Living here (even for nine months of the year) proves to everyone in town that we’re lucky to have this little cultural oasis here on I-74. Whether it’s big-name bands, ethnic food, diverse cultural celebrations or Pulitzer prize-winning playwrights, our town offers happenings that you can’t find outside Chicago, but without the big-city traffic. Undeniably instrumental in attracting many of these is the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, and this year they are doing their damndest to start the arts season off right: bringing together bands, activities and food proving just how bright Champaign-Urbana can shine.
While it’s no secret that KCPA’s Opening Night Party is the first great show in Campustown each academic year, it’s also a little unfair that odd-numbered years get to coattail on the incredible Ellnora Festival. This year, however, someone put a little oomph behind the lineup – it may actually beat out last year for me. Most local music enthusiasts will be excited for the return of perennial favorites Davina and the Vagabonds, who are sandwiched between two of the most pulse-accelerating party bands of late: Pedrito Martinez Group and Red Baraat, both fronted by truly talented percussionists. It’s the season’s best triple-ticket, because just $5 gets you entrance for all three.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; the music may be the main reason to show, but it’s not the only one. The KCPA Opening Night Party gives locals a time to see and be seen, reconnect and reimmerse in the arts. And there are a lot of families in town who would love the chance to chat, dance, and play together. The gala this year is gear to accommodate everyone with all-ages crafts and activities, a giant communal coloring project, and temporary tattoos. There will be plenty to delight, distract, and fidget with while being entertained by world-renowned performers.
With doors opening at 6 p.m., there will be plenty of professionals who are tempted to go home and eat first, but the event has that covered, too. Outdoor food vendors will be present with temptation from every corner of the globe, so maybe give yourself a reason to stay out and eat. Caribbean Grill will be there, serving up their deliciousness. ProTip: on the menu it says “Beef Pattie” but imagine a “Beef Pasty” instead, with lovely seasoning and a flaky crust. Local restaurants Siam Terrace and KoFusion will also be present, and it is not easy to resist dollar sushi. If you haven’t had a paleta from El Oasis, now’s your chance: I am hoping they bring plenty of rice pudding pops (arroz con leche) or some frozen gansitas for my sweeter tooth (think chocolate-covered twinkie with both crème and strawberry filling). And if you prefer your dessert on the starchier side, Rick’s Bakery will satisfy – but did you know they also serve tamales and burritos? I will be hard pressed to choose between those and the filled churros.
Of course I can’t indulge all my culinary curiosity because I will need to be light on my feet for the dancing. Oh, the dancing. Just a scant half-hour after the food vendors begin serving, the Pedrito Martinez Group will take Stage 6 and I guarantee only the fullest bellies or staunchest Midwesterners will be able to resist the rhythms. Martinez blends both aspects of his Afro-Cuban ancestry skillfully with each other and with even more musical styles like traditional jazz and even some poetic/rap vocals. All of his music is fueled by his Yoruba background, asserts Latin Jazz Network, who named the group’s most recent album as August’s album of the month. Whatever otherworldly qualities Martinez demonstrates solo are only intensified when he is joined by his protégé Jhair Sala, bassist Alvaro Benavides, and pianist/trumpeter Edgar Pantoja-Aleman. If you need a taste, or want to practice your dance steps, UnivisionNoticias has the title track from Habana Dreams.
About an hour later, closer to 8 p.m., Davina and the Vagabonds will take Stage 5 on the other side of the lobby. Don’t be fooled by her sultry looks and classic style, Ms. theVagabond’s voice may give your feet a rest for a moment, but soon you’ll be looking for a swing-dance partner. Be careful that your jaw doesn’t get in the way of your footwork, though, you may need to pick it up off the floor if you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing this band perform. Davina herself told us the St. Louis band’s sound is “fun, with some surly undertones” while Photo Editor Sam Logan says they are “dressed like a prohibition speak-easy band and belted out tunes to match.” Actually, I should probably prepare you: while I love her version of Ain’t That a Shame, the original tune Lipstick and Chrome is that one that knocks my socks off every time. It should come with a warning.
And yet, everything up to this point has just been a warmup. Back on Stage 5, headliners Red Baraat will keep the party going. Securing NPR’s “best party band in years” has been a years-long effort on behalf of some employees of KCPA. Percussionist frontman Sunny Jain leads his “Brooklyn Bhangra juggernaut” with dhol slung over his shoulder and relentless horn section following in step. I didn’t know that the word “baraat” describes a groom’s wedding procession that is traditional in North India, and according to an interview at Mother Jones, the band was started to fill that cultural void in New York but provided a sound that resonated across the country. While Jain has a formal jazz education, the band builds in spots for improvisation that are influenced by each player’s personality. After reading several interviews with the band, I’m fascinated by and reluctant to write about Jain’s commitment to the band Rush. Thankfully, many of his songs are listenable online, so I can rectify whatever image that brought to mind. I know I will definitely be staying out past my bedtime to experience this band, all the bands, in person.
The KCPA Opening Night Party takes place in the lobby and on the terraces, beginning at 6 p.m. on Friday, September 9th. The band schedule is as follows:
The Pedrito Martinez Group, 6:30pm, Lobby (Stage 6)
Davina and The Vagabonds, 7:30pm, Lobby (Stage 5)
Red Baraat, 8:45pm, Lobby (Stage 6)
Tickets are a mere $5, with free admission for children under 5, but they do need a complimentary ticket for entry. Get your (paid or free) tickets online by calling 217-333-6280 or toll-free at 800-KCPA-TIX between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Photos provided by the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.