Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rocking Out on the Streets of Skokie -- A Celebration of My Hometown

Fastball shows "The Way" at Skokie's Backlot Bash
Today marks the fourth anniversary of moving into my Skokie condo. Although it is now worth about half of what I paid, I still really like it.

While I had enjoyed living in the Western 'burbs of Chicago--Glen Ellyn to be exact--for the previous 12 years, spent 3 years out in L.A. in the early '90s and have traveled far & wide, I genuinely relish being back in my hometown of Skokie.

Sure, it's where I grew up, and as my Mom still lives in the same house, I've never been too detached.

So certainly, much of my fondness for Skokie has to do with familiarity, but it also isn't a case of not knowing anywhere else. Between my time living in DuPage County, long having relatives & friends in the south suburbs, many years of working in the far north suburbs and spending substantial stretches in northwest suburban areas, I feel I am fairly well acquainted with a wide swath of the greater Chicagoland area.

And though it would be rather presumptuous and clearly centric for me to call Skokie "the best Chicago suburb"--our neighbor, Evanston, offers much more in the way of history and cosmopolitanism, as does Oak Park, Naperville and elsewhere--the village offers sufficient reason for me to feel proud to live here.

No, Skokie isn't going to be the epicenter of excitement on a typical Saturday night--which is actually one of the reasons I like it--but last weekend's Backlot Bash, which I'll expound upon below, is an example of how the community can come together for a fun yet not intimidatingly overwhelming celebration.

I went to the Bash on all three of its days and am happy to highlight what I feel is a very well put together event. Skokie also has its annual "Festival of Cultures" each May, a fireworks event--often with live music--on Independence Day and at least a couple sizable art fairs each year, but the Backlot Bash--so named because what is now downtown Skokie was once used as a filming location for early movies, back in the Essanay Studios days--is my favorite festival in town. And it's not just a matter of location and (lack of) cost that brought me to Oakton Street for 3 days of live music in a year when I consciously skipped much larger fests like Lollapalooza, Pitchfork and even more sprawling suburban festivals.

More on the Bash in a moment, but it isn't just the fest or the 4th anniversary of my local homeownership that has put a salute to Skokie on the docket.

The "You Know You're From Skokie If..." Facebook Group page
Digging Up Memories,
Sharing Them Online

In just the past month, I caught wind of--and joined--a Facebook group called "You Know You're From Skokie If...". Though I had to opt out of getting an email everytime any of the 234 members posted (or someone commented), it has been fun following threads having to do with the schools, camps, stores and restaurants I grew up with.

I posted that Skokians of a certain age would remember restaurants like the Candle Wick--which was Acres and Zwieg's before I came to know it--Chandelier, Sam 'N Hy's, Tower Garden and LaRosa Pizzeria (the one on Golf is still there). 

Undoubtedly, similar Facebook groups exist for myriad other cities and towns, with their own native nostalgia, but this one has been fun for me to tinker around with.

Now, beyond an occasional fest and a new Facebook page, Skokie really has a whole going for it. Although I rarely go there despite living across the street, in Old Orchard we have one of the best shopping malls in the Midwest. The wonderful Skokie Public Library doesn't have to take a back page to any I've visited. The District 219 high schools, Niles North (my alma mater) and Niles West, were selected in 2007 as having the best arts programs in the country. The Northlight Theater delivers many fabulous productions (including this year's fantastic The Outgoing Tide, which just earned many Jeff nominations). After years of being a haven for Holocaust survivors--who famously battled to keep neo-Nazis off the village streets in the late '70s--in 2009, Skokie became home to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. And while I wouldn't describe Skokie as a fine dining mecca--despite some decent restaurants in Old Orchard and elsewhere--it does boast two of the best hot dog stands you'll find anywhere: Poochie's and Herm's Palace, located within blocks of each other on east Dempster St.

A Local Celebrity That's Making Us Look Good

While there was a 1981 TV movie named Skokie (starring Danny Kaye) about the planned Nazi march and large Jewish community, today the village is notable for its vastly multi-ethnic population. Hence, The Festival of Cultures. And although the Skokie Wikipedia page doesn't list any famous Skokie residents or natives--for a long time, Robert Reed (a.k.a. Mike Brady) being buried in Memorial Park Cemetery was the closest we came to having a celebrity in town--we now can claim a bona fide football star: the Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall, a Niles West grad.

Erin Heatherton, the Skokie supermodel
And as I learned through a number of articles noting her recent visit to launch a new line of Victoria's Secret athletic apparel, there is even a supermodel named Erin Heatherton (formerly Erin Heather Bubley) who hails from Skokie.

Not only, as you can see at left, is Heather one of most attractive human beings on the planet--a nice Skokie counterbalance to yours truly--but I really liked the answer she gave in an interview with Trib Local's Brian L. Cox about growing up in Skokie:
"I think Skokie’s one of the best places anyone could grow up. It’s a very multicultural town. In my high school you’re exposed to every single culture and race. I think that’s very important when growing up because you’re really not shocked by moving to New York, where it’s kind of a melting pot."
Perhaps she isn't all that famous yet--she's been a Victoria's Secret model since 2006, when as a Niles North student & basketball player she was discovered on a trip to Miami, but I  just learned of her last week--but in adding to Skokie's Q rating, we could do worse.

And yes, I am hoping to interview her one day for a profile piece for Seth Saith. Unless she gets an injunction precluding it.

Anyway, Facebook pages, supermodels, football stars, festivals...things are really happening in Skokie.

"Tramps" like us...
Which brings me back to the Backlot Bash. 

It certainly wasn't the highest profile festival of the summer--as kind of a double-edged sword, it's not all that massively attended--but the music I saw & heard over August 26-28 was as personally satisfying as much I imaginably could have heard at Lollapalooza or elsewhere.

On Friday night, I saw Tributosauras become the Who. Tributosauras is a group of skilled musicians who "cover" a different artist at each performance, employing any additional players needed to get the sound exactly right. I had recently seen them for the first time at Martyrs'--a Chicago club where they play every month--when they "became" Bruce Springsteen. That show cost me $20, but their Backlot Bash performance was every bit as good--actually, a bit better--for free. 100 minutes of great Who songs without "Baba O'Riley," "My Generation" or anything from Tommy. My only tip to the guys is to learn an extra song in case you earn an encore; they were forced to repeat "The Seeker." But on my @@@@@ scale, I give this Tributosauras gig a solid @@@@.

Before Tributosauras, there was a band of likely teenagers called Riddum Secure. I guess they had won a local Battle of the Bands, and deservingly so, as they rocked through a couple Stones songs, a few other covers and at least one original that sounded pretty good. It was really a pleasure to see.

Saturday, upon arriving at the fest around 4:00pm, I went into the venerable, recently refurbished Skokie Theater, where in keeping with the Fest's cinematic theme--which was otherwise largely underenunciated except for some Charlie Chaplin standups--they had silent films running with a live piano accompaniment. The three short films starring Buster Keaton--two with Fatty Arbuckle--were quite fun and pianist David Drazin was excellent. 

On the mainstage at 6:30pm were Smoking Popes, a band I would see anywhere. Hailing from the far northwest suburbs, they were one of my favorite bands of the '90s. In the coming weeks, I'll be seeing some of my others--Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins--and while the Popes weren't quite at that level, their ultra-catchy punk pop sound was also a great throwback that came across as good as ever on Oakton St.

I was sorry the crowd was more sparse than it should have been for such a great band, but I think Smoking Popes made some new fans with their energetic set and affable demeanor. This was a @@@@1/2 performance. A clip of "I Need You Around" is below:

Smoking Popes would have been a more than suitable headliner--and were my favorite act at the Backlot Bash--but following them on Saturday night was Fastball. Yes, on August 27, 2011, the answer to the "Where Are They Now?" question about the Austin, Texas band that had one of the most ubiquitous hits of 1998 with "The Way," was literally: "Skokie, Illinois."

Although they had had a couple more minor radio hits back then, I can't say I'd heard of them since or knew much of their music, but they played an entirely enjoyable set. "The Way" is still Fastball's best pitch, but "Fire Escape," "Out of My Head," "Little White Lies" and the rest of the show sounded good, including nice covers of The Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon," The Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" and a crowd-pleasing "Sweet Home Chicago." With a very impressive comeback gig, at least in terms of my awareness, Fastball delivered a @@@@ performance.

Here's a bit of "The Way":

I really don't know how the organizers of the Backlot Bash dug up or decided upon Fastball--I've been to and/or seen listings for many local festivals over the years and never noticed them around town--but I have to commend them. Especially piggybacking on Smoking Popes, this was a much more unique bill than trotting out American English, as much as I enjoy the area's best Beatles' cover band. And even Tributosauras noted that the Backlot Bash is the only outdoor festival they play.

In addition to a suggestion that festival organizers attempt to increase the audience's diversity--despite a wide range of ages, those attending seemed much more homogeneous than Skokie's varied population--hopefully they can entice more actual Skokie restaurants to operate food booths. Festival purveyors of funnel cakes and corn dogs were more prevalent than actual restaurants, though Lincolnwood's erstwhile Myron & Phil's did a nice job. From them, I enjoyed a generous portion of BBQ ribs for just $7, along with a great ear of corn. I can't recall who served the Falafel sandwiches, but I had a good one of those as well.

Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials
Although I hadn't initially planned on going to the Bash all three days, given the great price and comfort level, there was no reason not to catch some blues on Sunday night. A fine 2-hour set from Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials was warmly received by the crowd and brought the Backlot Bash to an end on a high note. This too was a solid @@@@ performance, and my friend Ken actually bestowed an extra 1/2@.

All in all, it was a really enjoyable weekend in Skokie, even if I didn't play bingo, ride the Tilt-A-Whirl or lose money on any carnival games. With plenty of great music, decent food and lots of space to sit down, I couldn't really ask for more. Thank you to all who helped deliver another first-rate festival in Skokie.

I think I just may stick around.

(Over time, I hope to write some more profiles of Skokie people and places. Here are links to a few on Shalom Klein, Bob Katzman and a Skokie Park District production of Rent.) 

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