Vandross, and Brandon T. Washington — and on stage in front of one hundred or so people, right here in little ol’ Champaign.
I feel like I’ve seen and heard a lot of people sing over the years; more than most, I’d argue, based solely on my career, which has been firmly rooted inside of live and recorded music. Very few singers in this community can do what Crofton can do with his pipes. He elevates melody. His vocal phrasings transcend the standard verse. His energy is palpable. He is the best crooner this city had to listen to over the past decade.
When he changed his stage name from Crofton Coleman to Melvin Knight, I almost fainted from sheer elation. What a name! What a perfect fucking name, for a man with these kind of pipes!
He also hasn’t performed locally for quite some time, outside of one play at C-U Folk and Roots Festival, because he moved away to the city of Chicago to pursue bigger stages and a more robust set of listeners, hoping to find more opportunities for success. Nevertheless, he was ours to start, and we’ll claim him as such from here on out. This fella has God given talent that cannot be taught. It is remarkable to hear him sing. (SF)
Photo by Sam Logan
BEST Bar Venue: The Canopy Club
We’ve seen a lot of venues shutter up these past ten years. Stages have been replaced with seats, identities have changed, and the way people consume entertainment has transformed. A person smarter than myself told me that it wasn’t a cultural collapse, but rather a cultural shift. And I like that way of looking at it, despite the fact that we’re left with much fewer options for taking in a live show.
Through it all, The Canopy Club remains. The work of talent buyer Vanessa Robinson, and owner Ian Goldberg, along with former buyer Mike Armintrout, alongside a handful of independent promoters from here and afar, have kept the calendar in tact. Yes, there are less shows, and YES — a lot of it is EDM or DJ shows. Relax. It’s OK for each generation of young people to define what they like and why. Bottom line, it’s a venue, and it’s large enough to throw a truly epic party, and it does, more often than you probably know.
Of course I am biased. I performed there for the second show it ever hosted. Fell in love on the dance floor, and had to pick up my broken heart in the bathroom, back in the late 90s while Y2K was a major crisis. Spent hours and days and weeks and months and years booking shows there during W > Obama. Produce a great deal of PYGMALION there each year still.
But I can step away and examine from a broad perspective. I feel good about City Center and what it will continue to bring forward. The Rose Bowl is the new spot for the scene, no doubt. The Iron Post gives you jazz and roots and more literally nightly. Blackbird has shows, Pour Bros. has shows, Boomerangs has shows, there are shows, goddamnit, still!
The 2020s will again shift who we are and how we engage. But The Canopy Club is best venue we have and has maintained that in the past decade, overall. Praise them for that. (SF)
Photo by Jack Pompe
BEST New Organization: Girls Rock C-U
The future prospects of this amazing upstart chapter of Girls Rock! is, in some ways, representative of what the next decade of music and learning might look like. In short, this is an organization devoted to teaching young girls and gender non-conforming kids about what it means to play in a band, comprehensively. The weeklong summer camp has workshops, special guests, defined curriculum, lessons, and rehearsals, which culminates with a live show at the end of week, open to the public, replete with merchandise from the bands that they made themselves. All of this is presented and designed by women and gender non-confirming people, who are doing it mostly as a labor of love. This is what community looks like.
To watch it from a distance, it’s amazing. To see it up close, it is overwhelming and so full of promise, you are genuinely inspired and reminded about the ways the world, and this city, still succeed.
Now, it needs robust support, and that means funding. There’s no telling how impactful something like this might be if we give them a sporting chance. You can donate right now, actually. Tomorrow night (Friday December 13) at The Rose Bowl, there is a sweet benefit show featuring a handful of amazing performers doing songs from the best women in country music. This organization is already incredible. Imagine if they could create a situation where it was someone’s full time job to just do this? What if there were two people, or more, who did it? (SF)
Photo by Veronica Mullen
BEST Weekly Event: Urbana Hootenanny
Though the Rose Bowl Tavern in Downtown Urbana is currently in the midst of its own renaissance undergoing a change in ownership earlier this year, there’s one component of this that has binded the past to the present. The Urbana Hootenanny has been running for a good portion of the decade, and on any given Monday night at the cozy country dive you can witness any number of local musicians perform. Sure, it is similar to an open mic, sharing the idea that musicians can come together to perform in a particular way, either sharing the stage with one another or going it alone. There’s a special place in the scene for open mics and jam sessions, and this is one that sits just slightly above the rest given its connectivity to the old and the new portions of the music community in C-U. (PS)
Photo by Patrick Singer
BEST House Show Space: The Velvet Elvis
Not to paint with a broad brush, but The Velvet Elvis was different than a lot of venues you might consider a “house” venue. Meaning, it did not exist in a basement of someone’s house. Certainly not all house venues exist in the basement, sometimes the stage exists in the living room, or elsewhere. It isn’t all too often that you find a house venue that exists on the top floor of a building, and what a weird and awesome space it was. From time to time you’d see a show there that certainly did not belong there, but totally belonged there, you know? I saw HUM perform there. I saw The Appleseed Cast perform there. Common Loon, Withershins, and various other local bands perform there. Good Night Good Morning played their last show ever there. It was such a gem of a space because it was unconventional enough to feel like it belonged within conventional thinking when going to shows in C-U. (PS)
BEST Promoter: Jason Finkelman
It’s easy to talk about live music from one’s own perspective, from the purview of the type of music we love. In America, and in the middle of the middle of the middle of America, that generally means rock, country, hip hop, EDM, and the like. Those are all great genres, we know.
But for Jason Finkelman, he has always turned his attention to the underappreciated and the sometimes unheard. Improvisation and instrumentation from abroad. Surprising yourself in the moment, and allowing the show to be the teacher, and the teacher to lecture with notes and not words.
I didn’t go to as many shows that Finkelman puts on as I should have. The ones I’ve been to leave me and my poor head spinning from how powerful they are. His Sudden Sound Series, brought to you in partnership with Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, is one of the brightest and most exciting spots we have here in Champaign-Urbana. It’s my direct goal moving forward to mark them on the calendar and celebrate the end of marijuana prohibition in tandem starting in 2020. That’s what I am going to do. Get nice and stoned, and safely arrive at these shows, and let them blanket me in their grace. I am going to leave safely, and I am going to dream about them later. That is what I am going to do.
Mark it in your memory: when you see a show being presented by Jason Finkelman, make it a point to go see it, if you are able. I can assure you, you won’t leave sorry you went. (SF)
Photo by Melinda Edwards
BEST Scene: Downtown Champaign
While I’m not here to dwell much on how much the landscape of Downtown Champaign’s music venues has changed (we’ve already done that), there still remain a ton of options for live music in all of Champaign-Urbana. As of late, there’s been a cultural shift moving east to Urbana from Downtown Champaign: Rose Bowl, the Iron Post, Canopy Club, and more. There’s plenty to see and engage with throughout the community. Though this period we’re recognizing here isn’t truly its heyday (that's probably the decade prior to this one), Downtown Champaign as a live music hub during 2010-2019 truly ruled.
Just thinking about all of the activity that took place early in the decade at the Highdive (then the Accord), Mike N Molly’s, Cowboy Monkey, Clark Bar, Memphis on Main, The Brass Rail, the Virginia Theater, Institute 4 Creativity, and all of the house venues that existed within and around downtown, it is easy to focus on what’s not around anymore versus looking at what once was the center of the scene. Not to mention The City Center, Soma, Radio Maria (DJs most often), The Art Theater (at times), and more...
[Inhales] ... and all the work that 40 North did to make Friday Night Live into a thing, plus various festivals (PYGMALION and Mariposa come to mind), Downtown Champaign is where it was at if you wanted to see a show. That's where the scene was throughout that period of time. (PS)
BEST Annual Event: The Great Cover Up
The almost 30 year history of the event says enough. But the running list of bands covering bands, and dressing up and making it a thing year in and year out is testament to its place in the annals of the C-U music scene. Had we had a category for it in 2009, it would have taken the same honor. The best annual event for music in C-U is The Great Cover Up.
Now a two weekend affair at City Center, audiences are treated to surprise after surprise as no one knows what band is being covered until they hit the stage. The fact that there have been multiple iterations of particular artists over the years is a showcase of how a scene changes, how players come and go.
At the center of it all is Ward Gollings. Though he did not found the event, he took it on in its 3rd year, and has kept it going, almost singlehanded, over the past 25 years. You don’t have to be a scenester or a player to enjoy this annual set of shows: it appeals to literally everyone with a pulse. (SF)
BEST Guitarist: Teddy Lerch
This is an opinion shared by Patrick Singer and myself, so we are going to go with it. Fact is, there are tons of great pickers and shredders in this community, and plenty of them are technically more proficient and perhaps more accomplished in various ways than Teddy Lerch.
But they aren’t better than him writing and performing original music, because for our money, between ZXO, LLYN, Shazu, Hank., and others, he’s got licks for days, and they are the best fucking licks, and they span genres from deep metal to emo to shogaze. They are never boring. They are always super sweet, and frankly, I hear the best parts of David Gilmour, Adam Jones, Jerry Cantrell, and Jimi Hendrix within, each time.
So, we’re being a little generous here, but that’s what this is all about. By our standards, Lerch has been the best guitarist playing original music in this city over the past decade. (SF)
Photo by Veronica Mullen
BEST Reunion: American Football
The reunion that we didn’t really expect to see that would send waves across the world of midwest emo was American Football getting back together after nearly 15 years of inactivity. Mike Kinsella had moved towards doing his solo project Owen most of the time, as well as Cap’n Jazz shows, and the rest of the crew were living their lives as normal, everyday aging indie rockers. When PYGMALION 2014 was announced, it came with not just CHVRCHES, Panda Bear, Tycho, and many more to accompany this news about American Football performing. When a band with cult-status like this gets back together, it makes noise across the internet, and when it just so happens to be a band that originated here in C-U, it makes it that much more significant to our community. The band continues to perform all over the world, now having not just one but two follow up records to their highly influential debut record on Polyvinyl Records. (PS)Photo by Atiba Jefferson
Jason Brown, Seth Fein, Nicole Lanphier, and Patrick Singer contributed to this article.