Taste goes a little bit country

by Alison Bonaguro
Special to The Chicago Tribune , July 4. 2006


It's good to be the mayor.

Because when you're the mayor, you get to bring the music you love right into your city. And that's just what Mayor Richard Daley did over the weekend, for the 16th year in a row.

A country music fan, Daley had the idea for the Chicago Country Music Festival when he took office. Years later, it's one of the biggest draws at the Taste of Chicago, pulling in approximately 600,000 people over two days.

Sunday's show at the Petrillo Music Shell was mobbed with fans who came to spend the afternoon in Grant Park, despite the potentially miserable forecast.

First up was piano man Phil Vassar, who has the energy of a 12-year-old and the talent of a legend. He doesn't go anywhere without his black Yamaha grand piano, and Sunday was no exception. He played it, he jumped up and danced on it. He even managed to get in a few slides right across the top. Definitely not something they teach you in childhood piano lessons.

He started out with a few hits from early in his career as a singer, such as "Good Ole Days," "Carlene" and "In a Real Love." But Vassar has also had quite a career as a songwriter, propelling the fame of artists like Tim McGraw and Jo Dee Messina. So he did his own version of "My Next Thirty Years," which was a huge hit for McGraw. But like Vassar said, "Nobody does a song better than the songwriter."

His music is part Billy Joel and part bluegrass. The resulting sound is something Nashville doesn't quite know how to classify. But his fans can't get enough.

Vassar's too-short set included more of his own hits, such as "I'll Take That As a Yes," "Six-Pack Summer" and "Last Day of My Life." Then he gave thanks to great artists who came before him, covering Billy Joel's "Piano Man" (playing harmonica between vocals) and Jackson Browne's take on "Stay." He even did a Ray Charles-inspired version of "America the Beautiful" that put the crowd on automatic singalong.

Country's sister act SHeDAISY followed Vassar with their angelic voices and sweet harmonies. Kelsi Osborn, one of the three sisters, was off on maternity leave. So the girls' baby sister Karli was there, temporarily pinch-hitting for the band. But it didn't seem to affect the music. Their radio-friendly pop hits like "Passenger Seat," "Little Goodbye," and "I'm Taking the Wheel" sounded just as powerful live. And the fans were on their feet for every one. Especially when they pulled out their how-does-she-do-it soccer mom anthem "God Bless the American Housewife" from the "Desperate Housewives" soundtrack.

The tedious band introductions took away a little momentum from their set, but when all you do is sing, it seems like standard protocol to give each musician a few minutes in the spotlight.

Jo Dee Messina ended the afternoon of music in full army uniform: combat boots, camouflage pants and her "My-Give-a-Damn's-Busted" attitude. And she kept it going through her 18-song set.

Messina's raspy voice has earned her high marks as a country singer, but she showed Chicago what a diverse musician she is, playing guitar on "Heads Carolina, Tails California," piano on "It Gets Better," and drums on a calypso-style jam in the middle of her set.

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune