Smile Politely

BEST Music 2023

The collage consists of three photos. In the first, a musician strums a guitar on a stage, backdropped by pink and white hues. The second captures a group of individuals, some adorned with hats and scarves, forming a circle and peering downwards towards the camera. The third showcases an individual clad in a green jacket and a beanie, their dreadlocks visible.
L-R: Derrick Philips; Half House Studios; ZENtheRapper on Facebook

I’m very passionate about music and respect it as an indelible art form, no matter the genre. I often say that no one can say whether art or music is good or bad; you can only say if it moved you or not. I was moved plenty the last nine months I’ve been music editor at Smile Politely. I got to experience the local scene from a whole new perspective, and the people who drive it have been welcoming and kind to me in my new role. I am committed to the music coverage in Smile Politely being more diverse and wide-ranging in 2024, and I have high hopes that the scene will do the same. There are a lot of great bands who are making waves and playing gigs, but there’s a lot more beneath the surface that I want to give exposure to.

— Derrick Philips, Music Editor

A band is performing onstage with many different colored lights shining down on them.
Derrick Philips

BEST individual performance: Vincent Aguilar of Power of Dusk, opening night at The Space

During the very first set, on the very first night at the newest music venue in town, Power of Dusk was first to play. Lead singer Vincent Aguilar used every inch of the stage and the space ten feet in front of it to explosively express himself to his band’s music. That was impressive enough, but what made Aguilar’s set special was that the bass player broke a string three times, and when that occurs, the pressure falls on the lead singer to kill time. While Aguilar may have thought he was just winging it during those breaks, he bared his soul to the crowd and shared some struggles in his own life that music helped him through. His banter was deeply personal, and the vulnerability he displayed in those moments was felt throughout the room, and I still feel to this day. (DP)

A rock concert is in full swing, the stage awash with the glow of blue and white lights. The lead singer, clad in a yellow shirt, commands the stage from atop a piano, microphone in hand. To their side, a guitarist strums a vibrant red guitar, while the bassist plucks at the strings of a blue bass guitar. Behind them, the drummer keeps time on a drum kit complete with cymbals. The audience, visible in the foreground, is caught up in the energy of the performance, their hands raised high in the air. The backdrop to this lively scene is a large screen and various pieces of stage equipment.
Derrick Philips

BEST crowd engagement: Andy Frasco and the U.N., The Canopy Club 

I know and love Frasco’s music, and I had heard nothing but great things about his live shows, including raves over his set at Summer Camp this year. But, I’m almost too old to be out late on a school night. I was out of energy after the opening band, and told myself “If he doesn’t have me at song one, I’m going to go home and crawl in bed.” Well, not only did I stay for the entire set, but the last note I put in my notebook for that show was, in all caps: “I COULD NOT RESIST SMILING THE ENTIRE NIGHT.” Andy’s show was entertaining in more ways than I could count. (DP)

BEST new song: According to Legend by ZENtheRapper with Mousepad

My personal favorite genre is Canadian indie rock, but thanks to this job, I’ve grown a deep appreciation for hip-hop, and I’ve met some really amazing and talented people in this town who have helped me do that. Two of these people are ZENtheRapper and Mousepad of Half House Studios. They collaborated on a song that has cracked my top 20 and has remained there all year. I love the horns, ZEN’s lyrics, and the chord and tempo changes that Mousepad intertwines through the song, especially near the end. (DP)

A white woman on a stage playing an acoustic guitar. The individual is dressed in a black tank top adorned with a white design. The guitar they’re strumming is a reddish-brown color, secured with a black strap. The backdrop is a deep blue hue, with stage equipment and a microphone stand discernible in the background. A spotlight illuminates the scene.
Justine Bursoni

BEST afternoon concert: Ani DiFranco at Ellnora 

So I suppose I should begin this entry by admitting that I’m not much of a regular listener to Ani DiFranco. I know her music, albeit not that well, and mostly only the stuff from the 1990s. So when I decided to go to her show at Ellnora, I went in with an open mind, grateful that the show started at 4 p.m. so I wouldn’t be tired and ready for bed. 

Reader: The show was incredible. DiFranco is a brilliant storyteller who knows exactly how to play to her strengths as a musician. She was funny and generous, with a hint of snark that has matured as she has matured as a woman and musician. At one point she sent away the band and did an acoustic mini-set — it was insanely good! I’m so grateful we have opportunities to see incredible musicians in C-U, especially through well renowned and beloved festivals like Ellnora at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. (JH)

BEST new punk band: Mid Nite Leg

This band made the most of their first full year in the C-U music scene by playing gigs all over the area and cutting their first album, Losing the Luster. With influences that include old-school punks like The Ramones and The Dead Boys, and newer influences like The Ravagers and Tuk Smith and the Restless Hearts, Mid Nite Leg indelibly left a mark on our local scene and beyond this past year. (DP)

Claud looking into the crowd playing guitar
Maddie Rice

BEST vibes: Claud at PYGMALION

PYGMALION brought many exciting acts to Urbana earlier this year, but of all the ones I saw, I most loved Claud. Claud’s music is lovely, and the crowd reflected that back to them and the backing band. It was an enthusiastic crowd, ready to be supportive, receptive to new songs. Claud’s music doesn’t really lend itself to rowdy hyper-masculine nonsense. It was an inclusive and inviting crowd, and Claud and company were charming and self-effacing; they were totally endearing. (JH)

BEST collective: Half House Studios

I’ve been blown away by what Mousepad and WhipTrip6 have been doing over at Half House. They are committed to the local hip-hop scene, and they backed it up by starting a collective to allow artists who can’t fork out big bucks to go to a studio in Chicago or St. Louis to record tracks. I had the pleasure of watching them record some of their artists in person, and I was blown away by the talent in the studio that day. If you want to help these young producers/artists, consider buying one of their digital albums on Bandcamp. (DP)

A performing behind a keyboard playing with a dark blue backdrip
Derrick Philips

BEST improvisation: Big Daddy Pride and friends at Hogchute Harvest

Dave “Big Daddy” Pride was originally scheduled to play a solo set at this year’s Hogchute Harvest, but in the absence of his band the East Side 5, he got the bug to recruit a band from all the musicians who were wandering around. He asked four folks who had never played his music before but were familiar with his repertoire enough to make pleasant sounds for the ears: Brad Olson on drums, Jacob Croegaert on bass, and Nick Stine and Clayton Deering on guitar. The group gelled instantly, improvising here and there through the set, and delivered a rousing performance the Hogchute Harvest crowd thoroughly enjoyed. (DP)

JP Gougen

BEST poster: CU Folk & Roots Festival by JP Gougen 

The C-U Folk & Roots Festival celebrated its 15th year in Urbana in October, and with it came a pretty explosive poster by JP Gougen. Featuring tons of local past and present performers, this thing almost looks like it could easily be converted into a 1000 piece puzzle and people would buy it. Its design feels representative of the mission of the festival as well, basically “we’re all in this [square] together”-type mentality. (PS)

A jazz band is performing on a stage in front of an audience. The stage is bathed in purple and blue lights. The band consists of a saxophonist, a bassist, a drummer, a guitarist, and a pianist and four other playing string instruments. The audience is seated in rows of chairs facing the stage. The backdrop is a red wall with white stripes.
Derrick Philips

BEST set at Folk and Roots: Eddie Barbash with KASA Quartet and Friends 

It was an unexpected treat to watch a former member of Stay Human (Stephen Colbert’s house band) lead an ensemble of world-class musicians through originals and jazz standards that they expertly and entertainingly made their own. The crowd, the band members, and even their leader, Barbash himself, were smiling and enjoying the sounds they were making together on this magical night. (DP)

A stage is set up for a music festival, bathed in the glow of stage lights. The backdrop is a large banner that reads “2023 Urbana Folk & Roots Festival”. Several speakers and amplifiers are arranged on the stage, along with a drum set. A guitarist is positioned on the left side of the stage. The audience is seated in front of the stage, their attention focused on the performance. The room has art work projected on the walls and is adorned with several paintings, and a high ceiling.
Derrick Philips

BEST visuals: Gallery Art Bar

The space previously occupied by NOLA’s Rock Bar was taken over and transformed into a wonderland of visual and auditory stimulation known as Gallery Art Bar. The bar is designed as a social and artistic experience that immerses visitors in a world where art in various forms sparks conversation and connection. It serves local drinks and offers digital decor, including a range of sober-friendly options, creating an inclusive, immersive space for the community to create and experience art collectively​​. Gallery Art Bar stands out as a hub for creativity, offering a platform for artists to share their visions and for patrons to engage with art in a dynamic and sensory-enriching environment. This space has the most potential for compelling performances, and I’m looking forward to how it evolves in 2024. (DP)

A person who appears to be a chef presenting a tray with a burger and fries to the camera
Alyssa Buckley

BEST food at a music venue: The Space

Great music and great food are the lethal one-two punch Downtown Champaign’s newest venue, The Space, doles out. Every week you’ll find delightful new food offered by The Weird Meat Boyz, Doug Hodge and Ian Nutting, plus a set of standards you’ll come to love if you haven’t already. The classics are their various smash burgers, but I’ve had amazing poutine there as well as pasta dishes that are original and inspiring. They source locally whenever they can, and do creative concepts like bread pudding with Industrial Donut. The live music is also amazing, as The Space is willing to host a myriad of eclectic and interesting musical acts across several genres. (DP)

An individual stands in front of a vibrant mural, cradling a double bass. They are attired in a blue t-shirt and jeans. The mural depicts a pair of legs and feet, the latter clad in red heels. In the foreground, various plants add a touch of greenery to the scene.
Andrew Binders Conspiracy Deliracy

BEST Band Concept: Andrew Binder’s Conspiracy Deliracy

Andrew Binder’s Conspiracy Deliracy stands out for its innovative fusion of jazz and conspiracy theories, creating a unique auditory experience. Trained in classical music, Binder infuses his jazz compositions with thematic elements from conspiracy narratives. His creative approach extends to integrating references from popular culture and employing techniques like the 12-tone method for added complexity. (DP)

Matt Lunsford

BEST acquisition: Polyvinyl, American Football, and more buying the American Football House

It had to happen at some point, right? I mean, it feels like it was destiny that the American Football House would actually be owned by American Football. In part with Polyvinyl and a few others, the collective purchased the house under particular circumstances posted here. Plus, the pop-up they had was very cool. It felt alive over there walking among the local bands and fans of the record, the label, and what the house means to them. (PS)

A man in a hat with a beard standing in front of the entrance of an establishment called "Rose Bowl Tavern"
Rose Bowl Tavern on Facebook

BEST continued commitment to C-U: Rose Bowl Tavern

Not only does Rose Bowl Tavern support local music and musicians, it also supports the community, by donating its space to host benefits and raise money for many worthy causes throughout the area, including Girls Rock! CU, Catsnap, Champaign County Humane Society, Urbana Champaign Reproductive Justice, and long-time friend of the music scene, Barney Joyce (Moose!), as well as a few other organizations worthy of support. I’m thankful for a music establishment willing to put on live music seven nights a week, but I’m more grateful for what Rose Bowl Tavern means to the entire community. (DP)

Jessica Hammie, Derrick Philips, and Patrick Singer contributed to this article.

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